Archive for May 13, 2019

Mystery deepens in ‘sabotage’ of oil tankers in Persian Gulf

May 13, 2019

Source: Mystery deepens in ‘sabotage’ of oil tankers in Persian Gulf – Middle East – Jerusalem Post

Conflicting reports and current tensions in the Gulf obscure knowledge of the incident.

BY SETH J. FRANTZMAN
 MAY 13, 2019 15:58
NIMITZ-CLASS aircraft

As tensions rose over the weekend between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf, several vessels were “sabotaged” off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Both Iranian media and the UAE reported the incident, but 24 hours after it happened, much of what occurred was still shrouded in mystery, with allegations of “explosions” and questions about how severe the “sabotage” actually was.
The Saudi energy minister confirmed that two of its oil tankers were targeted in a “sabotage attack.” It took place as the tankers were “on their way to the Arabian Gulf” via the Emirate of Fujairah, the statement said. The UAE said that in total four boats were damaged. The UAE’s The National claimed that “Iranian and Lebanese media outlets aired false reports of explosions.”
The same reports in the UAE said the tankers had been on their way to the US after being loaded with Saudi oil. No one was hurt, the UAE said.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain see the incident as a dangerous threat to the safety of navigation. But what is the actual threat? What actually happened? What do we know? Saudi Arabian energy minister Khalid al-Falih did discuss the attack, indicating that the kingdom sees it as a threat to freedom of navigation in the Gulf.
The Iranians are also warning of conspiracies involving “foreign” players. Iran’s Press TV speculated that the sabotage might have been due to drones from Yemen or even the US “dropping bombs to ignite the region.” Tensions between the US and Iran escalated in recent days with Iranian officials threatening the US and the US sending a variety of forces to the region, including bolstering its aircraft carrier strike force in the Gulf. The US has warned that Iran or its allies could target ships in the region.
Conflicting reports appear to provide contradictory stories. Pro-Iranian media initially claimed that there had been explosions and a fire at the Fujairah tanker terminal. But later reports about the “sabotage” downplayed what had happened and pointed to something occurring at sea in the Gulf of Oman, either on the way to Fujairah or merely passing the area at sea. Fujairah is situated on the Gulf of Oman around 10 kilometers from the Oman border. Ships that arrive there don’t have to navigate the Strait of Hormuz, they can arrive from the Indian Ocean and then leave without going into the Persian Gulf.
The official UAE statement says that the incident took place “near UAE territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, east of Fujairah.” The website Maritime Bulletin notes that “it didn’t happen in port, but on outer anchorage.” A map of oil tankers currently off the coast shows them anchored several kilometers off Fujairah. The site points out that fire boats were not dispatched to aid those tankers, meaning reports of a fire were mistaken. But what is “significant damage” that was apparently inflicted after the “sabotage,” which is what Riyadh says happened?
Let’s look at the timeline. The first reports of “massive explosions” were put online around 11 a.m. on Sunday, first in Lebanese media and then in Sputnik, the Russian news channel. Sputnik claimed that “the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen broadcaster said, citing local media, that several heavy explosions occurred in the port of Fujairah.” The report claimed this happened at around 4 to 7 a.m., that “Seven to 10 oil tankers were in flames.” The next reports in Al-Mayadeen began at around four in the afternoon. By midnight, the channel was holding numerous interviews about the incident. It noted that the UAE denied there had been explosions and discussed whether the incident might lead to a military escalation.
What adds to the mystery is how or why someone would report “explosions” that never happened, now that evidence appears to indicate there were no explosions in the port and that the ships, although damaged, did not blow up. Is it possible that whoever carried out the sabotage also sought to fan the flames of rumors? That would point to a pro-Iranian source, since the initial sources of the information were published in sites that lean toward the Iranian regime. On the other hand, would the countries that are more critical of Iran have a reason to downplay the incident not to increase escalation?
The US, which has played a key role in upping the tensions with Iran, has not leapt on the story to point to Iranian aggression. Does that mean evidence does not point toward Iran or that the US primarily is upping its rhetoric but wants to avoid a real escalation? Any real incident occurring near the oil corridor of the Strait of Hormuz will certainly lead to economic concerns across the globe. So far “sabotage” is the term the victims prefer for what happened to their ships. What precisely happened has not been revealed, which adds to the rumor mill, and tensions, rather than reducing them. Riyadh may be waiting to see what is the best course of action. Bringing reporters aboard would reveal what happened and settle the mystery. For now, Riyadh says the incident is a “criminal act” and threatens navigation.

