DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United States and the United Kingdom joined Israel on Sunday in alleging that Iran carried out a deadly drone strike on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman in the Sea of Oman, putting additional pressure on Tehran as it denied taking part in the aggression.
Calling it an “unlawful and ruthless attack”, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country and its allies were planning a coordinated response to Thursday night’s strike on the Mercer Street tanker. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken quickly followed suit, saying there was “no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behavior”.
The strike on Mercer Street marked the first known fatal attack after years of assaults on commercial shipping in the region linked to tensions with Iran over its tattered nuclear deal.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran and its allied militias have previously used so-called “suicide drones” in attacks, which crash into targets and detonate their explosive payloads. However, Israel, the UK and the responding US Navy have yet to show physical evidence of the strike or provide information on why they blame Tehran.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett went further than Blinken and Raab in his remarks Sunday at a Cabinet meeting, making it a point to look directly at the camera and slowly warn: “We know, in any case, how to deliver the message to Iran in our own way.”
The drone attack ripped a hole in the top of the tanker’s deck, where the captain and crew command the vessel, a US official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as an investigation into the attack was still ongoing. The explosion killed two crew members from the United Kingdom and Romania.
The Navy said the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher escorted Mercer Street as she headed for safe harbor. On Sunday, satellite tracking information from MarineTraffic.com showed the tanker had come to rest off Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.
In his statement, Raab said it was “highly likely” that Iran attacked the tanker with one or more drones.
“We believe this attack was deliberate, targeted and a gross violation of international law by Iran,” he said. “Iran must end these attacks and the ships must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law.”
Blinken also described the United States as “confident” that Iran carried out the attack, using several drones.
“These actions threaten the freedom of navigation on this crucial waterway, international shipping and trade, and the lives of those on board the vessels involved,” he said in a statement.
Earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh called the allegation that Iran carried out the attack “baseless”.
“This is not the first time that the Zionist regime occupying Jerusalem has made such hollow accusations against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Khatibzadeh said. “Wherever this regime has gone, it has brought with it instability, terror and violence.”
He added, “He who sows the wind will reap the storm. »
Khatibzadeh spoke about an hour after Iran’s incumbent president admitted his government ‘sometimes didn’t tell part of the truth’ to the public during his tenure.
From Jerusalem, Bennett offered his condolences to the United Kingdom and Romania for the murder of their citizens. He said Israeli intelligence had evidence linking Iran to the attack, but did not provide it.
“Iran is the one who carried out the attack on the ship,” he said. “Iran’s aggressive behavior is dangerous not only to Israel, but harms global interests of freedom of navigation and international trade.”
Other vessels linked to Israel have also been targeted in recent months as part of a shadow war between the two nations, with Israeli officials accusing the Islamic Republic of being responsible for the attacks. Shipping in the region began to be targeted in the summer of 2019, about a year after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. .
Meanwhile, Israel has been suspected of carrying out a series of major attacks in Iran and against Iranian shipping. Moreover, Iran recently saw its largest warship sink under mysterious circumstances. in the nearby Gulf of Oman.
Mercer Street, owned by Japanese firm Taihei Kaiun Co., is run by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. In early July, the Liberian-flagged container ship CSAV Tyndall, once moored at Zodiac Maritime, suffered an unexplained explosion on board while in the northern Indian Ocean, according to the US Maritime Administration.
The attack marks the first major confrontation with Iran for Bennett, who took over as prime minister in June after a coalition deal toppled longtime Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is believed to have launched a series of attacks targeting Iran, including explosions at the country’s main enrichment site and the murder of a prominent military nuclear scientist.
However, Bennett has also made hawkish comments in the past about the need to attack “the head of the octopus” in Tehran, as opposed to Iranian regional militias like Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Mercer Street attack marks the first of his term as prime minister and analysts suggest he may be looking for a major retaliatory attack.
“Israel may wish to strike a resounding blow; this is the spirit of comments from political sources in Jerusalem,” wrote Amos Harel, a longtime military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “This move will aim to end things without a tit for tat that could escalate. But as usual, events also depend on the other side.
Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Ilan Ben Zion and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.