American attacks, if they happen, will inflict real damage, Mr Orton said

Neither Washington nor Tehran wants it, but a US attack is "not off the table" following a week of rising tensions over the mining of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. And a leading analyst warned that could lead to a large-scale assault designed to destroy as much of Iran's military capabilities as possible. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited video evidence showing members of Iran's paramilitary Quds force retrieving an undetonated mine from the hull of the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous to eliminate traces of their involvement in the oil tanker attacks.

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It later emerged that a US MQ-9 drone had been tracking Iranian fast boats as they closed in on the tankers. Iranian forces tried to shoot the drone out of the sky but their surface-to-air missile missed.

Last night a US State Department source said President 's aim continues to be to force Tehran into a new "comprehensive deal" in return for lifting crippling sanctions.

However, he added: "We've made it clear that we will defend our forces and interests."

Regional analyst Kyle Orton said targeted strikes were a real possibility, though they would be focused at first on issues such as freedom of navigation, making it easier for the US to find regional allies.

He said: "The administration is determined to avoid conflict. thinks he can make a deal with Iran. He absolutely doesn't want to sink the regime. He doesn't want that headache."

However he added: "The idea of a limited strike in Iran is not completely off the table."

Iran has angered the US by its military involvement in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, and by threatening international waterways.

tankerOil tanker last week after a mine attack in the Gulf (Image: REUTERS)

American attacks, if they happen, will inflict real damage, Mr Orton said.

"For limited strikes to alter Iran's calculations they'd have to be convincing. To put it bluntly, they'd have to kill."

Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security warned that an unintended escalation could follow a limited US military response to one of Iran's so-called "deniable actions" like the tanker attacks.

Mr Goldenberg said: "The US Government communicates that it conducted a one-time strike to 'reestablish deterrence' and that if Iran backs off, it will face no further consequences. Ideally, things end there. But what if Iran doesn't

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