The black and white surveillance video is exceedingly grainy. It shows what U.S. military officials say is an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp patrol boat bobbing alongside the Kokuka Courageous, one of the two tankers damaged by explosions Thursday in the Gulf of Oman that the Trump administration blamed squarely on Iran.
In the 1:39-minute video, released late Thursday by the U.S. Central Command, several crew members aboard the Gashti-class patrol boat appear to be removing an object from the hull of the tanker before the boat then backs up and motors away. The video is far too fuzzy to discern what the object is. But according to the U.S. military officials, the Iranian crew members removed one of their own unexploded limpet mines to hide evidence of their involvement in the explosions. The officials said several Iranian patrol boats had rushed to the Kokuka Courageous to rescue crew members who had abandoned ship in rafts and told the Iranians about the unexploded mine.
The video was released a few hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in a statement: "It is the assessment of the U.S. government that the Islamic Republic of Iran was responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today."
Pompeo said the assessment was based on "the 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 in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication."
But independent intelligence experts say the video provides no proof whatsoever of Iran's alleged responsibility for the attacks, a charge Iran denies. That's not to say Iran did not carry out the attacks, these experts hasten to add, noting that as the Trump administration tightens economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic, Tehran has ample reason to carry out such hard-to-trace terrorism against tankers, if only to raise the price of the dwindling amount of oil Iran is selling these days. But amid the rising tensions in the Middle East, these experts say, there are numerous other players in the region with compelling motivations to carry out such attacks.
"One has to keep asking the question, well, if it isn't Iran, who the hell is it?" Anthony Cordesman, a strategic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Newsweek. "You come up with the possibility that ISIS carried out the attack as trigger to turn two enemies — the United States and Iran — against each other. Or you're watching Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates create an incident that they can then use to increase the pressure on Iran."
Ayham Kamel, the head of Middle East analysis for the Eurasia Group, an international risk analysis consultancy, said recent attacks by Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels on Saudi oil installations are now threatening the kingdom's core security concerns.
"The Saudis are alarmed," Kamel told a conference call Friday. "Their response is going to be to try to pressure the U.S. into action."
Others have pointed to the possibility that Thursday's attacks, as well as the attacks on four tankers in the same waters a month ago, were so-called "false-flag" operations carried out by Israel, another arch foe of Iran, to make Iran appear responsible. And some observers have even suggested the attacks may have been directed by hawkish members of the Trump administration as a pretext to launch military operations against Iran.
"The U.S. track record on ginning up evidence for war is not good," William Church, a former military investigator for the United Nations Security Council. "It lied in the run-up to the Vietnam war [by inventing a North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. Navy ship in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964], and it lied about WMD [weapons of mass destruction] before the Iraq war. So when these tanker attacks happen, we have to ask why and what's the motivation in addition to examining the evidence."
Church pointed to the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last May, its reimposition of economic sanctions on Tehran and Trump's recent denial of sanctions waivers to eight of Iran's biggest oil customers under the president's policy of "maximum pressure," aimed at forcing to negotiate a new nuclear deal under terms more favorable to the United States. Church also noted that Trump's hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, has openly called for regime change in Iran.
With regard to the video, Church said much more needs to be known before any conclusions about Iranian responsibility can be drawn. "The video means nothing," he told Newsweek. "We need to know how it was taken, when was it taken, what was the total sequence. Then you'd have to talk to the people in the video to get their view of what happened. I would check to see if the video was doctored. You would need to do everything that a trained investigator would do."
Church, who also served for many years as a U.S. intelligence officer in the Middle East and East Africa, acknowledges that the Iranians have the Gashti-class patrol boats. But he notes that Iranian Navy, not the Revolutionary Guards, have the closest naval base to the site of the attacks, suggesting a possible discrepancy in the U.S. Central Command's description of the Iranian craft's affiliation. He also points out that the video does not make it clear which of the two stricken tankers is depicted.
In addition, Church said it's not clear whether limpet mines caused the explosions in either tanker. Limpet mines are usually attached by divers to the hulls of ships at the water line. There have been some reports that crew members aboard one of the tankers saw a flying object, possibly a drone, heading toward the ship before the explosion occurred, raising the possibility that a drone delivered the explosives.
"Drones and limpet mines are a dime-a-dozen out there in the Middle East," he said. "Everybody has them. So we need to know a lot more that what the video shows us."
Church also says it's not clear why, in the latest attacks, Iran would target tanks belonging to Norway and Japan, two of Iran's best oil customers. "They've been shipping to these countries for decades," he said. "Why would they do that?" Church says an independent investigation of the attacks is needed to determine responsibility.
Cordesman, who believes the Iranians are probably behind the attacks, says under Iran's increasingly dire economic circumstances, attacking long-standing customers makes perfect sense. "You push your customers into realizing that their supplies are threatened and then have them react against the United States," he said. "So to get that reaction, you provoke it."
But even Cordesman can't say for certain who was behind the attacks.
"The truth of the matter is either you have evidence, or you don't," he said. "Is there hard evidence that Iran is guilty? The answer is no. But is it probable that Iran is guilty? I would say the answer is yes. But those are two very different things."
This story has been updated to clarify statements attributed to William Church.