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After suspected attacks on Mideast oil tankers, U.S. blames Iran

Two oil tankers near the strategically important Strait of Hormuz were damaged Thursday. After the U.S. Navy rushed to assist evacuating sailors, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran, calling the suspected attacks a "clear threat to international peace and security." They come amid heightened tensions with Iran and an increased U.S. military presence in the Mideast. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, already troubled waters were further roiled today with attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. blamed Iran and will raise the issue in a United Nations Security Council meeting.

    Experts and government official say it appears to be the latest in a series of increasingly aggressive actions by Iran in response to new sanctions.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    About 25 miles off the coast of Iran, the Front Altair oil tanker is disabled and on fire. An explosion ripped a hole and scorched the tanker's side. Its Filipino, Russian, and Georgian crew had to abandon ship and be rescued. They ended up on an Iranian boat.

    Just 45 minutes earlier, and a few miles to the east, the tanker Kokuka Courageous was hit with two explosions three hours apart. The crew also had to abandon ship, and ended up on an American destroyer.

    Today at the State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered no evidence, but blamed Iran.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    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.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A U.S. military official tells "PBS NewsHour" the U.S. discovered an unexploded mine, believed to be Iranian, on the side of the Kokuka Courageous.

    Iran and its proxies use small boats in the Persian Gulf, and have the capacity to attack commercial shipping, says retired Rear Admiral Mike Smith, who commanded a destroyer squadron in the Persian Gulf.

  • Michael E. Smith:

    They have the ability to have the mine. They would certainly have that ability to employ that mine. The reports are that it would — the traditional method would be, you would send divers in port before the tanker even got under way, and you would affix it to the tanker.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Kokuka Courageous is Japanese-owned, and, today, its owners showed the press where their ship was attacked, an attack that came exactly as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.

    Abe was visiting Tehran to try and reduce Iran-U.S. tensions and appeal for peace, as he told a press conference yesterday.

  • Shinzo Abe (through translator):

    Nobody would like a war to happen, and Japan hopes to be able to make any effort it can, and to do its utmost to reduce tension. This is the goal of my trip.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, today, Khamenei rejected the olive branch and President Trump's offer to sit down for talks.

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (through translator):

    I have no response to Trump's message. I tell you some words, but I'm not giving him any message, because I don't consider him worthy of even exchanging messages.

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    I think the clear message here is that Khamenei himself is disinterested in negotiations. He has said that publicly. And the Revolutionary Guard has provided the firepower to back it up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Suzanne Maloney is an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution and a former senior State Department official. She says, compared to last month's attacks that blew holes in tankers docked at an Emirati port, today's attacks are an escalation, and a sign the Iranian leadership is frustrated by the U.S.' economic pressure campaign.

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    They have been under increasingly severe economic pressure that is having a real impact on the day-to-day lives and livelihoods on individual Iranians. That's producing an impact both for the overall stability of the Islamic Republic, as well as its bottom line.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That bottom line is most affected by oil exports. The administration and experts say Iran's actions have become more aggressive since the U.S. vowed to cut Iran oil exports to zero.

    And oil analysts predict that prices could rise with the threat to shipping companies that operate in the world's most important oil route.

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    Any steps in the Gulf that increase the costs associated with moving that oil through the Strait of Hormuz have a net benefit, both in terms of the economic impact, in terms of raising the price, but also in terms of the political price, and the message that it sends to its neighbors and to the Trump administration, that these actions by the United States will have consequences for the global economy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And those U.S. actions are likely to include the U.S. reinforcing its military presence in the waters near Iran, says retired Admiral Smith, who once commander the U.S. destroyer that responded today.

  • Michael E. Smith:

    It's their responsibility to be able to anticipate the absolute worst case. So they're going to have to increase the security on their own forces, up the readiness, or certainly up the intelligence flow that's going out to the units that are deployed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that means the tension between the U.S. and Iran will likely increase.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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