A dense veil of secrecy continues to cloud the attack of Wednesday, July 28 on the Japanese M.STAR supertanker near the Straits of Hormuz.
At 5:30 a.m., several things happened on the Mitsui O.S.K.-owned tanker as it turned toward Japan, its holds full of 270,000 tons of crude, through the territorial waters of Oman in the strategic straits.
The huge vessel was rocked by a powerful shock. A big fire broke out on its port side and, when the flames licked the top deck, the lifeboats tethered there disintegrated, sending a shower of burning fragments into the sea. The crews’ mess hall was completely destroyed as were some of the sailors’ cabins.
From that moment, the accounts of what had happened aboard the M.STAR became muddled, contradictory and enigmatic. A cover-up had clearly gone into action, managed by US officials and the US Fifth Fleet command in Bahrain, which is responsible for security in a broad region encompassing the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea – up to the fringes of the Indian Ocean.
First, it was claimed that the tanker had been struck by a mammoth freak wave, even though nothing of the kind had been seen by crew members standing on the deck. One or more crewman had in fact noticed a large flash approaching the vessel from the distance.
Next, the Omani coast guard suggested the ship had been roiled by a mild earthquake around Bandar-Abbas on the Iranian shore of the Strait of Hormuz. This notion was seconded by a spokesperson of the Iranian Seismological Institute who cited its magnitude as being precisely 3.4 on the Richter scale – until America’s national seismological institute debunked the theory. The last earthquake in this region had occurred Saturday, July 24, said its spokesman, and there had been no tremors since.
US cover-up disguised ignorance, the Iranian-guilt
But what the Iranian statement revealed was that it had maintained a naval presence in the immediate vicinity of the damaged vessel and kept it under close scrutiny from the moment it was hit until it reached the United Arab Emirates dockyards at Fujairah early Wednesday evening.
Unlike the US and NATO fleets, the Iranians were on hand for manipulating the accounts of the incident, first spreading disinformation about a non-existent earthquake, then describing events aboard the M.STAR which could only have been seen from close up.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and Iranian sources, Tehran issued the vivid account of a concerned onlooker to conceal the fact that an Iranian Revolutionary Guards-IRGC Tarig-type submarine was responsible for the attack on the Japanese tanker and had rammed its portside hull to create the effect of an explosion.
A second Iranian sub, a Yunis, hovering nearby in case of trouble and as mission back-up, fired a dummy missile or shell to engender the flash effect witnessed by the ship’s crew.
Knowledge of this attack was not meant for general consumption. It was designed by Tehran as a warning-off message to Washington against US or NATO fleets venturing to intercept Iranian ships in the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden or Gulf of Oman and search them for goods prohibited by UN sanctions.
Washington warned, Iranian submariners rewarded
Tuesday, August 3, the Commander of the Iranian Army, Maj. Gen. Ataollha Salehi, on a visit to Bandar Abbas, stressed that Iran would not tolerate any inspections of its ships. “There is no difference between Somali pirates and US pirates for Iran,” he said.
He did not reveal that he was at Bandar Abbas, home base of the IRGC’s navy, to shake the hands of the two Iranian submarine crew members who took part in the operation against the Japanese supertanker. They were awarded medals together with a one-thousand dollar handout for each crewman, a gift from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
If this was the first round of an Iranian-US showdown in the Persian Gulf, Tehran came out on top, an outcome which, despite the attempted cover-ups, was not lost on the Persian Gulf Arab emirates which are keeping a worried watch on US military moves.
To deprive Tehran of the last word, the Obama administration, which is up to its ears in the perplexities of Afghanistan and Iraq (see next item), is reported by our sources to have sent unmanned aerial craft to bomb the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr on Sunday, Aug. 1. Tehran will not let anything get in the way of its response.
Drones Crash into Bushehr Reactor, Iranian UAV Program Chief Killed
The Persian Gulf region is awash with wild rumors of a tit-for-tat war of stealth gaining momentum between the US and Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly cites a couple of the tall tales before testing their credibility. For instance, on Aug. 1, an American warship cruising in the Persian Gulf lofted three unmanned aircraft and crashed them deliberately on the dome atop the Iranian nuclear reactor in Bushehr.
The townspeople (app. 250,000) panicked in the belief that an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear installations had begun. They speculated that the US retaliated for a supposed Iranian submarine assault on the Japanese M Star supertanker in the Straits of Hormuz four days earlier, on Wednesday, July 28. If the Iranian sub attack was true, was it Tehran’s reply to statements by US officials, according to which the military option against the Islamic Republic was back on the Pentagon’s table?
This surmise led to the next guess that the Americans drones bombed Bushehr both as a military exercise and as Washington’s answer to the latest round of threats from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other top Iranian officials. They have threatened to bring the United States to its knees if their nuclear sites are attacked, wipe Israel off the map and set the Middle East on fire, especially Tel Aviv.
And where did the reported murder in another part of Iran of Reza Baruni, father of Iran’s military UAV program, fit into the rising climate of confrontation?
The drone attack on Bushehr was real
That same day, close to midnight, three unmanned aerial vehicles did indeed crash into the Bushehr reactor dome leaving at least five staff members confirmed dead. Speculation was rife in the panic-stricken population – that the huge bang was either the opening shot of an American invasion of Iran, or that a series of well-spaced US-Israeli operations was underway for knocking out installations in other parts of the country.
Some locals claimed they had received information about widely-spread attacks on the phone from relatives in Arak, the site of a new heavy water plant in the Markazi province of western Iran, and in Darkovin, the southern Ahwaz province, where secret nuclear facilities are under construction and where the UAV pioneer Buruni had just been killed.
To calm the populace, Bushehr’s city leaders asked Tehran for some straight answers. They elicited a Ministry of Defense communiqué which confirmed that a single drone had indeed crashed into the nuclear reactor dome, but insisted it was launched by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to test the alertness of the air defense personnel guarding it and the effectiveness of its anti-air radar system.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian and intelligence sources, Tehran could not dismiss the incident out of hand after three mighty explosions racked the town. So the deputy district governor for security affairs, Mohammad Hossein Shenidi, who is responsible for safeguarding Bushehr and its reactors against air or missile attacks, pitched in with a minimized version:
A single drone had indeed been fired, he admitted, but it carried no explosives because its only purpose was to simulate a loud bang to check the level of local alertness. DEBKA