President Trump and Iranian leaders traded accusations Friday over who was responsible for fiery explosions that crippled two oil tankers off Iran’s coast, but both sides appeared cautious not to go beyond a war of words, at least for now, to avoid a direct military confrontation.

After blaming Iran hours after what appeared to be coordinated attacks on a Japanese and a Norwegian tanker on Thursday, the Trump administration considered options Friday but showed no immediate sign of responding.

Options include providing armed escorts to vessels navigating vulnerable shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz, reflagging tankers of friendly nations with the U.S. flag to entitle them to U.S. naval protection, and adding more sanctions to what is already a long blacklist.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Pentagon was making plans for possible military action in case of more attacks or efforts to close the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic chokepoint through which much of the world’s oil passes.

After four tankers were damaged by mines off the coast of the United Arab Emirates a month ago, Bolton was adamant in warning that additional violence would be met with sharp U.S. retaliation.

The administration subsequently sent the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and strategic bombers to the region, and an additional 1,500 U.S. troops to help bolster defenses for U.S. facilities and personnel. But Trump pushed back against Pentagon requests for a more robust escalation.

The U.S. case against Iran was not clear-cut on Friday. Some analysts agreed with Iranian officials that Tehran had no incentive to attack a Japanese tanker during Abe’s highly-publicized visit.

“Put simply, it isn’t in Iran’s interest to escalate,” Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank in Washington and New York, said in an interview Friday.

“Why would Iran want a war it is ill-equipped to fight?” he added. “It would be isolated, would turn its new European friends against it, and it would be fighting a militarily superior U.S.”

Esfandiary said the attacks may have been a message from hard-line elements in Iran’s government that they could act against the U.S.-led sanctions campaign and cripple global energy supplies.

But other analysts said Iran’s goal was to create uncertainty and sharply higher prices in oil markets that would encourage Japan and other countries that rely on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf to pressure the Trump administration to ease sanctions.

“They wanted to spook Abe,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, who specializes in Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a national security think tank in Washington. “This is not the last iteration of Iran escalating.”

On Friday, crew members returned to the Kokuka Courageous, which was being towed by a tugboat to a port for repairs. It was shadowed by the Bainbridge, the U.S. destroyer that had participated in the rescue on Thursday, according to a defense official. The ship was moving slowly and was not expected to reach port for several days, the official said.

A fire that raged Thursday aboard the Front Altair had gone out and the ship was listing to one side but not in danger of sinking, the official said. Four tugboats sent by the ship’s owner to tow the vessel were blocked from approaching it by Iranian patrol boats, the official said.

Wilkinson and Cloud reported from Washington and Bulos reported from Beirut. Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer in Washington contributed to this report.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

You Might Like
Learn more about RevenueStripe...