Oil tankers likely attacked in Gulf of Oman, U.S. Navy says

ISTANBUL - One of two ships attacked Thursday off the coast of Oman, a Japanese-owned tanker, was targeted just as Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was wrapping up a high-stakes visit to Tehran to help cool hostilities in the region and potentially mediate U.S.-Iran talks.

The attack appeared timed to undermine those efforts, which Abe had called "a major step forward toward securing peace and stability in this region," Japan's Kyodo News agency reported.

A second vessel, owned by Norway's Frontline, was on fire and adrift in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz. It was "suspected of being hit by a torpedo," an official with Taiwan's state oil refiner, CPC Corp., which chartered the vessel, told the Reuters news agency.

The tanker, called the Front Altair, was carrying naphtha, a flammable petrochemical product that was loaded at a port in the United Arab Emirates and destined for East Asia, news agencies reported. The ship's 23 crew members - 11 Russians, 11 Filipinos and one Georgian - were rescued by a nearby vessel and transferred to an Iranian navy ship, then taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

The Japanese-owned ship, which was carrying methanol, suffered damage to its hull, a company statement said. The Kokuka Courageous, owned by the Kokuka Sangyo shipping firm, was hit twice over a period of three hours Thursday morning, company president Yutaka Katada told reporters in Tokyo.

A U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an evolving U.S. response, said military officials assessed that the attacks were carried out by Iran or forces under its influence. He said officials think the attacks were conducted by divers using limpet bombs but did not say how that conclusion was reached.

The USS Bainbridge, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer that was in the area of the attack, took on board 21 crew members from the Kokuka Courageous, the official said. The U.S. military also dispatched a P-8 Poseidon, an anti-ship, anti-submarine and surveillance aircraft, to the area in response to the incident.

Senior U.S. officials have been in frequent touch about the incident since Thursday morning, the official added.

The U.S. Central Command is sending additional troops and weaponry to the Middle East, a move that senior officials have said is necessary to confront increased threats from Iran.

The incidents Thursday followed similar attacks targeting oil tankers in the same area last month, assaults that U.S. officials also blamed on Iran. Iranian officials deny involvement.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a joint news conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani following their summit meeting in Tehran on Wednesday. Japan News-Yomiuri

"Suspicious doesn't begin to describe what likely transpired this morning," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Thursday on Twitter in reference to the attack on the Japanese-owned ship.

He said the incident took place while Abe was meeting with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for "extensive and friendly talks."

The Gulf of Oman links the Arabian Sea with the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf. The gulf has been a flash point for tensions between Iran and the United States, which in recent months has stepped up its "maximum pressure campaign" to isolate Tehran on the world stage.

"The tension in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf is now as high as it gets without being an actual armed conflict," said Jakob P. Larsen, head of maritime security at the Baltic and International Maritime Council (Bimco), the world's largest international shipping association. "The increase in attacks and the escalated threat to seafarers is an urgent concern to the industry."

Last month, the U.S. military sent additional assets to the Persian Gulf region to counter what it said were Iranian threats to U.S. interests. President Donald Trump last year withdrew the United States from a 2015 nuclear pact with Iran and world powers.

The agreement curbed Iran's nuclear energy program in exchange for major sanctions relief. The administration said it did not address Iran's other malign activities, such as support for militant proxies and ballistic missile testing.

U.S. officials say the move to squeeze Iran is ultimately aimed at bringing Tehran back to the negotiating table. But experts say the recent tensions have underscored the limits of that policy.

In a toxic climate of hostility, created in part through harsh rhetoric against Iran employed routinely by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, Thursday's tanker incidents could bring the parties closer to the brink of confrontation.

"This is a way station to a wider conflict breaking out between Iran and the United States," said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst and Iran project director for the International Crisis Group.

"If Iran was behind it, it is very clear the maximum pressure policy of the Trump administration is rendering Iran more aggressive, not less," he said. "If Iran was not behind it, then it's clear some other actor in the region could be trying to engineer a Gulf of Tonkin incident. Spoilers might be concerned the mediators are succeeding in reducing tension and be trying to put them back onto a collision course." (The original Gulf of Tonkin incident took place off the coast of North Vietnam in August 1964 and led to greater U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.)

Thursday's attacks nevertheless cast a shadow over what was initially billed as a positive visit by Abe to Tehran, where he was expected to help soothe the turmoil and possibly set the stage for U.S.-Iran talks.

About 80 percent of Japan's oil imports come from the Middle East and travel through the Strait of Hormuz.

In the wake of the assault on the Japanese-owned ship, Japanese Economy Minister Hiroshige Seko said he was "urging related business operators to take precautions, reconfirming the communication system, and reconfirming the energy supply system."

Japan is a key U.S. ally but enjoys long-standing diplomatic and cultural ties with Iran.

Abe said Thursday that Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, had conveyed his "belief in peace." But his aides said the prime minister's visit to Tehran was not part of a specific mission to mediate between the United States and Iran.

Khamenei's office, however, released a statement following their meeting that said Abe had carried a message from Trump to Iran.

"I do not consider Trump, as a person, deserving to exchange messages with," Khamenei's website quoted him as saying. "We will not negotiate with the United States."

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said that if Iran is behind the latest tanker attacks, they are part of a calculated escalation in an attempt to strengthen Tehran's bargaining position in future negotiations.

"What [Ayatollah] Khamenei is saying to Trump is, 'You want to negotiate, but you've made no offers and no concessions, and we will not respond to pressure,'" she said. "I think the Iranians are looking for some sort of gesture from the United States. Otherwise, it's too huge a loss of face at this point to talk to Trump."

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University's Japan Campus in Tokyo, said Abe's visit was little more than a photo op with little impact on Middle East tensions.

"Whatever one thinks about Khamenei's belief in peace, actions speak louder and leave Abe with egg on his face," he said.

Michael Bosack, a special adviser at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies in Japan, said the incident "reinforces the importance of Abe's efforts to mediate tensions in the region."

"Japan has a stake in the game for seeing an end to these incidents," he said, noting Japan's dependence on the Strait of Hormuz for its energy needs.

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Denyer reported from Tokyo and Morello from Washington. The Washington Post's Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.

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