The incident grew in its international implications when the Norwegian-registered oil tanker MT Andrea Victory reported that it had been damaged as well and had a hole in its hull. More details were not immediately released but the tanker was shown near numerous other tankers around 10 km off the coast off Fujairah int he Gulf of Oman.

 

War with Iran forthcoming? Most experts say they don’t think so 

May 13, 2019

Source: War with Iran forthcoming? Most experts say they don’t think so – Middle East – Jerusalem Post

War between the US and Iran is probably not in the cards, even as the US ups pressure on Iran via sanctions and a military build-up in the region.

BY OMRI NAHMIAS
 MAY 13, 2019 13:22
War with Iran forthcoming? Most experts say they don’t think so

WASHINGTON – It’s been an intense couple of weeks in the triangle of the United States, Iran and the European Union. The immediate trigger is the one-year mark since US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Trump administration decided to use that anniversary to impose fresh sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
The Iranians, on the other hand, are trying to save their crumbling economy and gave the EU 60 days to save whatever is left from the original deal before they’ll cease to abide the agreement.
In between, the US sent a carrier group to the Middle East as a message to the Iranians, following intelligence about an Iranian intent to harm US interests in the region.
But what’s next? Is a war between the US and Iran on the horizon?
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, does not see a direct military confrontation as an option.
“H.R. McMaster said that, ‘There are two ways of fighting America: One is asymmetrically, and the other is stupid,’” he told The Jerusalem Post. “In other words, there’s only one way to fight the United States at this point. And that is through terrorism and insurgency. The idea that Iran would square off with the United States in a conventional conflict is not serious.”
He added that sending a carrier group to the Gulf is meant only to send a message.
“When [US] Ambassador [to Russia] Jon Huntsman talks about carrier groups, he calls them a hundred thousand tons of diplomacy,” Schanzer said. “When you put that in into play, it changes the way that your adversary is going to respond to you. They’re going to be more fearful, and that’s what we call leverage. The hope is that that’s what we’re talking about here, between the financial pressure and the deployment of force not to fight, but to influence, we could potentially start to see changes.”
Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, expressed similar sentiments. He told the Post that the US should not expect an immediate crisis, but rather that Iran will once again take a slow-motion crawl toward a nuclear weapon.
“This is consistent with how they were before the JCPOA and how they have been for years – slowly, slowly, slowly making progress, while avoiding the worst consequences of the international community,” he said.
According to Goldenberg, while the risk of military confrontation exists, it is overblown by the media.
“Fundamentally, nobody actually wants a direct military conflict,” he said. “I think that Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu will be okay if the Americans lead the charge, and I think Trump would be okay if the Israelis lead the charge, but I don’t think Netanyahu or Trump wants to be on their own in a major conflict like that. So that’s the good news. The bad news is you can always have miscalculation.”
“Nobody wants a war,” he continued. “it doesn’t mean a war won’t accidentally happen.”
However, if there’s no war between the two countries, what’s the alternative? Is there any chance we could see the Iranian engaging in negotiations on a revised nuclear agreement with the Trump administration?
Last week, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) told the Post that this is the time to negotiate a new deal that would address the flaws of the original agreement.
“What is becoming an increasingly precarious situation can be turned into an opportunity,” he said. “I would turn [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani’s words around, and say – ‘Okay, you want to be open to negotiation? We do too.’”
“So, those negotiations have to deal with the failures of the JCPOA,” he continued.
Schanzer thinks that the Iranians would join the table only if they believe they can get something out of it.
“When they engaged with the Obama administration, they got quite a lot,” he said. “With the Trump administration, they may be able to negotiate their survival, which may be just as important to them right now, given that they seem to be under quite a bit of pressure. It’s hard to imagine a fruitful negotiation right now, unless the Iranian regime is willing to change.”
Mike Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, feels differently. He thinks that now is not the time to negotiate a new deal.
“This is the most pressure this regime has been under for 40 years,” he told the Post. “This is the time to continue to put maximum pressure on Iran and watch what they do over the next 18 months. Every month, the United States will put new sanctions on individuals and entities of Iran.”
