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Trump characterizes alleged attacks by Iran on oil tankers as 'very minor'

President Donald Trump walks in the Rose Garden at the White House on June 14, 2019 in Washington.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

By JOHN WAGNER AND PAUL SONNE | The Washington Post | Published: June 18, 2019

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump in an interview published Monday night characterized alleged attacks by Iran against two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman as "very minor" and suggested that the United States might not go to war to protect international oil supplies.

Trump's assessment in Time magazine reflected a softer posture than that of senior administration officials at the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as some congressional Republicans, as tensions between the United States and Iran have flared recently.

In the interview, Trump said he would "certainly" go to war to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

"I would keep the other a question mark," he said when asked whether he would take military action in response to attacks on oil tankers.

Last week, Trump administration officials blamed Iran for attacks against Norwegian and Japanese oil tankers.

"So far, it's been very minor," he told Time, referring to those and other recent attacks the United States has blamed on Iran.

In its effort to convince other nations of Iran's culpability, the Pentagon released several photographs Monday that it said showed Iran's involvement in the tanker attacks more clearly than a grainy video released last week.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan also announced Monday that he was sending about 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East "for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats."

"The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region," he said in a statement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that the Trump administration is considering a "full range of options" in response to the oil tanker attacks beyond the crippling sanctions it already has imposed, including on Iran's oil exports.

"Of course, of course," Pompeo told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday when asked if those options include military action.

Trump told Time that the Gulf of Oman is less strategically important for the United States than it used to be.

"Other places get such vast amounts of oil there," he said. "We get very little. We have made tremendous progress in the last two and a half years in energy. ... So we're not in the position that we used to be in the Middle East where ... some people would say we were there for the oil."

Meanwhile, Iran said Monday that its stockpile of enriched uranium will surpass limits set by the 2015 international nuclear deal in 10 days unless European partners in the agreement do more to help it circumvent U.S. sanctions.

The announcement, made by the spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, was the first time Tehran explicitly said it was on track to violate the agreement. The increase in both quantity and quality of the enriched fuel could shorten the time, estimated at one year, that it would take to produce enough for a nuclear weapon.

Asked about Trump's comments to Time on Tuesday morning, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the movement of vessels in the area has changed very little and the maritime industry is still moving oil and petroleum products through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf largely at the same volume as a couple of weeks ago.

"To the ship's masters, they are major attacks, right? If somebody puts a hole in your ship, that's a big thing. If somebody starts a fire on your ship, that's a big thing," Selva said. "In the scheme of the amount of shipping that moves through ... two ships this week and four ships four weeks ago is a relatively small interruption in the movement of product through the Strait of Hormuz."

The sophistication of the attacks on the oil tankers as well as the evidence point toward Iran, Selva said, noting that Tehran is under significant pressure both economically and politically to come to the table and negotiate on its nuclear weapons and other issues. He said it was lashing out at the international community as a result.

"The point of fact is they are under significant pressure. The attacks themselves are not alleged; they're real. The only perpetrator in the area that has a motive to perpetrate them is Iran. The evidence points toward Iran," Selva said.

"And the fact that they were able to quickly and safely remove a mine from the side of a ship would indicate that it was of their own design, of their own emplacement, and they took it into their custody so that it wouldn't be available as evidence that they perpetrated the attack," he added.

The top U.S. general said the risks of miscalculation are real, so the Pentagon has sought to very carefully send a message to the Iranian regime, to the Iranian regular forces and to the IRGC Quds Force that engaging American forces or national interests in the region is a dangerous thing to do and will result in a response.

"It is a fair assessment that our history in the region is we have threatened to respond but not responded," Selva said. "That would be a miscalculation on the part of the Iranians to believe that that's going to persist."

Selva said he believed the U.S. government had sent messages via Iraq, Switzerland and public statements to the Iranian government saying, "Hands off. Don't come after our forces."

Unlike during the so-called Tanker War of the 1980s, when the U.S. Navy escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers in the region to protect them from Iranian attacks and ensure the continuity of American oil supply, the United States is no longer so reliant on imports of oil from the Gulf, Selva said.

The general said he believed the top five countries importing oil from the region were China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 16% of U.S. petroleum imports came from the Persian Gulf in 2018.

"We are now in a position where the bulk of that oil goes to five countries in Asia," Selva said. "And none of those countries have actually shown any real predilection to press the Iranians to stop what they're doing."

He said, as a result, it would be ill-advised for the United States military to apply the same method of protecting the oil supply from the region as it did in the 1980s. He said the United States still has a significant role to play in guaranteeing freedom of navigation, but suggested it should be an international effort, and noted that the State Department was planning on reaching out to the biggest importers from the region if it hadn't already.

"I'm not suggesting for a moment that we don't have a significant role to play in that space but it will require an international consensus before force is used with one specific caveat: if the Iranians come after U.S. citizens, U.S. assets or U.S. military, we reserve the right to respond with a military action — and they need to know that, it needs to be very clear," Selva said.

The Pentagon still doesn't know whether Iran intended to strike the Japanese vessel specifically because Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran at the time.

"If they hit a Japanese ship just by pure serendipity, OK that's just an unfortunate choice," Selva said. "If they targeted the vessel, they were sending a very specific message to the Japanese. And I don't know which one it was."

He said the vessels were targeted either specifically because of their provenance or because they were targets of opportunity within close proximity to Iranian activities. He noted the Iranians have not chosen to attack any American vessels.

Selva said he didn't believe the attacks would have been opportunistic activity by a lower level commander. Though he said he had no specific evidence, he said it would be hard to believe that Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, wouldn't have been aware of the attacks, based on how the Iranian system works.

The general said the intelligence community was still continuing to work on compiling evidence regarding attribution for the attacks. He said the attachment piece for the mine that was left behind on one of the vessels - depicted in photographs the Pentagon released Monday night — is theoretically attributable.

"If it can be attributed directly to Iran, then it's a pointer towards their complicity in what was going on," Selva said. "We're just going to have to continue to work on that."

The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung contribute to this report.

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