The black and white surveillance video is exceedingly grainy. It shows what U.S. military officials say is an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp patrol boat bobbing alongside the Kokuka Courageous, one of the two tankers damaged by explosions Thursday in the Gulf of Oman that the Trump administration blamed squarely on Iran...
But independent intelligence experts say the video provides no proof whatsoever of Iran's alleged responsibility for the attacks, a charge Iran denies. That's not to say Iran did not carry out the attacks, these experts hasten to add, noting that as the Trump administration tightens economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic, Tehran has ample reason to carry out such hard-to-trace terrorism against tankers, if only to raise the price of the dwindling amount of oil Iran is selling these days. But amid the rising tensions in the Middle East, these experts say, there are numerous other players in the region with compelling motivations to carry out such attacks.
"One has to keep asking the question, well, if it isn't Iran, who the hell is it?" Anthony Cordesman, a strategic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Newsweek. "You come up with the possibility that ISIS carried out the attack as trigger to turn two enemies — the United States and Iran — against each other. Or you're watching Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates create an incident that they can then use to increase the pressure on Iran."
Ayham Kamel, the head of Middle East analysis for the Eurasia Group, an international risk analysis consultancy, said recent attacks by Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels on Saudi oil installations are now threatening the kingdom's core security concerns.
"The Saudis are alarmed," Kamel told a conference call Friday. "Their response is going to be to try to pressure the U.S. into action."
Others have pointed to the possibility that Thursday's attacks, as well as the attacks on four tankers in the same waters a month ago, were so-called "false-flag" operations carried out by Israel, another arch foe of Iran, to make Iran appear responsible. And some observers have even suggested the attacks may have been directed by hawkish members of the Trump administration as a pretext to launch military operations against Iran.
"The U.S. track record on ginning up evidence for war is not good," William Church, a former military investigator for the United Nations Security Council. "It lied in the run-up to the Vietnam war [by inventing a North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. Navy ship in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964], and it lied about WMD [weapons of mass destruction] before the Iraq war. So when these tanker attacks happen, we have to ask why and what's the motivation in addition to examining the evidence."
Church pointed to the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last May, its reimposition of economic sanctions on Tehran and Trump's recent denial of sanctions waivers to eight of Iran's biggest oil customers under the president's policy of "maximum pressure," aimed at forcing to negotiate a new nuclear deal under terms more favorable to the United States. Church also noted that Trump's hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, has openly called for regime change in Iran.
With regard to the video, Church said much more needs to be known before any conclusions about Iranian responsibility can be drawn. "The video means nothing," he told Newsweek. "We need to know how it was taken, when was it taken, what was the total sequence. Then you'd have to talk to the people in the video to get their view of what happened. I would check to see if the video was doctored. You would need to do everything that a trained investigator would do."
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