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Saudi crown prince accuses rival Iran of tanker attacks

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in remarks published Sunday that the kingdom will not hesitate to confront threats to its security and joined the U.S. in accusing its bitter rival Iran of being behind the attacks on two vessels traveling near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital trade route for Arabian energy exports in Asia.

The U.S. has blamed Iran for the suspected attacks on two oil tankers, denouncing what it called a campaign of “escalating tensions.” The U.S. alleges Iran used limpet mines to target the tankers, pointing to black-and-white footage it captured that American officials describe as Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops removing an unexploded mine from the Japanese-operated tanker Kokuka Courageous.

The Japanese tanker’s crewmembers described “flying objects” as having targeted the vessel, seemingly contradicting the assertion that limpet mines were used.

In an interview with the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Prince Mohammed said Iran disrespected the visit to Tehran by the Japanese prime minister last week and responded to his diplomatic efforts to reduce regional tensions by attacking the two tankers.

The crown prince, however, offered no evidence to back up his allegation.

“The problem is in Tehran and not anywhere else,” Prince Mohammed said. “Iran is always the party that’s escalating in the region, carrying out terrorist attacks and criminal attacks either directly or through its militias.”

Iran rejects accusations it was responsible for Thursday’s attacks, saying it stands ready to play an active and constructive role in ensuring the security of maritime passages. It said the massive U.S. military presence in the region and U.S. sanctions are the main sources of insecurity and instability in the Persian Gulf.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the region in what the military says is defensive posturing aimed at Iranian deterrence.

Tensions have escalated since the Trump administration re-imposed punishing economic sanctions on Tehran and its oil exports after unilaterally pulling the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, which America’s European allies are struggling to salvage.

Similar to the recent attacks, four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were apparently targeted in acts of sabotage, which U.S. officials have blamed on Iran. Two of those vessels belonged to Saudi Arabia. Days later, Iranian-allied Yemeni rebels claimed they were behind a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline.

In his first public comments since the start of these incidents, the powerful Saudi prince, who is also defense minister and oversees all major levers of power in the country, said the attacks “confirm the importance of our demands of the international community to take a decisive stance” against Iran’s behavior.

“The kingdom does not seek war in the region, but we will not hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, sovereignty and vital interests,” he said.

He also touted U.S.-Saudi relations as “essential to achieving regional security and stability.”

Last month, an English-language Saudi newspaper close to the palace had called for the U.S. to launch “surgical” strikes against Iran in retaliation for the earlier vessel and pipeline attacks.

Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of arming Yemeni rebels known as Houthis, who claimed responsibility for the pipeline attack and a subsequent missile strike on a Saudi airport that wounded 26 passengers. Saudi Arabia has been at war against the Houthis in Yemen since early 2015.

“The choice before Iran is clear. Do you want to be a normal state with a constructive role in the international community or do you want to be a rogue state?” the crown prince was quoted as saying.

His comments mirrored those made by his father, King Salman, at emergency summits held in Mecca last month that drew heads of state from Arab and Muslim countries to address the sharp rise in tensions with Iran.

Thursday’s apparent attacks in the Strait of Hormuz forced the evacuation of all 44 sailors aboard the two vessels. On Saturday, Associated Press journalists saw the crew members of the Norwegian-owned oil tanker MT Front Altair arrive at Dubai International Airport, after spending two days in Iran.

The Front Altair, which caught fire after the apparent attack, limped into anchorage Sunday off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates, near the port city of Khorfakkan.

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