Former CENTCOM Chief On Tanker Attacks

Jun 14, 2019
Originally published on June 14, 2019 12:22 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. says Iran is responsible for an attack on two commercial oil tankers in the Middle East.

Here's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: This assessment is based on 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 operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.

NOEL KING, HOST:

U.S. Central Command released a video last night. They say it shows an Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the two tankers. They say the Iranians were trying to remove the evidence. In an interview on Fox this morning, President Trump said the evidence was unequivocal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, Iran did do it. And you know they did it because you saw the boat. I guess one of the mines didn't explode, and it's probably got, essentially, Iran written all over it. And you saw the boat at night trying to take the mine off and successfully took the mine off the boat.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yep.

TRUMP: And that was exposed. And that was their boat. That was them, and they didn't want the evidence left behind.

MARTIN: Let's bring in Admiral William J. Fallon now. He is a former commander of USCENTCOM in which he oversaw all U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

Admiral, thank you so much for being with us.

WILLIAM J FALLON: My pleasure. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Do you believe this video provides absolute evidence that Iran was behind these attacks?

FALLON: It's very convincing to me. As Secretary Pompeo said, there's quite a bit of circumstantial evidence, but this video pretty much nails it.

MARTIN: How do we know this an Islamic Revolutionary Guard patrol boat?

FALLON: I believe there's little doubt that's what it is. The U.S. vessel in the vicinity, one of our destroyers, saw numerous IRGC boats around each of the tankers that was attacked. I think the only question - I've seen some speculation that this may be some kind of an independent action. I doubt that sincerely. I think this was something that was premeditated. And it's an escalatory step in a road to I'm not sure where but certainly not headed anywhere in the right direction.

MARTIN: I mean, we've seen this happen before now. Four tankers were attacked last month in the same place, in the Gulf of Oman, which is just off the coast of Iran. And the U.S. also blamed those attacks on the Iranian regime.

FALLON: I think that's...

MARTIN: ...What - why is this happening?

FALLON: I believe it's probably Iran trying to strike back. They're under a lot of pressure right now - the sanctions that the U.S. has imposed. There's a longstanding rivalry - and it's being fought actively with proxies in Yemen - that involves both Iran and the KSA, Saudi Arabia. So when this first incident occurred over in Fujairah last month - very interesting, the use of these limpet mines, as they're called. They're attached to the hull of the ship. That's not something that's going to be an everyday item for some kind of a startup organizations. This is somebody that actually is fairly sophisticated. They know what they're doing.

And then this event of yesterday - significant escalation and a rise in sophistication. These ships were both underway. I would expect - I haven't seen definitively, but I expect they came from different ports. And they were hit pretty much at the same time.

And it appears, obviously, with this one case, it was a mine. There's a report from one of the ships that there were actually some kind of projectiles fired at them - whether these were small missiles or guns, to be determined. But that ought to be - we ought to be able to figure this out when they get a look at the ships and see what the damage is and see what the hulls look like.

MARTIN: We should also...

FALLON: But this is - you know, why are they doing this? Probably to try to do something to push back. In the best case, one would hope that maybe this will spur some kind of a negotiation, some kind of discussion. But at any rate, the immediate effect is probably going to be, as we saw yesterday, a jump in oil prices and probably insurance rates and anxiety levels because of the volume of petroleum products that come out of the gulf.

MARTIN: Right...

FALLON: About a third of the world's supply.

MARTIN: So I want to ask you about the public messaging around this standoff. I mean, Iran denies all of it. Iran's U.N. mission released a statement saying, and I'm quoting here, "the U.S. and its regional allies must stop warmongering." The statement also calls the U.S. accusations part of, quote, "another Iranophobic campaign."

Do you think Secretary Pompeo, by going out holding a press conference, publicly accusing Iran - is that the right - is that the right response? Or should this be happening in a more backchannel way?

FALLON: Well, it's been so blatantly obvious, both in the actions that were perpetrated and the fact that the evidence is pretty overwhelming, that I don't think there's much to be gained in this case by just trying to keep it under the table.

And the other reality today is there's so much near-instantaneous coverage by the media. In this case, you had video. I think it is very interesting, though, that both incidents - the one last month and then this one, one of the very first pieces of information that came out - video - came from Iranian sources. So you - another question, you know...

MARTIN: Let me...

FALLON: ...How did this happen? So I think that - to directly answer your question, I don't think there's much to be gained by...

MARTIN: ...Keeping it private, yeah.

FALLON: ...By trying to keep this this quiet.

MARTIN: Yeah.

FALLON: But maybe this will spur some serious discussion.

MARTIN: I do want to ask you, lastly, in just a couple seconds, the U.N. secretary general said he's concerned over a military escalation now. The EU is urging maximum restraint. International allies clearly feel this could be a tipping point. Do you?

FALLON: No, I'm not - I don't think it's a tipping point. But it's dangerous because when you start using things that explode and blow up, there is always the danger of a miscalculation - some kind of a mistake. And, again, when things start flying through the air, it's not good. So this is not a good trend and need to be very, very careful and take some serious action to try to reverse it.

MARTIN: Admiral William Fallon, a former head of USCENTCOM, thank you for your time.

FALLON: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.