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Official: Initial US assessment blames Iran for ship attacks

An American military team’s initial assessment is that Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies used explosives Sunday to blow large holes in four ships anchored off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. official said Monday.

The official said each ship has a 5- to 10-foot hole in it, near or just below the water line, and the team’s early belief is that the holes were caused by explosive charges.

The team of U.S. military experts was sent to investigate the damages at the request of the UAE, but American officials have not provided any details about what exactly happened or any proof as yet about the possible Iranian involvement in the explosions.

The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Norwegian oil tanker Andrea Victory

Norwegian oil tanker Andrea Victory, another of the four damaged boats, pictured with a large dent in its stern on Monday morning

The A. Michel tanker under the flag of the United Arab Emirates, pictured on Monday, was one of the four tankers damaged in alleged "sabotage attacks" in the Gulf the previous day

The A. Michel tanker under the flag of the United Arab Emirates, pictured on Monday, was one of the four tankers damaged in alleged ‘sabotage attacks’ in the Gulf the previous day

The tinderbox standoff between Iran and the US escalated even further today after four commercial ships were mysteriously 'sabotaged' off the UAE - adding to fears a conflict involving the two nations is looming

The tinderbox standoff between Iran and the US escalated even further today after four commercial ships were mysteriously ‘sabotaged’ off the UAE – adding to fears a conflict involving the two nations is looming

Gulf officials have characterized the damage to the tankers as sabotage. 

Two Saudi oil tankers, a Norwegian-flagged vessel, and a bunkering tanker flagged in Sharjah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates, all suffered similar damage Sunday.

The U.S. has warned ships that ‘Iran or its proxies’ could be targeting maritime traffic in the region, and America has moved additional ships and aircraft into the region.

The incident comes after months of increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, which the U.S. accuses of threatening American interests and allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Amid spiralling tensions in recent days, the U.S. had warned ships that ‘Iran or its proxies’ could target maritime traffic in the region – and now suspects Iran was behind the latest attacks.

Asked about the sabotage, President Trump warned that Tehran would ‘suffer greatly’ if it enraged Washington, predicting a ‘bad problem for Iran if something happens’. 

Saudi and UAE officials have been tight-lipped about the extent of the damage but pictures showed at least one tanker with a hole in its hull.   

Tehran has distanced itself from the apparent attacks, calling an investigation into the ‘alarming’ episode and warning of ‘adventurism’ by foreign players to disrupt maritime security. 

Intertanko, an association of independent tanker owners and operators, said it had seen images showing that ‘at least two ships have holes in their sides due to the impact of a weapon’.  

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday called Iran a ‘major destabilizing force’ in the Middle East while Britain warned of the danger of a war being started in the Gulf by accident. 

Saudi Arabia has condemned ‘acts of sabotage’ in the Gulf but the scale of the damage remains unclear.

The country’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih said the kingdom’s two oil tankers, including one due to carry crude oil to the U.S., sustained ‘significant damage’ off the coast of Fujairah.

However, a report from Sky News Arabia showed the allegedly targeted Saudi tanker Al Marzoqah afloat without any apparent damage.

The MT Andrea Victory, another of the allegedly targeted ships, sustained a hole in its hull just above its waterline from ‘an unknown object,’ its owner said.

The crude oil tanker, Amjad, pictured today which was one of two reported tankers that were damaged in mysterious 'sabotage attacks', off the coast of the Gulf emirate of Fujairah

The crude oil tanker, Amjad, pictured today which was one of two reported tankers that were damaged in mysterious ‘sabotage attacks’, off the coast of the Gulf emirate of Fujairah

Pictures of the Andrea Victory, which the company said was ‘not in any danger of sinking,’ showed damage similar to what the firm described.

Emirati officials identified the third ship as the Saudi-flagged oil tanker Amjad. Ship-tracking data showed the vessel still anchored off Fujairah, apparently not in immediate distress.

The fourth ship was the A. Michel, a bunkering tanker flagged in Sharjah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates.

The Saudi minister said the attacks on the two Saudi tankers happened at 6am on Sunday.

He said ‘the attack didn’t lead to any casualties or oil spill,’ though he acknowledged it affected ‘the security of oil supplies to consumers all over the world.’

One U.S. official said: ‘This is what Iran does … The sort of thing you could see Iran doing … It fits their MO [modus operandi].’  

Pompeo is warned against starting war with Iran ‘by accident’

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been warned about staring a war ‘by accident’ as he met European leaders in Brussels today

Pompeo, who called Iran a ‘major destabilising force’ in an interview with CNBC, made the stop in Brussels to speak to EU leaders about the threat from Tehran.  

