The US Navy said on Wednesday that recovered limpet mine fragments from one of two tanker ships that are believed to have been attacked near the Strait of Hormuz last week bore a “striking resemblance” to mines seen during Iranian military parades.
“The limpet mine that was used in the attack is distinguishable and also strikingly bearing a resemblance to Iranian mines that have already been publicly displayed in Iranian military parades,” said Sean Kido, commanding officer of an explosive ordnance dive and salvage task group in the US Naval Forces Central Command, stopping short of outrightly blaming Tehran for the suspected attacks.
US Navy personnel showed reporters pieces of debris and a magnet the Navy said was used to attach an unexploded mine to the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous oil tanker, which was attacked on June 13, along with the Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker.
The display came two days after the US military released video that it said showed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) removing an unexploded mine from the Japanese-owned ship.
Iran has repeatedly denied any involvement in the June 13 suspected attacks, as well as in a similar attack on May 12 off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
Iran’s mission to the UN declined to comment on the Navy’s display, referring reporters to remarks by Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami, who said allegations that Tehran was behind the suspected tanker attacks was “totally a lie” meant to tarnish Iran’s image.
According to the semi-official Fars news agency, Hatami questioned the authenticity of a grainy video released by the US following the attack that purports to show Revolutionary Guard forces removing the unexploded mine.
“The date and the location shown in the footage have not been authenticated,” he said. The Americans “can show any footage … but it cannot be used as evidence.”
Kolka said on Wednesday that the damage to the Kokuka Courageous was “not consistent with an external flying object hitting the ship”. The owner of the ship had previously said the tanker was hit by two “flying objects”.
The incidents have flared tensions between the US and Iran, which have been escalating since US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the landmark, multilateral nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran.
Hearing on Trump’s Iran policy
The Navy’s comments on Wednesday came as a senior Trump administration official for Iran policy told Congress specific US intelligence shows the suspected attacks were conducted by Iran’s IRGC.
Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, offered a House panel new details about the information underlying US claims that Iran conducted the attacks on the two tankers.
“Our intelligence confirms that Iranian vessels operating in and around the Strait of Hormuz on June 12 and 13 approached both the Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous before each vessel suffered explosions,” Hook told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. He did not share the specific intelligence during the open-door House panel hearing.
“We assessed this activity was consistent with an Iranian operation to attach limpet mines to the vessels,” Hook said.
“I can also say that a senior IRGC official confirmed that personnel, IRGC personnel had completed two actions,” he added, without naming the official.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat, supported the Trump administration claims earlier on Wednesday, saying that the “the intelligence is pretty strong here that Iran is responsible for the attacks.”
“We are seeing the dangers of a policy of going it alone, of castigating and alienating our allies, that when we need our allies, as we do right now they are nowhere to be found,” Schiff, who has been a critic of Trump’s Iran policy, told reporters in Washington, DC.
“This really calls for an international effort to protect shipping and to deter any further attacks,” he said.
Iran said it may soon begin to diverge from the 2015 nuclear agreement, by stockpiling more uranium than the deal allows and enriching fuel up to 20 percent putting the nation closer to obtaining weapons-grade material.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo met yesterday with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini to seek European support for US economic sanctions against Iran. Europe has called for preserving the 2015 nuclear deal.
On Monday, Trump ordered another 1,000 US troops to the Middle East, which will include a Patriot missile battalion, manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft and “other deterrence capabilities”, the Pentagon said.
In an interview with Time magazine published on Tuesday, Trump discounted the suspected tanker attacks as “very minor” but said he would be willing to go to war to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Pompeo later appeared to walk back those comments, however, saying that Trump does not want war with Iran, but would continue to apply maximum pressure on the country.
Alarm from Democrats
But Trump’s comments to Time triggered alarm among Democrats in Congress who fear the president – advised by his hawkish, anti-Iran National Security Adviser John Bolton – would launch a military strike without consulting Congress to obtain legal authority.
“The administration’s most recent steps seem to be pushing us more toward a confrontation than a negotiation,” Representative Eliot Engel, Democrat chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned Hook.
“Military action against Iran without the approval of Congress is absolutely not an option,” Engel said.
Hook refused to say whether Trump administration officials believe they have the authority to act without Congress.
Senator Tom Cotton, one of Trump’s allies in Congress, has urged publicly the president attack Iran in retaliation.
“Unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike,” Cotton told CBS on Sunday.
Others refrained from supporting a military response. Senator Lindsey Graham, another a close Republican ally of the president, said in a statement after the June 13 tanker attacks “additional sanctions would be the appropriate response”.
With additional reporting from William Roberts in Washington, DC.