Iran Fails Miserably in its Attempt to Cover-up Tanker Attack

by | Jun 17, 2019 |

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As Iran ups the ante in its propaganda war accuses U.S. of staging attacks on Gulf ships which Washington’s claim Tehran is to blame, Iran’s parliament speaker hinted Sunday that Washington could be behind the “suspicious” tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman to pile pressure on Tehran. In response, Iran accused Washington of waging an “Iranophobic campaign” against it, while Trump countered that the country was “a nation of terror.” The attacks have taken place southeast of the Strait of Hormuz, a vital corridor connecting the energy-rich states of the Middle East to the global market.

The six recent incidents caused damage to two tankers last week, and four others in previous weeks in the Gulf of Oman have ratcheted up already high tensions between Tehran and Washington, prompting fears of a possible regional conflagration and sending oil prices soaring. It needs to be understood however that Iran’s tanker attacks are a direct reaction to the rising tensions since President Trump pulled U.S. out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. In addition, the Trump administration has since re-imposed crippling unilateral sanctions on Tehran — targeting crucial parts of Iran’s economy, especially the banking and oil sectors.

In the meantime, in diplomatic circles over the weekend, the rhetoric of ‘propaganda versus truth’ took center stage, as U.S. and Iranian supporters squared off. 

Russia warned against “baseless accusations” and a “sober appraisal of evidence” after Iran and the United States traded charges over the reported attacks on commercial tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The Russian appeal on Sunday came as both Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom sided with Washington’s assessment that Iran was responsible for Thursday’s incidents. 

Also on Sunday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that Iran deliberately attacked the ship and urged the international community to take a “decisive stand”. He also accused Iran “and its proxies” of the May 12th  attacks on the four tankers anchored in the Gulf of Oman off the United Arab Emirates’ port of Fujairah, and warned that he “won’t hesitate” to tackle any threats to the kingdom.

In the United Kingdom, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the responsibility for the reported attacks in the Gulf of Oman “almost certainly” lies with Iran. Further stating, “We have done our own intelligence assessment. We have got videos of what happened. We have seen evidence. We don’t believe anyone else could have done this.” Calling for “de-escalation”, Hunt said he was “absolutely clear” that Washington wanted the situation to end in negotiations.

The Foreign Secretary’s remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Iran, with a senior official slamming the diplomat’s “anti-Iranian” statement as “unacceptable”. Mahmoud Barimani, the managing director of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, summoned the UK’s Ambassador, Rob Macaire, to lodge a formal protest. Barimani told Macaire that Hunt had “hastily and blindly” repeated U.S. allegations against Iran, and urged Britain to “elaborate on the issue and to correct the position”.

For Iran, hitting back at Washington, Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, ‘suggested’ that the U.S. may have staged the tanker attacks because of “the failure of its harsh sanctions” on Tehran.

As noted, Washington both re-imposed and tightened punishing sanctions on Iran in the year since it exited an international accord that offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear weapons development program. President Donald Trump said the “maximum pressure” campaign was aimed at forcing Iran to negotiate a new deal that encompasses its ballistic missiles program as well as address its support for regional terrorists and armed insurgent groups. 

Soon after Larijani’s remarks, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was “unmistakable” that Iran was responsible for the suspected attacks – noting that Washington did not seek war with Tehran. Pompeo further stated that there was other evidence beyond a video released by the Pentagon, which purported to show Iranian forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the damaged tankers hours after the suspected attacks. In his statement, Pompeo said, “The intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence. The world will come to see much of it.” Further noting, that “… we’ve done what we can to deter this,” adding — vowing to take “all actions necessary, diplomatic and otherwise,” to guarantee safe navigation through vital shipping lanes in the Gulf.

Of course, in its strategic propaganda campaign to cover its tracks, Iran ‘strategically’ placed messages hinting that the U.S. could be behind ‘suspicious’ tanker attacks. Official from the Iranian News Agency (IRNA), Iran’s parliament speaker hinted Sunday that Washington could be behind the “suspicious” tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman to pile pressure on Tehran. Stating, “The suspicious actions against the tankers… seem to complement the economic sanctions against Iran considering that (the U.S.) has not achieved any results from them.” 

Iran’s Parliamentary speaker then took it one step further backing his claim by saying there had been a precedent “during World War II, when Americans targeted their own ships near Japan to create an excuse for hostility.” Hence, a non-belligerent state at the beginning of World War II, the US went to war after Japan’s surprise attack on the American Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941.

The U.S. responded with Washington accusing Tehran of being behind the attacks, shamefully taking place at the same time that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran for talks aimed at defusing tensions between Iran and the United States. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded by dismissing the U.S. claim as “baseless” and said Washington had “immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran — (without) a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence”. Understand, as it did with the tanker attacks last month, the U.S. blamed Iran for the latest attacks. Tehran has denied all responsibility.

So let’s look at the time line of what occurred starting early on Thursday, June 13th.