According to Pregent, by the time the election happens, “whether Trump wins or not, the Democrat presidential candidate, if Trump doesn’t win, will have enough leverage with Iran to get a nuclear deal that could pass Congress. That can pass as a treaty because it will address ballistic missiles. It’ll address terrorism; it’ll address sunset clauses. It would address inspections, everything. This is not the right time.”
The question remains whether or not the EU will save the Iranian economy from the specter of hyperinflation and thereby save the nuclear deal. Pregent thinks that the EU will not volunteer to save Rouhani. He said Iran is making threats against Europe, calling on Europe to invest in the Iranian economy or Iran will step up its nuclear program.
“It’s such a stupid argument, because the last thing the Europeans are going to do is try to look weak,” said Pregent. “The last thing you want to do is give the United States in an argument that Iran is what we said they were. Now they’re saying we’re going to move towards a weaponized nuclear program that we denied we ever had. So it’s pathetic in a way.”
If Pregent is right in his assessment, and the EU does not rush to save the Iranian economy, that means that in 60 days we will see the end of the agreement as we know it. It is hard to predict what the future will look like, but it is clear that the Trump administration will not hesitate to confront the Iranians both with new sanctions and in the diplomatic arena. Whether it will push the Iranians back to the negotiating table or not, is yet to be seen.
But there is one expert who says that a war might be more likely than the others think.
Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said that with no agreement or negotiations, a military confrontation is more likely.
“If the JCPOA collapsed, you could have new negotiations, and try to get a better deal,” he said. “But there’s no evidence that Trump really has a concept of what that deal looks like.”
“If it’s Pompeo’s 12 points, it’s essentially regime change,” Shapiro continued. “If it’s just a longer version of the JCPOA that includes missiles, it seems unlikely that they will be able to reach that kind of agreement when the Iranians think they can get maybe a better deal and wait for another administration in a year and a half.”
Shapiro, a distinguished visiting fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank, said that another reason to force Iran out of the deal is to create a justification for a military strike, but then added: “That also isn’t something Trump has shown any appetite for. Some of his advisers may have, but he himself has been very critical of the Iraq war; tries to get US troops out of Syria. He doesn’t want to be involved in wars in the Middle East, which he calls, ‘nothing but sand and death.’”
According to the former ambassador, “It brings us closer to a moment when with Iran advancing on its nuclear program again, and without a prospect of a negotiation and with time ticking on Trump’s term in office that there may be no option other than a military option to slow them down,” he said. “And at that point it’s not at all unlikely that rather than do it himself, Trump would say to Netanyahu, ‘You have a green light.’ No Israeli prime minister has ever been faced with an American president saying, ‘feel free to attack Iran and good luck.’ That’s a decision no Israeli prime minister ever had to make. But it’s one that this current scenario brings us closer to every single day.”
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive of FDD, a Washington-based nonpartisan policy institute. He told the Post that it is not likely that the Europeans will help the Iranians to save their economy.
“European companies and banks are not going to do this, regardless of what European diplomats say,” Dubowitz said. “Ultimately, most banks and companies are going to vote with their feet. The US market is a $20 trillion market. The Iranian market is $400 billion market. They want to use US dollars, not the Iranian rial. [The companies] will leave Iran, or certainly not going back into Iran.”
Dubowitz also thinks that the Iranians are starting to realize they could not wait for Trump to leave office and are likely to search a path for negotiation.
“They were told by the Europeans and by Secretary [John] Kerry for the past two years, they just need to wait Trump out, that he will be a one-term president, that a Democrat will come back to the White House in January of 2021 and take America back to the Iran deal, that there would be sanctions relief,” explained Dubowitz. “But I think it’s dawning on the Iranians, that first of all, Trump might be reelected. And second of all, they may not even make it to January 2021 without a severe balance of payments crisis.”
“They’re running out of foreign exchange reserves,” he continued. “The currency is collapsing, there’s severe recession. Inflation is skyrocketing. So maybe the Europeans can convince them to come back to the table and we’ll see negotiation.”

