Military officials say imagery shows Iranians in boats at the tankers, handling a mine and trying to capture crew members.
NOTE: This article has been updated to include statements and imagery from U.S. Central Command.
Hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for a pair of attacks on two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz early Thursday morning, a military spokesman released a video, photos, and a timeline purporting to show Iranian boats near the ships immediately after the attacks.
According to Capt. Bill Urban, U.S. Central Command's top spokesman, the video shows men aboard an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military patrol boat returning to one of the abandoned tankers, the M/T Kokuka Courageous, and removing an unexploded mine from its damaged hull.
Pompeo spoke for less than five minutes at the State Department on Thursday afternoon and at the time provided no immediate evidence for the assessment, which he said was based on “intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.” His statement was met with immediate skepticism from some administration critics.
Roughly seven hours later, Urban released the imagery and a statement. Distress signals were received from the tanker Altair at 6:12 a.m. local time, and from the Kokuka Courageous about 7 a.m., he said in the statement.
"At 8:09 a.m. local time a U.S. aircraft observed an IRGC Hendijan class patrol boat and multiple IRGC fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft (FAC/FIAC) in the vicinity of the M/T Altair [one of the damaged tankers]," he said.
About 9:12 a.m., Urban said, U.S. aircrew saw those Iranians pull a raft from the water after the attack.
The Altair's crew had been rescued by a cargo ship. At 9:26 a.m., the Iranians asked the crew of the cargo ship, the Hyundai Dubai, to hand over the Altair mariners and they complied, Urban said. Meanwhile, mariners from the other attacked tanker, the Kokuka Courageous, had been rescued by a nearby tug. Urban said the Iranians tried to reach the tug first, but they were outrun by the guided missile Bainbridge, which took the rescued mariners aboard.
"While the Hendijan patrol boat appeared to attempt to get to the tug Coastal Ace before USS Bainbridge, the mariners were rescued by USS Bainbridge," Urban said.
Four hours later, "an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the M/T Kokuka Courageous and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous," he said.
"The U.S. and our partners in the region will take all necessary measures to defend ourselves and our interests," Urban concluded.
The incident is the latest flashpoint in escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, which faces punishing sanctions put in place by the Trump administration following its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last year.
Pompeo said that the U.S. policy “remains an economic and diplomatic effort” designed to force Iran to negotiate a more comprehensive deal covering a broader range of activities than just its nuclear weapons program.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan tweeted his reaction after Pompeo's appearance, saying, "Iran’s continued unprovoked attacks in the region are a threat to international security and peace and an assault against freedom of navigation on the open seas. While we do not seek conflict, the @DeptOfDefense will defend our forces and our interests around the world. We will safeguard global commerce and defend freedom of navigation."
The initial pronouncement was met with some skepticism across Washington from critics who fear that Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are seeking to provoke a conflict with Iran with elements of what they call their "maximum pressure campaign."
Related: Bolton Accuses Iran, Offers No Proof
As Pompeo attempts to convince the public, his “challenge is that skepticism is so deep because of the Iraq War hangover in this country,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow focused on Iran at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. National security, he said, “has become a partisan debate.”
Pompeo said that Iran is “lashing out, because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted.”
Taleblu argued that Thursday's attacks were consistent with what he described as Iranian efforts to impose a cost on the U.S. for its sanctions. “There’s a political strategy underlying this for Iran,” he said. The goal is to get the U.S. to “swerve,” he said, and slow its sanctions designations and enforcement, or, potentially “get the administration interested in premature diplomacy and have the administration try to reward Iran for coming to the table.”
Lawmakers have raised questions about the political strategy behind Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. “They didn’t tell us how they were planning to get them to talk,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said after a recent briefing on the escalating tensions with Pompeo and other senior national security officials. “It just seems to be a process of blind escalation with the hopes that the Iranians will come to their senses at some point.”
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been rising since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal last year, which traded sanctions relief for curbs on the regime’s nuclear weapons program. Republicans have long derided the deal as too narrow in scope and have kept Iran as a central focus of their national security policy. Pompeo and Bolton, in particular, long have been proponents of a harsher approach to Iran.
Last month, Bolton, Pompeo, Shanahan — and the top two generals in charge of U.S. troops in Europe and the Middle East — began warning about new threats from Iran, later specifying that the regime was plotting an imminent attack on U.S. troops in the Middle East. The Defense Department hurried an aircraft carrier strike group to the region, and dispatched B-52 bombers and a Patriot missile defense battery.
Trump administration officials throughout have insisted they are not seeking war with Tehran. The president has been publicly ambivalent about military engagements in the Middle East since his 2016 campaign, pledging to return U.S. troops from long wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan while encouraging regional powers to do more of their own fighting.
“We do not want the situation to escalate. This is about deterrence, not about war. We’re not about going to war,” acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan told reporters last month.
The Pentagon had previously argued that ship and bomber movements taken by the Pentagon in response to the threat had backed Tehran away from the brink. Thursday's attacks on the two oil tankers seem to challenge that claim. One tanker is run by a Japanese company, and the attack came as the Japanese prime minister was in Iran trying to mediate the tensions.