US: 'All Evidence Points to Iran' in Tanker Attacks as More Troops Head to Region
By Jeff Seldin June 18, 2019
U.S. military officials are insisting all evidence points to Iran for a series of attack on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, warning Tehran is attempting to send a "very powerful signal" even as the President Donald Trump described the attacks as "very minor."
The latest warning from top military officials comes a day after the Pentagon released photos alleging to show Iran's Revolutionary Guards removing an unexploded limpet mine from a Japanese-owned tanker.
Some have raised doubts the photos and video show conclusive evidence to tie Tehran to the attacks, but the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff pushed back Tuesday, saying only Iran could have pulled off such an operation.
"Getting alongside a vessel under the cover of darkness to attach a mine, underway, is not an insignificant effort," Gen. Paul Selva told reporters during an appearance in Washington.
"It wasn't done by an untrained, unsophisticated group of people. It was done by a military trained and capable force," he added. "The evidence points to Iran. And the fact that they were able to quickly and safely remove a mine from a side of a ship would indicate it was of their own design."
Selva also acknowledged the danger of rising tensions in the region, even as the United States prepares to deploy another 1,000 troops to help protect U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, currently helping in the effort to wipe out remnants of the Islamic State terror group.
"The risks of miscalculation are real," the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chair said, noting that the U.S. has sent warnings to Iran through Iraq and the Swiss embassy in Tehran.
"We want them to be clear eyed in whatever it is they are planning," Selva said. "If they directly engage U.S. forces or they directly engage U.S. interests or citizens in the region...we will respond."
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday there is "strong evidence" that Iran was behind the tanker attacks, and she also warned Iran of the consequences if violates the 2015 international nuclear deal. Speaking in Berlin at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Merkel urged a peaceful solution to tensions in the Persian Gulf.
But in an interview with Time magazine on Monday, President Trump downplayed concerns over the alleged Iranian attacks on the Norwegian and Japanese oil tankers.
"So far, it's been very minor," the president said, casting doubt over the likelihood the U.S. would go to war over such provocations.
"I would certainly go over nuclear weapons," Trump said when asked what could precipitate war with Iran, "and I would keep the other a question mark."
Iran has denied any involvement on the attacks against the oil tankers but announced Monday it would cease complying with the global agreement that prevents it from making nuclear weapons.
Relations between the U.S. and Iran began to deteriorate in May of 2018 when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the international pact under which Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Trump then reinstated and extended tough economic sanctions, leaving European and other partners in the deal struggling to keep Iran in compliance.
U.S. military officials say it is clear Iran is feeling the pressure.
"Iran is lashing out," Selva said. "The pressure is on."
"The relief to that pressure is the Iranians come to the table [to negotiate]," he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Tuesday arrived at U.S. Central Command for a series of briefings on the latest with Iran. He is also scheduled to meet separately with European Union policy chief Federica Mogherini, a leading supporter of the deal.
On Monday, White House National Security Council spokesperson Garrett Marquis called Iran's plan to surpass an internationally agreed limit on its stock of low-enriched uranium "nuclear blackmail."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Monday on state television Tehran does not seek conflict and that U.S. efforts to isolate his country have failed.
"Iran will not wage war against any nation," Rouhani said. "Despite all of the Americans' efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful."
Trump had called the 2015 agreement "horrible" and said he would like to negotiate a new one. But the United Nations atomic watchdog agency says Iran has continued to meet terms of the 2015 pact. While Washington has pulled out of the deal, the other signatories have not.
Carla Babb, Wayne Lee and Nike Ching contributed to this report.
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