 

Iran’s dilemma 

May 13, 2019

Source: Iran’s dilemma – www.israelhayom.com

In Tehran, regime officials are worried that the pressure applied by the U.S. administration is meant to expedite regime change, not just curb Iran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions in the region.

Tehran announced that if Europe fails to act to temper the economic fallout from American sanctions, it will gradually withdraw from the nuclear deal. Its leaders, meanwhile, are threatening to target the U.S. and its allies. In response, the Europeans have stressed that despite their commitment to the nuclear deal, if Iran stops fulfilling its obligations they will have to renew sanctions. Russia and China are standing with Iran, as expected, while inside Iran tensions continue to foment over the country’s economic distress. Western nuclear experts are still publishing analyses of Iran’s nuclear archives. These reports highlight the progress Iran’s military nuclear program has made since 2003, and illustrate the degree to which the International Atomic Energy Agency was irresponsible in regard to the nuclear deal. (The agency itself continues to remain silent in the face of these reports.)

The Iranian regime’s ultimate objective is to ensure its own survival, and saving the nuclear deal gives it the ability to manufacture unhindered a large nuclear arsenal within 11 years. In Tehran, officials are worried that the pressure applied by the U.S. administration is meant to expedite regime change, not just curb Iran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions in the region.

Iranian leaders are presently at odds over the best way to contend with the American pressure. They could introduce austerity measures and also wage “economic jihad” (in the words of the Iranians) by attempting to extort from Europe, through threats, compensation for the financial losses they are expected to incur as a result of the sanctions. They are also seeking to deter the U.S. by threatening them and their allies with the use of military force, under the assumption that President Donald Trump and segments of his administration don’t want an escalation. It’s still unclear whether Iran’s most recent declarations reflect a concrete decision in this regard; it’s possible these threats toward the West are merely a trial balloon, and that the Iranians believe they can avoid having to back them up. These threats put the regime on a course that will only exacerbate its anguish: Europe will be compelled to move toward shedding the nuclear deal and there will be a greater probability of an escalation.

In all likelihood, the Iranians would rather wait until the next U.S. presidential election before making their decision, in the hope that Trump is replaced by a Democratic candidate who will restore the nuclear deal. However, it appears Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believes an immediate response to the sanctions is needed to maintain the regime’s reputation as all-powerful in the eyes of Iranians; and that the country’s dire economic situation can threaten the regime’s stability. Still, it’s more reasonable to assume that Tehran, at this stage, will seek to avoid a direct military clash with the United States by recognizing the limits of its own might and vulnerability in the face of American military capabilities.

It seems these insights are at the core of current U.S. policy. The Americans want to knock the Iranians off balance and force them to make a move before the next U.S. election. The Iranian regime’s dilemma: Adhere to the nuclear deal or trash it outright and jeopardize its survival, or succumb to the pressure and agree to renegotiate the deal. At this stage, the regime is rejecting the possibility of surrender, although their failure to boost the economy, together with festering popular unrest, could ultimately induce it to choose this course.

Israel needs to support the U.S. in its efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It must be prepared for the possibility that an escalation in the Persian Gulf will lead to a clash with Iran’s regional proxies, chief among them Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

 

US-Iran conflict could break out ‘by accident,’ Britain warns

May 13, 2019

Source: US-Iran conflict could break out ‘by accident,’ Britain warns – www.israelhayom.com

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says “unintended” escalation could snowball after U.S. announces deployment of aircraft carrier to Persian Gulf.

The warning came after the United States announced the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf to counter an alleged but still-unspecified threat from Iran, the latest in a long line of such deployments to the strategic region.

“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side but ends with some kind of conflict,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters in Brussels.

“What we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking,” Hunt said. He added that he would “be sharing those concerns” Monday with European partners and visiting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The United States pulled out of the 2015 nuclear accord a year ago, saying it does nothing to stop Iran developing missiles or destabilizing the Middle East. The Europeans insist the agreement was never meant to address those issues but has been effective in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Tensions mounted last week when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that signatories to the deal now have 60 days to come up with a plan to shield his country from the sanctions imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Hunt said that “if Iran becomes a nuclear power its neighbors are likely to want to become nuclear powers. This is already the most unstable region in the world. This would be a massive step in the wrong direction.”

