DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in remarks published on Sunday that the kingdom will not hesitate to confront Iranian threats to its security. He joined the US in accusing its bitter rival Iran of being behind the attacks on two oil tankers travelling near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital trade route for Arabian energy exports to Asia.

Tensions in the Gulf have escalated since the US sent an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the region in what it says is defensive posturing against alleged Iranian threats. The crisis takes root in the Trump administration’s decision to re-impose punishing economic sanctions on Tehran and its oil exports, after unilaterally withdrawing the US from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

The US alleges Iran used limpet mines to target the tankers on Thursday, pointing to black-and-white footage it captured that American officials describe as an Iranian Revolu­tionary Guard vessel removing an unexploded mine from the Japanese-operated tanker Kokuka Courageous.

The Japanese tanker’s crew members appeared to contradict the assertion that mines were used. They described “flying objects” as having targeted the vessel.

In his first public comments regarding the attacks, the powerful Saudi prince, who is also defence minister and oversees all major levers of power in the country, said the incident “confirms the importance of our demands of the international community to take a decisive stance” against Iran’s behaviour.

“The kingdom does not seek war in the region,” the prince said, speaking with the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. “But we will not hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, sovereignty and vital interests.” The prince claimed Iran had planned the attack’s timing to undercut the Japanese prime minister’s diplomatic efforts, during his visit to Tehran last week, to reduce regional tensions.

He did not offer any evidence to back up the allegation.

“The problem is in Tehran and not anywhere else,” he added. “Iran is always the party that’s escalating in the region, carrying out terrorist attacks and criminal attacks either directly or through its militias.” Prince Mohammed touted US-Saudi relations as “essential to achieving regional security and stability.”

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the US official position. He claimed that intelligence officials have “lots of data, lots of evidence” tying Iran to the attacks, though he did not provide any specifics. He called the alleged shipping attacks “an international challenge, important to the entire globe.” He said Trump was following an “economic pressure campaign” against Iran but “we do not want war.” He added that the “unambiguous” object of US actions was that Iran would not get nuclear weapons.

Iran rejects accusations it was responsible for Thursday’s attacks, saying it stands ready to play an active and constructive role in ensuring the security of maritime passages. It said the massive US military presence in the region and US sanctions are the main sources of insecurity and instability in the Persian Gulf.

Thursday’s incidents forced the evacuation of all 44 sailors aboard the two vessels. On Saturday, journalists saw the crew members of the Norw­egian-owned oil tanker MT Front Altair arrive at Dubai International Airport, after spending two days in Iran.

The Front Altair, which caught fire after the apparent attack, limped into anchorage on Sunday off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates, near the port city of Khorfakkan.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2019