Bolton Alleges Iran Maritime Sabotage But Evidence Points Elsewhere
The accusations against Iran come only weeks after US mine-laying ships and divers ran drills in the same area that the alleged sabotage incidents took place.
On Wednesday, National Security Advisor John Bolton told a group of reporters in Abu Dhabi that “naval mines almost certainly from Iran” had been used to conduct the alleged “sabotage” attack on four commercial vessels off the coast of the United Arab Emirates’ port of Fujairah earlier this month. “There is no doubt in anybody’s mind in Washington who is responsible for this and I think it’s important that the leadership in Iran know that we know,” Bolton continued, providing no evidence for his claim.
Bolton is currently in Abu Dhabi ahead of an “emergency” summit scheduled for Thursday in Saudi Arabia, where top U.S. and allied Arab officials will “discuss the implications of the tanker attacks, and drone strikes two days later, on oil pumping stations in the kingdom.”
The murkiness that still surrounds what caused this tanker “sabotage,” as well as the very limited extent of the alleged damage, suggests that this poorly executed incident either did not go as planned or that it was a freak accident that has now been manipulated for weeks by the U.S. and its regional allies for political gain. However, Iran is far from being the clear culprit, especially given that three foreign militaries — including the U.S. Navy — concluded a mine warfare naval drill just weeks before the “sabotage” incident occurred.
MintPress previously reported on the tanker “sabotage” attacks soon after they occurred and noted that neither the UAE or the Saudis had cast blame for the incident on any country and that the damage caused was relatively minor with no casualties. In fact, the incident was so minor that the local government of Fujairah had initially denied that any “sabotage” had taken place and maintained that its port facilities were operating normally.
Only the U.S. had cast blame prior to Bolton’s statements, with the “initial assessment” of a group of U.S. military investigators rapidly concluding that Iran or “proxies sympathetic to or working for Iran” had used explosives to damage the four commercial vessels. Public evidence to support that claim has been minimal and, at times, counter to the official narrative. For instance, one of the Saudi vessels allegedly targeted, Al Marzoqah, was seen floating without any visible damage in post-attack footage taken by Sky News, even though the Saudis had claimed that the vessel had sustained “significant damage.” One U.S. official told the Associated Press that each of the four ships had sustained a 5- to 10-foot hole near or just below the water line, but only one such hole has been observed in just one of the targeted ships.
Iran has consistently denied any involvement in the incident, with Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi warning against a “conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers” and “adventurism by foreigners.”
However, Bolton’s Wednesday statement echoes other recent statements made by U.S. officials that sea mines — either floating mines or limpet mines, which attach magnetically to the targeted ship’s hull — were likely responsible for the relatively minor hull damage allegedly experienced by the four ships. Top U.S. military officials — such as Rear Admiral Michael Gilday, the director of the Joint Staff — have attributed the mines to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the Trump administration designated a terrorist organization in early April. Yet, recent events in the Persian Gulf suggest that the sea mines likely responsible for the attack may not have been of Iranian origin.
Why it’s unlikely to be Iran
Before delving into the definite possibility that the mines in question were not of Iranian origin at all, it is worth considering that even if the mine(s) that were allegedly used in the tanker “sabotage” were Iranian, they had not been planted recently by Iranian forces.
First, in the event that these were floating mines, the preparation made for the deployment of mines is often detected well before the mines are even seabound. Placing mines at sea is a massive logistical undertaking involving multiple steps that allow adversaries to detect and disrupt their deployment well in advance.
As Bob O’Donnell, a retired Navy Captain and veteran minesweeper, told Breaking Defense in 2015, the first step involves removing mines from storage facilities, given that “countries will have their mines in ammo dumps somewhere, [but] without any sensors in them. The first step is they take them out of the dumps and take them someplace where they put the sensors in.” As Breaking Defense noted, “the more mines they move, the more people and trucks they need, which makes it more likely someone will let something slip or that U.S. spy satellites will notice suspicious activity.” Then, the mines must be placed in the water, which is usually performed by ships, or aircraft or submarines in the case of specialized mines.
Given this, the lack of satellite images, which would have shown Iran’s military engaged in these types of activities that precede mine deployment, is telling. This is because Iran’s military and its movements are under heavy scrutiny from foreign governments and satellite images of alleged Iranian military or nuclear assets have frequently accompanied official narratives that push for more aggressive policies towards Iran.
For instance, satellite images that purported to show Iran’s “land bridge” from Tehran to the Mediterranean were recently released by a private Israeli company and satellite images of Iran’s nuclear facilities have often accompanied past media reports claiming that such sites have been the site of increased activity or accidents. Furthermore, a considerable part of the basis for the alleged Iranian “threat” to U.S. troops in the region, which has been the foundation for the recent rise in tensions, has also been based on satellite imagery. Those images claimed to show Iran moving missiles onto boats within their own territory. If private companies, the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence often use satellite imagery to back up their claims regarding Iran — particularly its use of military assets — the fact that such images are not present to back these claims of mine deployment is telling.
In addition, a significant portion of the mines in the Persian Gulf that are of Iranian origin are holdovers from conflicts of decades past, such as the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. During that period, Iran mined large swathes of the Persian Gulf and, in April 1988, an American ship — the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts — struck an Iranian sea mine, creating a 15-foot hole in the ship’s hull and nearly sinking it. Notably, this mine — which was considered unsophisticated at the time of that conflict — caused damage much more significant than caused by the mines believed to have been involved in the recent sabotage incident. Furthermore, Iran is unlikely to have sought to lay new mines given that the U.S. has previously warned that attempts to deploy mines in the area would prompt a military response.