The meeting between Hunt, his counterparts from France and Germany, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini comes as the Europeans struggle to keep financial supply lines open to Iran to offset the impact of U.S. sanctions on the Islamic republic’s shattered economy.

“We in Europe agree that this treaty is necessary for our security,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. “Nobody wants Iran to get possession of an atomic bomb and that’s been achieved so far.”

Mogherini said the talks will focus on “how to continue to best support the full implementation of the nuclear deal.”

As the U.S. sanctions bite, domestic pressure is increasing on Rouhani to demonstrate that Iran can still benefit from an agreement based on providing it with economic opportunities in exchange for limiting nuclear development.

Maas said the Europeans “are working on the assumption that Iran won’t withdraw step by step from this treaty, but rather meet all of its commitments.”

Even so, the EU cannot keep Iran’s economy afloat alone.

The Europeans have set up a complicated barter-type system to skirt direct financial transactions with Iran and so evade possible U.S. sanctions. The workaround, dubbed INSTEX, is not yet operational as Iran has not completed its part of the scheme.

They have also introduced a “blocking statute” protecting European companies from the effects of U.S. sanctions, but many international corporations do more business in the United States than in Iran and have already severed ties there rather than risk running afoul of Washington.

“We have already initiated concrete steps in recent months, especially as concerns the payment channel and INSTEX. Now, this instrument needs to be further operationalized and used in order to continue implementing” the nuclear agreement, Maas said.

 

Arab League condemns attacks on Saudi tankers 

May 13, 2019

Source: Arab League condemns attacks on Saudi tankers – www.israelhayom.com

After Saudi Arabia announces “significant damage” to two of its oil tankers off the coast of the UAE, the U.S. issues a new warning to sailors and Iran calls for “further clarification” of the incident.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia revealed that two of its oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in attacks that caused “significant damage” to the vessels, one of them as it was en route to pick up Saudi oil to transport to the United States.

Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said in a statement on Monday that these acts are a “serious violation of the freedom and integrity of trade and maritime transport routes.”

He says the Arab League stands by the UAE and Saudi Arabia “in all measures taken to safeguard their security and interests.”

The announcement by Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih came as the U.S. issued a new warning to sailors and the UAE’s regional allies condemned the reported sabotage on Sunday of four ships off the coast of the port city of Fujairah.

The statement came just hours after Iranian and Lebanese media outlets aired false reports of explosions at the city’s port. Emirati officials have declined to elaborate on the nature of the sabotage or say who might have been responsible.

The U.S. has warned ships that “Iran or its proxies” could be targeting maritime traffic in the region. The U.S. is deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged threats from Tehran.

Shortly after the Saudi announcement, Iran’s Foreign Ministry called for further clarification as to what exactly happened with the Saudi tankers. The ministry’s spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency as saying that there should be more information about the incident.

Mousavi also warned against any “conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers” and “adventurism by foreigners” that would seek to undermine the maritime region’s stability and security.

Tensions have risen in the year since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, restoring American sanctions that have pushed Iran’s economy into crisis. Last week, Iran warned that it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in 60 days if world powers failed to negotiate new terms for the deal.

In his statement, al-Falih said the attacks on the two tankers happened at 6 a.m. Sunday.

“One of the two vessels was on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude oil from the port of Ras Tanura, to be delivered to Saudi Aramco’s customers in the United States,” al-Falih said. “Fortunately, the attack didn’t lead to any casualties or an oil spill; however, it caused significant damage to the structures of the two vessels.”

Saudi Arabia did not identify the vessels involved, nor did it say whom it suspected of carrying out the alleged sabotage.

A statement on Sunday from the UAE’s Foreign Ministry put the ships near the country’s territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, east of the port of Fujairah. It said it was investigating “in cooperation with local and international bodies.” It said there were “no injuries or fatalities on board the vessels” and “no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel.”

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which oversees the region, did not immediately offer comment. Emirati officials declined to answer questions from the Associated Press, saying their investigation is ongoing.

Fujairah’s port is about 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil at sea is traded. The facility handles oil for bunkering and shipping, as well as general and bulk cargo. It is seen as strategically located, serving shipping routes in the Persian Gulf, the Indian subcontinent and Africa.