As the Iranian vessels were enroute to conducting the attack against the tankers, a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone conduct security surveillance and reconnaissance of the Gulf of Oman, the drone reportedly spotted Iranian several vessels closing on the two tankers. This was the initial evidence of Iranian’s movement prior to the actual attack. The total number of Iranian vessels involved is unclear, due to the classified intelligence related to the incident. Such intelligence would include all so intelligence to include other photo and imagery intelligence, signals and comms intelligence, and other sources of information which would likely reveal the total number of Iranian vessels were involved.

According to multiple sourced information indicates that several hours before Thursday’s attack on two tankers, the crew of an Iranian boat reportedly fired a missile at a U.S. drone. The Iranian launched surface-to-air missile missed the MQ-9 Reaper drone. Following that, according to and citing a U.S. official revealed that before the Iranians opened fire, the unmanned aerial vehicle spotted Iranian ships closing in on the two tankers.

This report, supports the body of evidence produced by the U.S. that Iranian forces were involved in the attack on the tankers. To support this evidence, the U.S. State Department stated that “It is the assessment of the U.S. government that Iran is responsible for the June 13th attacks in the Gulf of Oman,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

“These attacks are a threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable escalation of tension by Iran.”

Following this announcement, U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) later released photos of a suspected unexploded limpet mine attached to the hull one of the targeted tankers. The combatant command also released a video showing the crew of an Iranian patrol boat sailing out to the one of the tankers, pulling along-side of the vessel and removing and unexploded magnetic limpet mine, aka “Sticky Mines.”

A limpet mine named after the conically shaped sea creature that sticks to rocks is a military device that contains an explosive charge and can be attached to a vessel. Powerful magnets make it possible for the case with the explosives to be attached to the body of a ship or any other vehicle. Limpet mines can be designed to be triggered in various ways either through electronic means with timers or mechanical means where the explosion is triggered after a certain distance.

The black-and-white U.S. video of the Iranians alongside the Japanese-owned tanker M/T Kokuka Courageous came after its crew abandoned ship after seeing the undetonated explosive on its hull, according to USCENTCOM. It separately shared photos of the vessel, which showed what was determined to be a conical limpet mine against its side. Limpet mines, which are magnetic and attach to a ship’s hull, are designed to disable a vessel without sinking it.

In the video, the boat from Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard is seen pulling alongside the Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous at 4:10 p.m. Iranian time on June 13th. The Iranians reach up and grab along where the limpet mine could be seen in the photo. The unmarked Iranian naval vessels then sail away.

The obvious reason for Iran to return to the tanker to remove and retrieve the unexploded limpet mine is that Iran doesn’t want investigators (which would no doubt include American intelligence and explosive ordnance disposal experts) involved in inspecting the damage conducting forensic analysis of the attack to find an unexploded mine because they could check its serial numbers and other attributes to trace it.

The attacks occurred at dawn Thursday, June 13th about 40 kilometers (25 miles) off the southern coast of Iran in international waters. The Front Altair, loaded with naphtha from the United Arab Emirates, radioed for help as its cargo of flammable chemicals caught fire. The Kokuka Courageous, carrying methanol from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, called for help a short time later.

“The U.S. and the international community stand ready to defend our interests, including the freedom of navigation,” Urban said in a statement. “The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests.”

In a press statement from its UN mission, Iran accused the U.S. of escalating tensions, claiming “The U.S. economic war and terrorism against the Iranian people as well as its massive military presence in the region have been and continue to be the main sources of insecurity and instability in the wider Persian Gulf region and the most significant threat to its peace and security,” the statement said. Iran also denied being involved in last month’s attacks.

In further, propaganda effort, Iran’s foreign minister posed the bizarre statement when he questioned the timing of Thursday’s incidents, given that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran.

U.S. Secretary Pompeo noted that Abe had been asked by the U.S. to ask Iran to enter into talks with Washington, but Tehran “rejected” the overture. In turn, it is more than obvious that “The supreme leader’s government then insulted Japan by attacking a Japanese-owned oil tanker just outside Iranian waters, threatening the lives of the entire crew, creating a maritime emergency.”

On Friday, June 14th, Abe condemned the attack as a threat to safe navigation, telling reporters he briefed Trump by phone on his trip to Iran but did not give details, except to say the president thanked him for trying to help de-escalate tensions in the region and that he planned to continue cooperating closely with the U.S. Likewise, the UN Security Council held closed consultations on the tanker incidents late Thursday at the request of the U.S., but took no action.

It’s no surprise that, tensions have risen as Iran appears poised to break the nuclear deal, which Trump repudiated last year. In the deal, Tehran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. Iran is indeed feeling the impact of the sanctions on its economy, particularly in the energy sector. Additionally, U.S. sanctions have cut off opportunities for Iran to trade its excess uranium and heavy water abroad, putting Tehran on course to violate terms of the nuclear deal regardless, with its remaining European partners along with Russia and China. Now, Iran is threatening to resume enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels if European nations don’t offer it new terms to the deal by July 7th.

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Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force and international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism.

Waurishuk is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and served as Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC.

Currently, he is the Chairman of the Hillsborough County (FL) Republican Executive Committee and Party and serves on the Executive Board of the Republican Party of Florida.

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