Israel Accuses Iran of Attacking Tanker; Tehran Denies

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U.S. Navy, sailors assigned to an explosive ordnance unit board an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter on the flight deck of aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to head to an oil tanker that was attacked off the coast of Oman,  July 2021.
U.S. Navy, sailors assigned to an explosive ordnance unit board an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter on the flight deck of aircraft carrier, July 2021.Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Quinton A. Lee/U.S. Navy, via AP

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett blamed Iran for last week's attack on an Israeli-operated petroleum product tanker off the coast of Oman that resulted in the death of two crew members.

The Mercer Street is operated by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. The firm said the attack killed two crew members, one from the United Kingdom and the other from Romania. It did not name them, nor did it describe what happened in the assault. It said it believed no other crew members on board were harmed. 

>> UPDATE: U.S., U.K. join Israel in accusing Iran of attack on ship off Oman

Earlier, Iran denied any involvement in the incident. "The Zionist regime (Israel) has created insecurity terror and violence ... these accusations about Iran's involvement are condemned by Tehran," Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference. "Such accusations are meant by Israel to divert attention from facts and are baseless," he said.

"I just heard that Iran, in a cowardly manner, is trying to dodge its responsibility for the incident," Bennet said at the start of a government meeting on Sunday. "So I declare unequivocally: Iran is the one that carried out the attack on the ship."

Bennett added that intelligence supports his claims, and that he expects the international community "to clarify to the Iranian regime that they have made a big mistake."

"We, in any case, have our own way to relay the message to Iran," he said. 

On Saturday, Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken over their reply to the alleged Iranian drone attack on the Japanese-owned Mercer Street in which a Briton and a Romanian were killed.   

Lapid and Blinken discussed a joint response to the drone attack, as well as formulating broader international action.

M/T Mercer Street ship near Cape Town, South Africa in 2016.Credit: Johan Victor

"Secretary Blinken and FM Lapid discussed the attack on the Mercer Street, a commercial ship which was peacefully transiting through the north Arabian Sea," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

Earlier on Saturday, the U.S. Navy assisted the tanker. The military added that he ship was most likely hit by a drone strike.

"U.S. Navy explosives experts are aboard to ensure there is no additional danger to the crew, and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack," said the U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia.

There were varying explanations for what happened to the tanker. Zodiac Maritime described the incident as "suspected piracy" and a source at the Oman Maritime Security Center as an accident that occurred outside Omani territorial waters.

Israeli, U.S. and European sources meanwhile pointed the finger at Iran over the attack on the Japanese-owned ship, operated by a company run by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer, off the coast of Oman. A U.S. defense official said the attack appeared to have been carried out by a drone, but stressed that U.S. and European governments were seeking conclusive evidence.

According to one Iranian source speaking to Al-Alam News Network, an Iranian Arabic-language news channel, the attack was indeed carried out by Iran, and was a response to Israel's strike on an airport in the Quseir region of Syria last week.  

In recent maritime confrontations between Iran and Israel, this marks the first time that an attack on a vessel linked to Israel has resulted in casualties. 

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