 

Pompeo skips Moscow to meet with European officials on Iran 

May 13, 2019

Source: Pompeo skips Moscow to meet with European officials on Iran – www.israelhayom.com

Decision comes a day after Saudi tankers were sabotaged near the Strait of Hormuz and a week after the secretary of state changed his travel schedule at the last minute due to intelligence suggesting Iran or its proxies were planning an attack against American targets in the Middle East. 

A State Department official said Pompeo, who departed Sunday night, was still expected to meet Tuesday in Sochi with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the itinerary by name and requested anonymity.

The visit to Sochi will be Pompeo’s first to Russia as secretary of state.

Twice last week Pompeo changed his travel schedule at the last minute after U.S. officials picked up intelligence suggesting Iran or its proxies were planning an attack against American targets in the Middle East.

In the wake of that development, Pompeo flew to Iraq to meet with U.S. troops and President Donald Trump warned Iran that he was sending more troops to the region, including an aircraft carrier.

 

UAE reports rare ‘acts of sabotage’ against 4 boats off its coast

May 13, 2019

Source: UAE reports rare ‘acts of sabotage’ against 4 boats off its coast | The Times of Israel

Dubai doesn’t assign blame and says there are no injuries, denies report that incident included explosion; tensions in region elevated amid latest US-Iran spat

Illustrative: Fishermen in waters off Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, near the Strait of Hormuz, on May 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

Illustrative: Fishermen in waters off Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, near the Strait of Hormuz, on May 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

DUBAI — The United Arab Emirates said Sunday that four of its commercial ships “were subjected to sabotage operations,” after false reports circulated in Lebanese and Iranian media outlets saying there had been explosions at one of the nation’s seaports.

The statement carried by the state-run WAM news agency did not say who the UAE suspected of carrying out the sabotage in Gulf waters off its coast, or identify the ships involved.

The statement said there had been “no injuries or fatalities on board the vessels,” and “no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel.”

Earlier Sunday, pro-Iran Lebanese media and Iranian media falsely reported that there had been explosions at oil tankers at the port of Fujairah. The Associated Press found the reports to be unfounded, after speaking to Emirati officials and local witnesses.

Tensions in the region were climbing over the weekend, which began with the US announcing on Friday that it would move a Patriot missile battery to the Middle East to counter threats from Iran.

Illustrative: Iranian Navy exercise in 2011. (CC BY, Mohammad Sadegh Heydari, Wikimedia Commons)

The Pentagon provided no details, but a defense official said the move came after intelligence showed that the Iranians have loaded military equipment and missiles onto small boats. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the information publicly, spoke anonymously.

It was not clear whether the boats with missiles represented a new military capability that could be used against US forces, or were only being moved to shore locations.

The US removed Patriot missile batteries from Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan late last year. It was not clear if the batteries would be returned to those countries. The Patriot air defense system is meant to intercept both incoming aircraft and long-range ballistic missiles.

Also on Friday, the US Maritime Administration warned that Iran could try to attack American commercial vessels, including oil tankers, Reuters reported.

US officials announced Sunday that they would rush an aircraft carrier strike group and nuclear-capable bombers to the region.

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump said he sought talks with Iran.

“What I would like to see with Iran, I would like to see them call me,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We don’t want them to have nuclear weapons — not much to ask.”

The USS Abraham Lincoln sails south in the Suez Canal near Ismailia, on May 9, 2019. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

“We have information that you don’t want to know about,” Trump said. “They were very threatening and we have to have great security for this country and many other places.”

Asked about the possibility of military conflict with Iran, the president said: “I guess you could say that always, right? I don’t want to say no, but hopefully that won’t happen. We have one of the most powerful ships in the world that is loaded up and we don’t want to do anything.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday threatened a “swift and decisive” US response to any attack by Iran.

Iran last Wednesday said it would suspend some commitments under a 2015 nuclear accord rejected by Trump, frustrated that renewed US sanctions have prevented the country from enjoying the economic fruits of compliance with the deal.

The moves by the US have frightened some European allies, as well as Trump’s Democratic rivals, who fear the administration is pushing for war, based on overhyped intelligence.

TOI staff and Agencies contributed to this report