Japanese Tanker Owner Denies Ship Hit By Mine, Says Crew Saw "Flying Objects" Before Attack

For a moment on Thursday, it appeared that the US Navy had produced the 'smoking gun' to which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had alluded during his statement from earlier in the day: CENTCOM footage which the Navy said purported to show Iran's IRGC 'caught in the act' of trying to remove an unexploded  mine from the Kokuka Courageous, one of the two tankers damaged in Thursday's attacks.

CENTCOM said the video it released showed the IRGC removing an unexploded limpet mine from the side of one of the tankers, suggesting Tehran had sought to remove evidence from the scene.

After the video's release, Iran continued to deny any involvement in the attacks. And perhaps now we know why.

In comments that cast the entire narrative promulgated by the US in doubt, Yutaka Katada, the president of Kokuka Sangyo, the owner and operator of the Kokuka Courageous, said Friday that he doesn't completely believe Washington's version of events.

Instead, he said the vessel wasn't damaged by a mine, but by some kind of projectile, like, say, a torpedo. He called reports of a mine attack "false." One reason is because a mine doesn't damage a ship above sea level, like what was seen with the Courageous.

"A mine doesn’t damage a ship above sea level," said Yutaka Katada, president of Kokuka Sangyo, the owner and operator of the vessel. "We aren’t sure exactly what hit, but it was something flying towards the ship," he said.

Another is because of a suspicious sighting by some of the crew, according to Bloomberg.

Japan

Yutaka Katada

According to the CEO, sailors on board the Courageous saw "flying objects" just before the ship was hit, suggesting the vessel wasn't damaged by mines, but by objects that could have been fired from a distance.

Katada’s comments contradict Washington's allegations of a mine attack, though the CEO did mention that his crew had spotted an Iranian Navy ship nearby around the time of the attack, though he didn't say whether it was before or after. 

The Courageous was carrying 225,000 tons of methanol from Saudi Arabia to Asia and was flying a Panama flag at the time of the attack. Analysts immediately noted the poor timing for Tehran: The attack occurred just as senior Iranian leaders were meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Courageous suffered two explosions, forcing the crew to evacuate. Fortunately for the company, the ship is unlikely to sink or even lose fuel or goods stored onboard - but it will need to be repaired, Katada said. The US said the ship’s 21-member crew was rescued by a Dutch tug boat and was later taken aboard the USS Bainbridge.

Per CBS News, the US may have wanted to show Iran deploying mines because Iran previously used mines against oil tankers in 1987 and 1988 in the "Tanker War," when the US Navy escorted ships through the region.

In other news, the US Military said the Navy Destroyer USS Mason is en route to the area in the Sea of Oman where the two tankers were attacked. The military added that it has no interest in engaging in new conflict in the Middle East and that it is ready to defend US interests as well as freedom of navigation.

Iran categorically rejected the US unfounded claim regarding tanker attacks, according to Iran's foreign minister and its mission to the UN.

Markets appeared to shrug off the news, but the uncertainty will likely create problems for the US as it tries to justify more strict sanctions, or a beefed up military presence to "escort" tankers. However, this didn't stop President Trump on Friday from once again placing the blame squarely on Iran.

We imagine the US will continue pushing this line, unless more substantial evidence supporting Katada's claims emerges.