Israel’s prime minister has directly blamed Iran for a drone attack on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman that killed two people, making a veiled threat to retaliate when Tehran denied involvement in the assault.
The comments by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh come after Thursday night’s attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker. The attack marked the first known fatal attack after years of assaults on commercial shipping in the region linked to tensions with Iran over its ruined nuclear deal.
While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran and its allied militiamen have used so-called “suicide” drones in attacks in the past.
“The Iranians who attacked Mercer Street with drones were intent on damaging an Israeli target,” Bennett said at the start of Israel’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “Instead, his act of piracy resulted in the death of a British citizen and a Romanian citizen.”
He warned: “We know, in any case, how to get the message across to Iran in our own way.”
On Sunday, Khatibzadeh described the accusation that Iran carried out the attack as “unfounded” during his last press conference as a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.
“This is not the first time that the Zionist regime occupying Jerusalem has made such empty accusations against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Khatibzadeh said. “Wherever this regime has gone, it has taken with it instability, terror and violence.”
He added: “He who sows the wind will reap the whirlwind.”
Khatibzadeh spoke about an hour after Iran’s outgoing president acknowledged that his government sometimes “did not tell part of the truth” to the public during his tenure.
The US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher escorted Mercer Street as it headed to a safe harbor, the Middle East-based US Navy Fifth Fleet said in a statement Saturday. He said Navy explosives experts believe a drone attacked the ship.
The drone strike opened a hole in the top of the tanker’s bridge, where the captain and crew command the vessel, a US official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as the investigation into the attack was still ongoing.
Mercer Street is run by London-based Zodiac Maritime, which is part of the Zodiac group of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer. The firm said the attack killed two crew members, one from the UK and the other from Romania. He did not name them or describe what happened in the assault. He said he believed no other crew member on board was injured.
British maritime security firm Ambrey said the attack on Mercer Street had killed one of its team members aboard the ship.
From Jerusalem, Bennett offered his condolences to both the UK and Romania for the murder of their citizens. He said Israeli intelligence had evidence linking Iran to the attack, but did not offer it.
We are deeply concerned about today’s incident off the coast of Oman. Our thoughts are with the loved ones of the British and Romanian citizens who died in the incident. Ships must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law.
– Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (@FCDOGovUK) July 30, 2021
“Iran is the one who carried out the attack on the ship,” he said. “Iran’s aggressive behavior is dangerous not only for Israel, but it damages global interests in freedom of navigation and international trade.”
Bennett took over as prime minister in June after a coalition agreement ousted Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is suspected of launching a series of attacks on Iran, including explosions at the country’s main enrichment site and the assassination of a prominent military nuclear scientist.
However, Bennett has also made aggressive comments in the past about the need to attack “the head of the octopus” in Tehran as opposed to regional Iranian militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. The attack on Mercer Street marks the first during his time as prime minister and analysts suggest he could seek a larger attack in retaliation.
“Israel may want to strike a forceful blow; that’s the spirit of the comments from political sources in Jerusalem, ”wrote Amos Harel, a longtime military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “This coup will aim to end things without an tit for tat it could scale. But, as usual, events also depend on the other side. “