ISTANBUL - President Donald Trump rejected Iran's denials Friday that it attacked two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, insisting in a television interview that "Iran did do it" and pointing to a video released by the U.S. Central Command purporting to show Iranian vessels retrieving an unexploded mine from one of the damaged ships.
However, the head of the Japanese shipping company that owns one of the targeted tankers challenged the U.S. assertion that the vessel was attacked with limpet mines. He said Friday that the crew reported it was hit by "a flying object."
Iran called the U.S. allegations against it "alarming."
In an interview on Fox News' "Fox & Friends" program, Trump said, referring to the Central Command video: "Well, Iran did do it, and you know they did it because you saw the boat."
He added: "I guess one of the mines didn't explode, and it's probably got essentially Iran written all over it. And you saw the boat at night, trying to take the mine off and successfully took the mine off the boat. And that was exposed. That was their boat. That was them, and they didn't want the evidence left behind."
Trump also denounced Iran's leadership while expressing interest in negotiations. "They're a nation of terror, and they've changed a lot since I've been president," he said. "They're in deep, deep trouble." He later added: "They've been told in very strong terms . . . we want to get them back to the table if they want to get back. I'm in no rush."
Yutaka Katada, president of the Kokuka Sangyo shipping firm that owns the Kokuka Courageous tanker, told reporters Friday in Tokyo: "The crew are saying it was hit with a flying object. They say something came flying toward them, then there was an explosion, then there was a hole in the vessel. Then some crew witnessed a second shot."
Katada added: "To put a bomb on the side is not something we are thinking. If it's between an explosion and a penetrating bullet, I have a feeling it is a penetrating bullet. If it was an explosion, there would be damage in different places, but this is just an assumption or a guess." He said he did not believe that the tanker was struck "because it was Japanese," as that would have been difficult for an attacker to determine.
"When the shell hit, it was above the water surface by quite a lot," Katada said. "Because of that, there is no doubt that it wasn't a torpedo."
He said the ship's crew saw an Iranian military ship in the vicinity on Thursday night Japan time, Reuters news agency reported.
Earlier, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the United States had “immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran - [without] a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence,” and he accused the Trump White House of “economic terrorism” and “sabotage diplomacy.”
Appearing Friday on CNN after Trump blamed Iran for the attacks, the House Foreign Affairs Committee's top Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, urged the administration to focus on diplomacy. "We always want peace," he said. "Not war."
The White House said Trump spoke Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was in Tehran meeting with top Iranian leaders when the tankers were attacked. The two discussed “the circumstances surrounding the attacks,” and Trump thanked Abe “for his effort to facilitate communication with Iran,” the White House said.
The U.S. Central Command late Thursday made public a dark, grainy video and corresponding timeline suggesting that U.S. military assets in the region observed the Iranian vessels approaching the tanker and removing the device.
"At 4:10 p.m. local time an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the M/T Kokuka Courageous and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine" from the Courageous, said Capt. Bill Urban, a Central Command spokesman.
Senior U.S. officials showed photographs to reporters of the damaged tanker Kokuka Courageous with what the Navy identified as a suspected magnetic mine attached to its hull.
The unexploded weapon was probably applied by hand from an Iranian fast boat, one official said. It is thought to be the same kind of weapon used to blow a hole elsewhere in the same tanker and to do more-serious damage to the other ship that was targeted, the Front Altair, two officials said.
The officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity because many elements of the investigation remain secret, said the type and timing of the attacks bear Iranian hallmarks. But U.S. officials could not yet say with certainty where the mines were manufactured or exactly how they were laid.
"There's not too many ways in which this can be done," one official said. "Very few that don't involve an individual physically placing it on the ship."
Germany's government Friday called for an investigation into the "extraordinarily worrying" incident and said it had no information on who carried out the attacks, the Associated Press reported.
A "spiral of escalation" must be avoided, a spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters Friday in Berlin, the AP said.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang urged restraint and said China hopes that "all sides can jointly safeguard navigational safety in the relevant waters," news agencies reported.
"Nobody wants to see war in the gulf," he said. "That is not in anyone's interest."
The two tankers, which carried petrochemicals from the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Gulf of Oman, were targeted early Thursday in what observers said marked a serious escalation in the strategic waterway, through which one-fifth of the world's oil passes. It connects energy supplies from Arab nations in the gulf, as well as Iran, to consumers around the globe.
The Courageous is a Japanese-owned vessel and was targeted as Abe, the Japanese prime minister, met with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran.
A U.S. defense official said the USS Bainbridge, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer that was in the area, took on board 21 crew members from the ship. Iran's navy also rescued crew members from the Front Altair, a Norwegian-owned ship.
"The responsibility for the security of the Strait of Hormuz lies with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we showed that we were able to rescue the sailors of the ship as soon as possible," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi said, Iran's state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
The accusation against Iran, he said, is "not only not funny . . . but alarming and worrisome."
U.S. officials said several nations are consulting about how to respond. One option may be to provide military escorts for commercial tankers moving through the Strait of Hormuz, one official said, although no decision has been made.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran on Thursday for the "blatant assault" on the vessels and said the United States would defend itself and its allies against Iranian aggression in the region. But he provided no evidence that the explosions were the work of Iranian forces.
The U.S. military has dispatched a P-8 Poseidon, an anti-ship, anti-submarine and surveillance aircraft, to the area in response to the incident, a defense official said.
The incidents were similar to suspected acts of sabotage carried out against tankers near the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah last month and looked to be the latest salvo in the mounting confrontation between the United States and Iran. As the Trump administration has tightened economic sanctions on Iran after withdrawing last year from the historic nuclear deal, Iran and its allies have responded with calibrated attacks in the Persian Gulf area, Iraq and Saudi Arabia aimed at underscoring the potential cost to U.S. interests, including the international oil trade, experts say.
Pompeo said the impetus behind the attacks was the administration's "maximum pressure campaign" of sanctions that U.S. officials say are designed to get Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program and its support of militias in various neighboring countries.
But some experts say the recent tensions have underscored the limits of that policy.
In a climate of hostility, the tanker incidents could bring the parties closer to the brink of violent confrontation.
"This is a way station to a wider conflict breaking out between Iran and the United States," said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst and Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. "If Iran was behind it, it is very clear the maximum pressure policy of the Trump administration is rendering Iran more aggressive, not less."
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Denyer reported from Tokyo. The Washington Post’s William Branigin, Karoun Demirjian, Anne Gearan and Carol Morello in Washington and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo contributed to this report.