Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman require an international response, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Air Force Gen. Paul Selva told the writers today that attacks in May against four oil tankers off Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates and last week against tankers underway in the Gulf of Oman show a level of sophistication that could only be accomplished by trained military personnel.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said Iran is behind the limpet mine attacks on tankers from Saudi Arabia, Norway, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
Selva said all evidence points to Iran. Noting some skepticism in reports about who actually launched the assaults, with some media outlets going so far as to call them "alleged attacks," the vice chairman said there is no "alleged" about it, and that these are attacks aimed at affecting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the vital waterway Iran threatened to close in April.
U.S. officials have been receiving intelligence about a threat stream centered in Iran for about 45 days, Selva said. The source and nature of the threat is, of course, classified, and the general acknowledged that he cannot say precisely what and whom these threat streams name. "But they link back to the Iranian regime," he said.
The Iranian regime is under significant economic and political pressure to negotiate a deal on ending development of a nuclear weapons program and to stop all malign activities.
Iran denies the attacks, but it is the only country in the region with the motive, the resources and expertise, Selva said.
"The evidence points to Iran, and the fact that they were able to quickly and safely remove a mine from the side of a ship, would indicate that it was of their own design, of their own emplacement and they took it into their custody so it wouldn't be available as evidence that they perpetrated the attack," Selva said. "What I will tell you is, as a military person, getting alongside a vessel in darkness to attach a mine underway is not an insignificant effort. So it wasn't done by an untrained, unsophisticated group of people. It was done by a military-trained and sophisticated force."
The Defense Department has released photos of an Iranian patrol boat alongside the Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous, removing an unexploded limpet mine. They left behind one of the attachment points.
Iran is lashing out, the general said. "They aren't lashing out against the United States, they are lashing out against the international community," he said. "They haven't touched an American asset in any overt attack that we can link directly to them. They have threatened, but they haven't to this point. We have to be cautious that we respond only as appropriate."
The United States has deployed forces to the region to beef up defenses of American forces in the region. Forces will go to protect Americans working with Iraqis and Syrians to defeat ISIS and prevent a resurgence of the terror group. Iran has sponsored Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria that present potential threats to U.S. forces.
Selva said the risks of miscalculation are real.
"We have tried to very carefully message to the Iranian regime, the Iranian regular forces and the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] Quds Force that engaging our forces, engaging our national interests in the region, is a dangerous thing to do," he said.
The warning to Iran covers both direct Iranian government involvement and actions by Iranian surrogates and proxies, the general said. "It is a fair assessment that our history in the region is we have threatened to respond, and not responded," Selva said. "That would be a miscalculation on the part of the Iranians to believe that that is going to persist."
Around the world, the United States has been a champion of freedom of navigation. Whether it is in the South China Sea or the Strait of Hormuz, the United States sees this as a basic national right. The United States has a stake in ensuring freedom of navigation in the region and the movement of oil out of the Persian Gulf, Selva said.
"That doesn't mean it is a U.S.-only problem," he added. "This is a key to thinking about what the Iranians have done. If we take this on as a U.S.-only responsibility, the nations that benefit from the movement of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are bearing little or no responsibility for the actual economic benefit that they gain."
The largest consumers of Persian Gulf oil are in Asia, led by China and Japan. Those countries haven't shown any predilection to press the Iranians to stop what they are doing, the vice chairman said. The United States will still play a significant role, he said, but "this is bigger than just the free flow of oil."
"It is a country taking unilateral action against multiple nations, against multiple flags and putting civilian lives at risk in international waters," Selva said. "The international community shouldn't tolerate that."