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What The U.S. Military Knows About The Attacks On Oil Tankers In The Gulf Of Oman


These two tankers that were attacked yesterday in the Gulf of Oman weren't the only ones. Four other ships were attacked in the region in just the last month. The U.S. Navy watches the sea lanes there closely. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been reporting on what the military knows. He joins us now. And Tom, let's just talk about what you've learned so far starting with where those two tankers are now.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, I'm told one of the ships, the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, is being towed by tugs. The fire is out on the vessel. Crew's back on board, and the destroyer USS Bainbridge is on overwatch. This second vessel, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair - tug operators are saying they've been told by Iranian fast boat operators not to move the ship according to U.S. military officials, and they say that's what the tug operators are telling their company officials in Oman.

CORNISH: What more is the U.S. saying about what happened?

BOWMAN: Well, U.S. military personnel are now inspecting this ship, the Courageous, and saying it appears an explosive device left a hole that folds in, meaning it was not an internal but rather an external explosion. They also say they're pulling off what appears to be a mine or two and seeing scorchers on the ship. We could see pictures of that.

And of course as we just learned, the president is saying Iran did it. The Pentagon released this video they say is an Iranian ship taking a limpet mine off one of the tankers. Iran denies any involvement. The foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, said the U.S. has immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran without a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence.

CORNISH: In the meantime, are there plans to send any more U.S. ships to the area?

BOWMAN: Well, the Bainbridge is there, of course. And another destroyer, the USS Mason, which was off Karachi, Pakistan, is now off Oman. I'm told it's possible you could see other ships and aircraft heading there in the coming days. That's something that the top military officer for the region, General Frank McKenzie, was asking about even before these explosions.

CORNISH: Tom, I want to step back and look at some of the history here because some people may remember the so-called tanker wars of the 1980s. And at that time, as Iran and Iraq fought, they attacked ships, so then the U.S. began escorting some ships through those waters. Is that something we could see again?

BOWMAN: You know, we could see that again. And of course, Audie, during the tanker war, it got very complicated very quickly. The U.S. ended up firing on Iranian ships and shot down an Iranian airliner. And four years ago, there was a week-long escort effort after Iranian fast boats grabbed the crew of the container ship and brought them off Iran.

Now, this effort, I'm told, is - requires a good number of ships. And I was just talking with Ash Carter, the former defense secretary just yesterday. And he said, you know, it requires a lot of planning. And it's not something you do lightly.

CORNISH: Tom, before I let you go, do you get any sense that the Pentagon feels like they're on the defensive here in terms of explaining themselves?

BOWMAN: No, they think the evidence is pretty clear. But again, there's skepticism, as we heard in Europe. There's skepticism obviously from Iran. And they may offer Congress a little more detailed information maybe that they can't publicly release. And I'm thinking about, you know, radio intercepts from this ship maybe back to Iran if that's the case, if it was Iranian. And also, you can track these ships, of course. Did this ship come from an Iranian port? So there's a lot more they could provide, and I'm sure they have it.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.