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The US blamed Iran for the tanker attacks. Here’s what the Navy could do next

The war of words between the U.S. and Iran took a dangerous turn after two ships were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. One of the tankers was operated by a Japanese company.

It was hit as Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rhouhani.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put the blame for the attack squarely on Iran Thursday. “It was not an accident that the Japanese tanker was attacked” said Alireza Nader, who heads the New Iran Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank. He said “this was a very blunt warning. Iran is saying to the world we are able to disrupt the world’s oil markets and we’re going to do it.”

But not everyone is convinced. “You have to fully understand what happened before you start shooting” said Mark Cancian, a defense expert with Center for Strategic and International Studies and a long time colonel in the Marines with decades of operational knowledge of naval combat.

Cancian said, “The Department of Defense will be reluctant to retaliate until they are certain what happened and who fired on whom, and why.”

The U.S. has been beefing up naval and air power, capable of striking Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf over the last month after the White House said it had information about possible future attacks against American interests. The Pentagon would not say Thursday whether there were plans to speed the build-up.

File photo of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, which is currently enroute to Persian Gulf.

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Billy Ho | Flickr

Nader and Cancian both believe it’s possible Iranian trained and funded Houthi rebels, who are mired in a civil war in Yemen, may be to blame. If that’s the case, “the U.S. will not want to get involved in a shooting war over Yemen” according to Cancian.

It will likely take days, weeks or even months for the military to go through the forensics needed to find out exactly who is behind the attack. But if it is determined to be Iran, Cancian believes the U.S. forces in the area will make quick work of Iran’s navy. “The U.S. has assets designed to take on Russia and China. Iran’s ships are very exposed. I’d expect the U.S. would be able to sink Iran’s navy in about two days.”

There are, however, problems for military planners. Iran has invested heavily in a fleet of small speed boats that are capable of overwhelming bigger U.S. ships. Military planners call this a “first minute threat.”

“Once the shooting starts,” said Cancian, “those smaller boats will be the first target of the U.S. Navy.”

Iran, according to Nader, is under increasing pressure due to a new wave of American sanctions. “The regime is desperate because the economy is being choked off,” said Nader.

He added, “Khamenei and Iranian officials did not realize how hard sanctions would hurt oil, petrochemicals, steel and minerals, the core of Iran’s economy.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during his meeting with students in Tehran, Iran on October 18, 2017.

Iranian Leader’s Press Office – Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

This is the second time in a month Iran is being blamed for attacking international shipping. Last month, four ships were victims of limpet mines off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Limpet mines are magnetic and are often attached to a ship by an underwater attack team.

While it’s too early to tell, there is speculation similar mines may have been used in this latest attack, after being attached to the tankers while docked.

Fire and smoke billow from the Norwegian owned Front Altair tanker, which was said to have been attacked in the Gulf of Oman.

ISNA | AFP | Getty Images