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Iran 'almost certainly' behind attack on ships off UAE: Bolton

US National Security Adviser blames Iranian naval mines for attack earlier this month during visit to United Arab Emirates
Bolton has advocated regime change in Tehran for years (AFP/File photo)

US National Security Adviser John Bolton has said that attacks on oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this month were the work of "naval mines almost certainly from Iran".

The UAE has not yet blamed anyone for the sabotage of four vessels, including two Saudi tankers, which was followed two days later by drone strikes on oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia.

Bolton told a news conference in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi on Wednesday that the tanker attacks were connected to the strike on the oil pumping stations in the kingdom's East-West pipeline and a rocket attack on the Green Zone in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Riyadh accused Tehran of ordering the drone strikes, which were claimed by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi movement. Iran has denied involvement in either attack.

US experts are part of a five-nation team that is investigating the 12 May attacks that damaged the four vessels in the Sea of Oman off the UAE emirate of Fujairah.

"I think it is clear these [tanker attacks] were naval mines almost certainly from Iran," Bolton said but declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation.

There was no immediate response to his comment by the Iranian authorities, the Reuters news agency said.

Hawkish foreign policy

Bolton arrived in the UAE on Tuesday, as weeks of increased tensions between Washington and Tehran continue.

The senior White House adviser has been decried for his hawkish foreign policy positions and repeated calls for the US to go to war against Iran.

"Looking forward to meeting with our Emirati allies tomorrow to discuss important and timely regional security matters," the US national security adviser wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

Bolton's visit to the UAE has been shrouded in secrecy, with AFP reporting on Monday that it had received an invitation to attend a roundtable with Bolton.

But the invitation did not say when exactly the roundtable would take place, the news agency said, nor did it say what topics would be up for discussion.

Earlier this month, Bolton accused Iran of showing signs of increased aggression against the US, and plotting to attack American and allied forces in the region.

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On 5 May, Bolton said Washington was sending a naval strike group to the Gulf with the aim of sending a "clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime".

The UAE has said it is seeking to "de-escalate" the mounting tensions between US President Donald Trump's administration and Iranian leaders.

"We need to emphasise caution and good judgment. It is easy to throw accusations but it is a difficult situation, there are serious issues and among them is Iranian behaviour," said Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, on 15 May.

'Maximum pressure'

The US's stated policy is to exert "maximum pressure" on Tehran to force the Iranian government to change its regional behaviour and end its nuclear programme.

The recent escalation between the two countries came after the Trump administration reimposed a series of strict economic sanctions on Iran, and a year since the US president pulled out of a 2015 Iranian nuclear accord.

Tehran, in turn, announced this month that it planned to withdraw from some parts of that agreement and urged European countries to protect it against American sanctions.

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This week, the US announced plans to deploy 1,500 troops to the Middle East in response to the ongoing tensions.

The Trump administration also told US lawmakers that the situation constitutes an "emergency" - a designation that allows it to authorise the sale of billions of dollars worth of weapons to the UAE and Saudi Arabia without Congress's oversight.

But Bolton's hardline stance towards Iran is not new.

For years, the senior White House adviser has advocated for regime change in Tehran - and experts say he is behind the ongoing round of tensions.

"He's been an advocate of regime change in Iran for decades, and that's one of his main goals," Peter Bergen, director of the national security studies programme at the New America Foundation, recently told MEE.

In a 2015 New York Times column, Bolton wrote that "the inconvenient truth is that only military action ... can accomplish what is required".

"Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran's opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran," he wrote.

That position runs counter to what Bolton's boss has stated publicly, however, as Trump said on Monday that the US is "not looking for regime change" in Iran.