This context leaves the following possibility for Iranian involvement in laying the mines: that Iran used small, unmarked boats to covertly lay a small number of mines (between one and four) to target a handful of commercial vessels near the Strait of Hormuz. This claim of “unmarked boats” has been made by several U.S. officials in recent weeks and is notable for the fact that the use of “unmarked boats” in no way insinuates Iranian culpability. In fact, the use of such boats makes it plausible that anyone could have laid the mines. This may explain why claims have also been made that the party responsible was an alleged proxy “either sympathetic to or working for” Iran.
Yet, even then, Iran has little or nothing to gain from this “sabotage” event, especially considering the logistical undertaking it would require to lay just a handful of mines in a busy commercial shipping zone without causing major damage. The only actual consequence of this event — following the U.S. designation of the IRGC, and following Bolton’s subsequent press release that laid a clear foundation for provoking war with Iran — is an increase of U.S. troops in the region and a further increase in the tensions that have caused considerable damage to the Iranian economy and arguably weakened the political standing of the “moderates” who currently govern Iran.
Given the increasingly slim evidence for Iran’s involvement in the sabotage, the mines in question could have come from another country’s military. Though such claims would normally be highly speculative, that fact that the Persian Gulf was the site of a major foreign military mine warfare drill just a few weeks before the attack lends credibility to such a possibility.
On April 15, just a week after the U.S. labeled Iran’s IRGC as a terrorist organization, Bolton received intelligence on the “credible threat” by Iran from his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat, when the two met in Washington to discuss their “shared commitment to countering Iranian malign activity & other destabilizing actors in the Middle East & around the world.” That same day, thousands of miles away in the Persian Gulf, a major naval drill known as “Artemis Trident” began among the navies of the U.S., the U.K. and France. The focus of that large naval drill, which ended on April 18, was sea mine warfare in the Persian Gulf.
“Laying [mines] poses a risk to naval ships as well as merchant shipping vessels,” the U.S. Fifth Fleet said in an announcement, which continued:
As mines threaten maritime traffic indiscriminately, the U.S., France, and United Kingdom are dedicated to conducting tactical training to counter the risk of mines in order to support the continued free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation in this critical region.”
Though the militaries involved described the drill as purely defensive in nature, the U.S. contingent included Naval Task Force 52, which — according to the U.S. Navy — “plans and executes mine warfare operations in support of U.S. 5th Fleet operational objectives.” In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Fifth Fleet has bases both in Bahrain — where Artemis Trident took place — and in Fujairah, where the now infamous “sabotage” incident took place just a few weeks later.
Not long after the U.S., the U.K. and France had concluded Artemis Trident, the U.S. Maritime Administration — a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation — stated that “Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait or the Persian Gulf.” This warning came just days before the “sabotage” incident and just a few weeks after the U.S/U.K./France drill aimed at protecting “merchant shipping vessels” from mines had concluded.
As MintPress previously reported, the U.S. Department of Transportation is currently headed by Elaine Chao, a known Iran-hawk who was paid $50,000 for a five-minute speech to the Iranian exile group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), known to actively seek regime change for Iran. Other top U.S. officials, such as Bolton, have also been paid hefty sums for appearances and speeches at MEK events, where they have openly advocated for the overthrow of the Iranian government.
The naval exercise was one of the first major naval exercises of the Fifth Fleet to take place after the sudden, mysterious death of the fleet’s commander, Admiral Scott Stearney, last December. Stearney was found dead in his home in Bahrain and the death has been labeled an “apparent suicide” and is still being jointly investigated by the Navy and Bahrain, with no new conclusions nearly six months after the fact. Stearney was known for opposing a major escalation with Iran even though he was routinely critical of what he called Iran’s “destabilizing” role in the region.
The presence of foreign, particularly U.S., mine-laying ships and divers in the region close to the same time frame as the “sabotage” incident makes it a definite possibility that the mines in question could have been American, British or French — not Iranian — in origin. In that case, the mines either could have been accidentally left over from that drill or intentionally set after the fact, given that the hardware and specialized naval vessels used in deploying mines were all present at the time of the “sabotage” incident.
While the evidence for this is circumstantial, it is worth pointing out that the same evidence being used to link Iran to the same mines is just as circumstantial and arguably less convincing, given the lack of any benefit derived from this “sabotage” attack from the Iranian point of view.
A poor man’s Gulf of Tonkin?
While it is far from certain where these mines originated or who placed them, it is clear that there is hardly any substantial evidence — based on what is publicly available — that would link the mines directly to Iran or an “Iran-backed proxy.” The small scale of the attack, the alleged use of “unmarked boats,” the timing, and the lack of any strategic or tactical benefit from the attack make the Iranian government and its military an unlikely culprit.
The fact that so much attention is being given to an incident that sunk no ship and caused no injuries or fatalities should make it clear to any thinking person that the fixation on the tanker sabotage is not driven by any real threat and is merely a pretext for Iran hawks in the U.S. and the region to ratchet up tensions — something like a poor man’s Gulf of Tonkin.
Bolton’s statements assigning direct blame for the incident — and the related and equally minor incident of a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline by Yemen’s resistance movement — to Iran a day prior to the Saudi-hosted “emergency” summit on this incident are clearly meant as a signal to governments in the area. Though Bolton claimed that his public statement was directed at the “leadership in Iran,” more likely targets were the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other attendees of the summit who have still failed to follow the U.S.’ lead in blaming Iran for the incident.
It seems more than likely that a major effort will be made on Thursday to develop a consensus blaming Iran for these and potential future incidents in the region, as Bolton and his allies make the case for an even more aggressive Iran policy. Indeed, Bolton noted Wednesday that the goal of the upcoming summit was “to make it clear to Iran and its surrogates that these kind of activities risk a very strong response from the Americans.”