The Trump administration has released a range of photographic and video evidence in support of its claim that intelligence proves how Iran attacked a Japanese-owned oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz. But a Canadian military analyst and former Navy officer for nearly twenty years has called the evidence into question, highlighting unresolved anomalies in the US version of events. His reservations are backed by Japanese government sources.
A number of other states — the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel — as well as other jihadist groups and even a rogue hardline faction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, have been flagged as potential culprits in the attacks that could pave the way for a wider war fitting into the Trump administration’s new plan for ‘American Energy Dominance’.
The US government says that the evidence, including fragments of an exploded weapon and a magnet from an unexploded device, indicates that limpet mines were attached to the side of the oil tankers. The statement of a US Navy explosives expert that the mines bear “a striking resemblance” to similar mines used by Iran has been widely reported.
US intelligence: an incoherent story
But the claim is challenged by the analysis of another former Naval oficer. According to Dr Gwynne Dyer who has served as a Reserve Naval Officer in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, US Naval Reserve, and British Royal Navy Reserve for a total of 17 years, alleged US intelligence about the incident does not add up. Dr Dyer, despite believing that on balance Iran is “probably” behind the series of Gulf oil tanker attacks, concedes that:
“The evidence is far from conclusive.”
His analysis coheres with that of the private US intelligence firm Stratfor, which notes of the spate of recent attacks that while Iran would have reason to “harass” vessels around its territory “to send a message of resolve in the face of Washington’s punishing economic and military pressure…. On the other hand, it doesn’t make strategic sense for Iran to target European vessels at a time when it is desperately seeking to retain the Continent’s political and economic support.”
Strafor suggests that other culprits might include al-Qaeda, other regional jihadist outfits that have a similar modus operandi of targeting oil tankers, or even a breakaway faction of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that is unhappy with official Iranian government diplomacy.
Writing in a local Canadian newspaper, Dr Dyer — who has taught military history and war studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, UK — observed that as limpet mines “cling to ships’ hulls by magnetic force but have to be placed by hand,” this means they were “probably placed while the ships were in port”, because it is:
“… almost impossible to place a limpet mine once a ship is underway. Other boats cannot come close enough without being spotted, and swimmers (including scuba divers) cannot keep up.”
This analysis contradicts the explanation initially put forward in a joint statement by the UAE, Norway, and Saudi Arabia at a UN briefing, alleging that limpet mines were placed by divers deployed by speed boats.
All six tankers that have been attacked sailed from ports in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. According to Dr Dyer, given the implausibility of the mines being deployed as suggested by the UAE, Norway and Saudi Arabia, this suggests that the mines would have been planted on the tankers before departure. But this raises other questions. In Dr Dyer’s words:
“So is security in Saudi and UAE ports so lax, even after the first attacks in May, that foreign agents can plant limpet mines on tankers before they sail?”
US officials have also put forward aerial video of a small Iranian boat at one of the tankers as evidence of how the Revolutionary Guards removed an unexploded limpet mine, apparently demonstrating a botched effort to cover-up their complicity.
But this too makes little sense according to Dyer:
“Limpet mines are generally fitted with ‘anti-handling devices’ (i.e. they explode when you try to remove them), and yet everybody on that boat crowded onto the bow as if to get as close to the explosion as possible.”
Other potential state culprits?
Dyer raises the possibility that the mines could have been planted surreptitiously by Saudi Arabia or the UAE in order to generate a justification for a long-desired war on Iran. He mentions the potential role of Israel but argues that the former would be unlikely to consent to their regional dabbling:
“The leading candidates are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Arab countries that are doing their best to push the United States into a war against Iran on their behalf. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would also love to see the US attack Iran, but one doubts that Israel’s de facto Arab allies would want Israeli special forces operating on their territory.”
Japanese government officials, however, appear to be even less convinced of the US position. “The US explanation has not helped us go beyond speculation,” one senior Japanese government official told Japan Today.
The newspaper quoted a government source close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who responded to Pompeo’s claim that the US assessment was based on “intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.”
The Japanese source close to the prime minister commented:
“These are not definite proof that it’s Iran. Even if it’s the United States that makes the assertion, we cannot simply say we believe it.”
A separate government source at the Japanese Foreign Ministry went further, suggesting that Pompeo’s own criteria of sophisticated expertise sufficient to conduct the attack might implicate both the US and Israel:
“That would apply to the United States and Israel as well.”
John Bolton’s advanced warning of the attacks
According to the Times of Israel, the US intelligence on Iran’s alleged role in earlier attacks on oil tankers came from the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Other reports implied that Mossad had advanced warning of the attacks, and had passed on information to the US several weeks before the first incidents.
