Nafeez Ahmed on why the US’ version of events about the attacking of a Japanese-owned oil tanker raises more questions than answers.

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, as Trump has placed further sanctions on Iran (pictured above) and ordered 1,000 US troops into the region – followed by a warning to Iran of “obliteration like you’ve never seen before” – a Canadian military analyst and former Navy officer for nearly 20 years has called the evidence into question. His reservations highlighting unresolved anomalies in the US version of events are backed by Japanese Government sources.

US intelligence: An Incoherent Story

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. But, the claim is challenged by the analysis of a former Naval officer.

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 “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.

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.

Writing in a local Canadian newspaper, Dr Dyer  – who has taught military history and war studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and at the UK’s Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst – observed that as limpet mines “cling to ships’ hulls by magnetic force but have to be placed by hand” this means that 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 virtual impossibility of the mines being planted as suggested by the UAE, Norway and Saudi Arabia, they 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?”


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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.”

An investigation by Germany’s public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle into the evidence provided by the US concluded that “none of the imagery presented by the US thus far shows a limpet mine. None shows Iranian soldiers attaching a limpet mine. There is still no clear and independently verifiable proof that the two tankers were actually attacked with limpet mines just outside the Strait of Hormuz on June 13 and that Iran is responsible”.

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.

Source close to Japanese Prime Minister

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.

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 told Japan Today.

Trump has ordered 1,000 US troops into the region – followed by a warning to Iran of “obliteration like you’ve never seen before”.

The newspaper quoted a government source close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who responded to US Secretary of State Mike 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.”

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