Iran has denied being involved in two oil tanker attacks on Norwegian-owned Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous. But fears of a confrontation in the vital oil shipping route have been sparked after US president Donald Trump has blamed Tehran for attacks at the entrance to the Gulf last week.
Retired US general Jack Keane has warned US ships may now need to be escorted through the Gulf while “limited military operations designed to get Iran’s attention” may be “likely”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Keane said: “They don’t want war with the United States but they will respond and try to escalate, like they are doing right now, to see if they can accomplish what their strategy clearly is.”
Mr Keane insisted he does not think there will be a war but referenced the Persian Gulf’s 1980s ‘Tanker War’ when Iranian mines damaged vessels in the region and the US responded by escorting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Gulf and the strait.
The retired US general said: “Those were limited military operations designed to get Iran’s attention and not clearly provocative in the sense of leading to an all-out war.”
The so-called ‘Tanker War’ also involved a US destroyer accidentally shooting down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people on board.
Mr Keane said it is “likely” the US will be forced to take military action against Iran.
He added: “I suspect given the disruption of the oil artery, I believe the United States is giving our allies all the available information that they have.”
But Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday in a speech broadcast live on state TV that Iran will not wage war against any nation.
Mr Rouhani said: “Iran will not wage war against any nation. Those facing us are a group of politicians with little experience.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week cited video evidence showing members of Iran’s paramilitary Quds force retrieving an undetonated mine from the hull of the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous to eliminate traces of their involvement in the oil tanker attacks.
Iran said the video proved nothing and that it was being made into a scapegoat. “These accusations are alarming,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.
It later emerged that a US MQ-9 drone had been tracking Iranian fast boats as they closed in on the tankers.
Iranian forces tried to shoot the drone out of the sky but their surface-to-air missile missed.
A US State Department source said President Trump’s aim continues to be to force Tehran into a new “comprehensive deal” in return for lifting crippling sanctions.
However, he added: “We’ve made it clear that we will defend our forces and interests.”
Iran has angered the US by its military involvement in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, and by threatening international waterways.
It has previously suggested it could block the Strait of Hormuz, the main route out for Middle Eastern oil if its own exports were halted.