Updated at 3:55 p.m. ET
Hours after two oil tankers were hit in a suspected attack in the Gulf of Oman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blamed Iran. He did not offer any evidence that Iran was responsible for the attack, pointing instead to intelligence, the weapons used and recent Iranian attacks on other targets.
The U.S. Navy rushed to assist the ships, one of which was set ablaze. Some 44 crew members abandoned ship and only sustained minor injuries.
Last month, four commercial ships in the same passageway sustained serious damage in another episode Pompeo says was carried out by Iran.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department in Washington, Pompeo said Iran is using "terror, bloodshed and extortion" in an attempt to pressure the U.S. to ease what he described as a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.
"Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran," Pompeo said.
Pompeo provided no specifics about any planned response and took no questions from reporters.
The U.S. has reimposed economic sanctions on Iran since the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal a year ago. The U.S. wants a tougher pact than the one agreed to in 2015. American officials are also calling for Iran to behave like a "normal" nation.
Pompeo focused on diplomatic responses to the attacks on Thursday, a sharp contrast coming after weeks of concern over whether the two countries could be headed toward a military confrontation. "Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table," he said.
Just a month ago, national security adviser John Bolton, who has helped lead the Trump administration's hard-line stance against Iran, said while U.S. is not seeking war with Iran, the Trump administration is "fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces."
The Trump administration has sent bombers to the Middle East to counter what top administration officials say are Iranian threats.
The U.S. is expected to consider the issue later on Thursday at the United Nations Security Council, Pompeo said, calling on other nations to join the efforts being pursued by the U.S. Those are expected to be closed consultations in New York.
The morning incidents, which two shipping companies involved and the White House had earlier described as attacks, roiled a region already unsettled by the escalating conflict between Iran and the United States and some of its allies.
Frictions have become so intense that other nations have pleaded with all sides to stay calm rather than provoke an all-out war. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who was visiting Iran and trying to bridge the gap between Iran and the United States, warned of the risk of stumbling into military conflict.
The Norwegian shipping company Frontline, which owns Front Altair, said its vessel had experienced an explosion, the cause of which was not yet known. All 23 crew members aboard the vessel carrying naphtha were brought to safety by a nearby vessel, the Hyundai Dubai, according to Norway's VG newspaper, quoting a company official.
BSM Ship Management, which operates Kokuka Courageous, said in a statement that all 21 crew members on its ship were rescued by the vessel Coastal Ace with only minor injuries to the crew after an "incident on board which resulted in damage to the ship's hull starboard side."
Hamburg, Germany-based BSM said the Kokuka Courageous "remains in the area and is not in danger of sinking" and that the cargo was "intact." Kokuka Courageous was loaded with methanol.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency reported that multiple tankers were seriously damaged. It claimed that Iranian rescue crews picked up all 44 crew members from both ships and that the Front Altair had sunk, but Reuters reports that a spokesman for Frontline denied the report.
The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy 5th Fleet said in a statement: "We are aware of the reported attack on shipping vessels in the Gulf of Oman. U.S. Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12 a.m. local (Bahrain) time and a second one at 7:00 a.m. U.S. Navy ships are in the area and are rendering assistance." Meanwhile, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy, put out an alert warning of an unspecified incident in the Gulf of Oman and urging mariners to exercise "extreme caution" in the area.
No one immediately claimed responsibility. However, the U.S. has said that Iran used mines to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah last month. Iran has denied involvement.
In its statement, BSM said its tanker "is about 70 nautical miles from Fujairah and about 14 nautical miles from the coast of Iran."
The last reported position for both vessels, as tracked by the website VesselFinder, placed them in proximity to each other and near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow choke point separating the Gulf of Oman from the Persian Gulf that Iran has repeatedly threatened to close off in response to U.S. sanctions over Tehran's nuclear weapons program.
Japan's Trade Ministry says the two oil tankers carried "Japan-related" cargo, according to The Associated Press. The incidents come as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is on an official visit to Iran.
The price of Brent crude spiked by more than 4% following reports of tanker fires to $61.80 a barrel at 11:51 a.m. in Dubai, according to Bloomberg.
This is a developing story. Some things reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene. We will update as the situation develops.
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