‘We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,’ Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned.

‘Most of all, we need to make sure we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to renuclearisation. Because if Iran becomes a nuclear power, its neighbors are likely to want to become nuclear powers. This is already the most unstable region in the world, and this would be a massive step in the wrong direction.’ 

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the potential military conflict occurring by 'accident'

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the potential military conflict occurring by ‘accident’

Pompeo’s talks with EU leaders gave them the chance to warn him of their own fears of a conflict.  

President Donald Trump is seeking to isolate Tehran by cutting off its oil exports after pulling out of the deal. 

While the European Union shares some U.S. concerns about Iran, it still backs the 2015 nuclear deal, saying that it is in Europe’s own security interests.

‘We are very worried about a conflict, about the risk of a conflict … of an escalation that is unintended,’ Britain’s Jeremy Hunt said ahead of talks with Pompeo.

Britain, Germany and France’s foreign ministers were holding separate meetings in Brussels with Pompeo, who cancelled a planned stopover in Moscow in order to brief the European allies on Washington’s latest moves.

The U.S. State Department billed Monday’s talks in Brussels as a chance ‘to discuss recent threatening actions and statements’ by Iran.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he had told Pompeo during their Monday meeting: ‘We do not want it to come to a military conflict.’

It was clear that Europe and the United States were ‘going about it in different ways … taking different courses,’ he said. 

Emirati officials have declined to elaborate on the nature of the sabotage or say who might have been responsible.

Reports in Lebanon and Iran had earlier claimed there were explosions near the UAE port but there has been no evidence to support their claims. 

The apparent attacks come after the U.S. warned ships that ‘Iran or its proxies’ could be targeting maritime traffic in the region. 

Washington has yet to respond to the claims of sabotage, although the U.S. energy department said it was monitoring world oil markets.

American naval investigators are also believed to be helping the UAE with their inquiries.

Meanwhile the general-secretary of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council described the alleged sabotage as a ‘serious escalation’ in an overnight statement.

‘Such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger,’ Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani said.

Bahrain, Egypt and the internationally recognized government of Yemen have also condemned the alleged sabotage.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry called the incidents ‘worrisome and dreadful’ and asked for an investigation into the matter.

A senior Iranian lawmaker said ‘saboteurs from a third country’ could be behind it, after saying on Sunday the incident showed the security of Gulf states was fragile.

Speaking earlier, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK was ‘very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side’. 

Fujairah’s port is about 140 kilometers (85 miles) south of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil at sea is traded.

Washington’s Energy Information Administration has called the Strait of Hormuz ‘the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint’.

In recent days the U.S. has warned ships that ‘Iran or its proxies’ could be targeting maritime traffic in the region.

The US has already strengthened its military presence in the region, including deploying a number of strategic B-52 bombers and the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group in response to alleged Iranian threats.

America is also sending USS Arlington, carrying Marines, as well as a Patriot missile defense system.

The USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship carrying Marines and warplanes, has just left the Persian Gulf and is nearby in the Arabian Sea.

Pompeo scrapped a planned visit to Moscow and headed to Brussels instead for talks with European officials on Iran.

UAE Navy boats next to Al Marzoqah Saudi Arabia tanker are seen off the Port of Fujairah on Monday afternoon

UAE Navy boats next to Al Marzoqah Saudi Arabia tanker are seen off the Port of Fujairah on Monday afternoon

Al Marzoqah is a large oil tanker which is registered in Saudi Arabia. Pictured: Media taking shots of the vessel on Monday

Al Marzoqah is a large oil tanker which is registered in Saudi Arabia. Pictured: Media taking shots of the vessel on Monday

An Emirati coast guard vessel passes an oil tanker off the coast of Fujairah in the wake of the incident on Monday

An Emirati coast guard vessel passes an oil tanker off the coast of Fujairah in the wake of the incident on Monday

Ships anchored at main port of Fujairah on Monday, where media reports initially suggested four boats had been sabotaged by 'explosions'. The UAE later denied this was the case

Ships anchored at main port of Fujairah on Monday, where media reports initially suggested four boats had been sabotaged by ‘explosions’. The UAE later denied this was the case

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (pictured today in Brussels) has scrapped a planned visit to Moscow to head to Brussels instead for talks with European officials on Iran

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (pictured today in Brussels) has scrapped a planned visit to Moscow to head to Brussels instead for talks with European officials on Iran

Tensions have flared up again in recent days since Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani warned his country could begin ramping up uranium enrichment if a controversial 2015 deal was not rewritten.