“Mossad had tipped off the United States on an impending Iranian attack on American interests in the Gulf, prompting Washington to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group to the region, in a sharp escalation of US President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign,” added the Times. “Israeli officials conveyed information gathered largely by the Mossad on an Iranian plan to attack either a US or US-allied target, details of which were not provided to the network.”
The alleged intelligence was reportedly passed on by Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat to his counterpart, John Bolton, in April — a month prior to the first attacks. According to Bolton himself, the meeting with Ben Shabbat covered “our shared commitment to countering Iranian malign activity & other destabilizing actors in the Middle East & around the world.”
Yet the conclusions of the Bolton-Ben Shabbat intelligence coordination did not seem to match British intelligence assessments of the threat posed by Iran, even after the latest attack.
At a recent Pentagon press conference, a senior British military official, Major General Chris Ghika — a deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition conducting counter-terrorist operations against Isis in Iraq and Syria — contradicted the US position when he remarked that “No — there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces” in the region. “We monitor them along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in. If the threat level seems to go up then we’ll raise our force protection measures accordingly.”
Who wants a war?
Despite his reservations, military analyst Gwynne Dyer suggests that Iran may have wanted to carry out such attacks to prove to the US its capacity to easily shut down the Strait of Hormuz, in an effort to dissuade the US from attacking Iran. In most scenarios explored by Pentagon agencies, a shut down of the Strait would stop critical transport of a significant portion of the world’s oil supplies, which would likely trigger catastrophic price hikes and the collapse of major Western economies.
But Dyer points out that while President Donald Trump’s intentions are unclear, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton “probably do want a war with Iran. They would never say that, but they spin every bit of data in as anti-Iran a direction as possible. That includes, of course, their analysis of who is behind these attacks.”
During Bolton’s previous tenure in the US government, evidence emerged that the Bush administration had attempted to fabricate an incident which could be used to justify a long-planned military strike on Iran.
According to a former senior US intelligence official, a meeting in Vice-President Cheney’s office occurred a few weeks after five Iranian patrol boats approached three US Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Press reports described Iranian ship-to-ship radio transmissions threatening to “explode” the warships. But within a week, an internal Pentagon inquiry concluded that there was no evidence that the Iranian boats were the source of the transmissions, and that they originated from a prankster long known for sending fake messages in the region. Regarding the meeting with Cheney, the former US official said that:
“The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington.”
Eyewitnesses contradict alleged US intelligence
The story of the latest incident is further complicated by the testimony of the Japanese owner of the tanker, who said that sailors on board the ship had seen something flying toward it just before the explosion above the waterline.
“We received reports that something flew towards the ship,” said Yutaka Katada, president of Kokaku Sangyo Co. at a press conference.
“The place where the projectile landed was significantly higher than the water level, so we are absolutely sure that this wasn’t a torpedo. I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.”
The Trump administration has not dealt with the contradictory eyewitness accounts, but instead has doubled-down on the evidence it says proves the use of limpet mines which solely implicate Iran.
Trump’s energy plan
US hostility toward Iran comes in the context of the escalation of the Trump administration’s plan for “American Energy Dominance”. In May, the White House issued a triumphant statement on Trump’s efforts to “open up new export opportunities for American energy producers…We are exporting more and more energy as production soars and President Trump negotiates better market access for our producers.”
The White House statement also trumpeted the government’s success in rolling back environmental regulations and climate change commitments.
While oil exports have nearly doubled, and US liquid natural gas (LNG) exports have increased by 272 percent, they are nowhere near where the US administration wants them to be. In the New York Times late last year, Bethany McLean — who famously reported on the Enron scandal — warned that the shale boom driving Trump’s export ambitions could be about to grind to a halt as the industry’s mounting debts, declining profits and dwindling production rates come home to roost.
US shale is still expensive and over the last decade Iran had successfully captured much of America’s hoped for export market despite sanctions. Iran is a major oil and gas supplier to China, India, Korea and Turkey. It also supplies European markets, namely Italy, Spain, France and Greece, along with Japan and the UAE. Asian buyers in particular have explored the possibility of purchasing Iranian oil in currencies other than the dollar to bypass US sanctions.
Iran is thus a major geopolitical competitor to the Trump administration’s export plans, as well as to the role of the dollar as the de facto reserve currency for the global oil trade. The Trump administration has made no secret of its ambition to take Iranian oil exports down to zero with a view to provoke internal regime change.