Trump last year withdrew America from the 2015 nuclear deal and restored US sanctions that have pushed Iran’s economy into crisis.

Tehran has demanded that the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia help Iran to dodge U.S. sanctions.

Iran threatens to ‘target’ aircraft carrier after USS Abraham Lincoln is deployed to Persian Gulf 

Amirali Hajizadeh, Iran's head of the Guards' aerospace division

Amirali Hajizadeh, Iran’s head of the Guards’ aerospace division

Senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander warned on Sunday that the presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf used to be a serious threat, but now represents a target, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

The U.S. has sent forces, including an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers, to the Middle East in a move that officials said was to counter ‘clear indications’ of threats from Iran to American forces in the region.

The USS Abraham Lincoln is replacing another carrier rotated out of the Gulf last month.

‘An aircraft carrier that has at least 40 to 50 planes on it and 6,000 forces gathered within it was a serious threat for us in the past but now it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities,’ said Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the Guards’ aerospace division. 

‘If (the Americans) make a move, we will hit them in the head,’ he added, according to ISNA. 

Iranian navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi said on Sunday that American forces must exit the Gulf, according to ISNA. ‘The presence of the Americans in the Persian Gulf region has reached its end and they must leave the region,’ Khanzadi said.

Major General Hossein Salami, appointed head of the Guards last month, told parliament on Sunday the United States had started a psychological war in the region, the parliamentary spokesman said.

‘Commander Salami, with attention to the situation in the region, presented an analysis that the Americans have started a psychological war because the comings and goings of their military is a normal matter,’ spokesman Behrouz Nemati said, according to parliament’s ICANA news site.

European powers have tried to find ways to blunt the impact of new U.S. sanctions, in the hope of persuading Tehran to continue to abide by the deal.

However, their efforts have largely failed, with all major European companies abandoning plans to do business with Iran for fear of U.S. punishment.

Rouhani said last week that Iran would ramp up nuclear enrichment if fresh help did not materialize.

White House defense aide Tim Morrison condemned Iran’s attempted ‘nuclear blackmail of Europe’ and warned: ‘Expect more sanctions soon. Very soon.’

Rouhani’s comments also sparked outrage in Europe, as Britain warned of ‘consequences’ if Iran gives up its nuclear commitments.

The threat also sparked a backlash from Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu warned he would ‘not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons’.

Netanyahu, who has accused Iran of breaching the deal, said Israel ‘will continue to fight those who seek to take our lives’.  

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today changed the schedule for his latest trip to Europe, replacing a stop in Moscow for one in Brussels to discuss Iran.  

We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,’ Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned.

‘Most of all, we need to make sure we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to renuclearization. 

‘Because if Iran becomes a nuclear power, its neighbors are likely to want to become nuclear powers. This is already the most unstable region in the world, and this would be a massive step in the wrong direction.’  

The U.S. State Department billed Monday’s talks in Brussels as a chance ‘to discuss recent threatening actions and statements’ by Iran.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he had told Pompeo during their Monday meeting: ‘We do not want it to come to a military conflict.’

It was clear that Europe and the United States were ‘going about it in different ways … taking different courses,’ he said.   

The alleged sabotage of the merchant ships comes as aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and B-52 bombers are deployed to bolster the American Navy's grip on the region

The alleged sabotage of the merchant ships comes as aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and B-52 bombers are deployed to bolster the American Navy’s grip on the region

A handout photo made available by the US Navy showing an F/A-18F Super Hornet from the 'Jolly Rogers' of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 103 launching off the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln

A handout photo made available by the US Navy showing an F/A-18F Super Hornet from the ‘Jolly Rogers’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 103 launching off the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln

The aircraft carrier strike group is being deployed to the Persian Gulf to counter an alleged but still-unspecified threat from Iran

The aircraft carrier strike group is being deployed to the Persian Gulf to counter an alleged but still-unspecified threat from Iran

European leaders are warning of the risk of military conflict between the U.S. and Iran

European leaders are warning of the risk of military conflict between the U.S. and Iran 

In this Friday, May 10, 2019 photo released by the U.S. Navy, logistics specialists attach cargo to an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf

In this Friday, May 10, 2019 photo released by the U.S. Navy, logistics specialists attach cargo to an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf

A map of the region near the UAE coast where four ships, including two Saudi Arabian tankers, have been sabotaged

A map of the region near the UAE coast where four ships, including two Saudi Arabian tankers, have been sabotaged

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