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Israel, Iran Trade Accusations Over Attack on Oil Tanker Operated by Israeli Company

The war of words continues between Israel and Iran, days after a deadly attack on a vessel operated by a company partially owned by Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer, off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea.

Tehran on Monday pledged to respond to any “adventurism,” its Foreign Ministry said, after the US and Britain joined Israel in holding the Islamic Republic responsible for the drone strike on the Mercer Street, an allegation that Iran vehemently denies.

The Japanese-owned oil tanker is flagged in Liberia and managed by Israeli-owned, London-based Zodiac Maritime. It was on its way from Tanzania to the United Arab Emirates with no cargo on board when it came under attack on July 29.

Its Romanian captain and a British bodyguard were killed.

“[Iran] will not hesitate to protect its security and national interests and will immediately and decisively respond to any possible adventurism,” ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement.

Israel was quick to point the finger at its archenemy; Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Friday ordered diplomats to push for UN action against “Iranian terrorism.”

Khatibzadeh said Israel “must stop such baseless accusations.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accused Iran of “trying to evade responsibility for the event” in a “cowardly manner.”

“I determine, with absolute certainty, that Iran carried out the attack against the ship,” he said. “The intelligence evidence for this exists and we expect the international community will make it clear to the Iranian regime that they have made a serious mistake.”

Bennett warned Iran that a response is imminent.

“In any case, we know how to send a message to Iran in our own way,” he said.

The US and UK also accused Iran of being behind the attack.

Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of the American Studies Department at the University of Tehran, told The Media Line the attack’s identity was anyone’s guess.

“First of all, it could have been the Yemeni government, or it could have been a false flag operation. I don’t know, but when the Israeli regime attacks Gaza, bombs Syria and supports Arab despots, it’s going to get punished,” Marandi said.

But his countryman Dr. Hamed Mousavi, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, seemed to hint that Iran might be behind the attack.

“It’s an open secret that Iran and Israel have been in a shadow war for a few years now, whether it’s in Syria or the Israelis sabotaging the Iranian nuclear facilities, killing Iranian scientists,” he told The Media Line. “At the same time, there have been attacks on cargo ships on both sides. The Israelis have been doing most of the attacking.

“Of course, with this sort of attack, neither side will take responsibility for them. That’s why it’s called a shadow war,” Mousavi said.

Al-Alam TV, the Iranian government’s Arabic-language television network, quoted unnamed sources as saying the attack on the ship came in response to a suspected, unspecified Israeli attack on Dabaa military airport in central Syria.

Yaakov Lappin, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, told The Media Line that “Israel has an array of intelligence capabilities that it uses to make its assessments on such incidents. The attack on the ship matches a longer pattern of Iran targeting commercial vessels with ties to Israeli businesspeople.”

Lappin cited the drone attack on Saudi Arabia Aramco oil refinery in September 2019, which cut the kingdom’s oil production by about 50%, and the world’s by around 5%.

Yemen’s Houthi group, which is backed by Iran, said it targeted the site with six drones.

“Iran has reportedly stationed suicide drones in Yemen in the possession of its Houthi ally, which also poses a significant threat to international shipping in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea,” said Lappin.

This was the fifth attack against a ship connected to Israel since February, while Iran accuses Israel of carrying out several attacks on its vessels recently.

Iran has also accused Israel of sabotaging its nuclear sites and killing a number of its scientists.

Lappin says a shadow war has been “raging” between the two regional powers for several years, across the Middle East.

“The Israeli defense establishment has been working to disrupt and preemptively strike threatening Iranian activities such as the trafficking of advanced arms to Lebanon and Syria, and Iranian attempts to build a ‘second Hezbollah’ in Syria. The sea shadow war has become one more front in this broader confrontation,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was “confident that Iran conducted this attack” on the Mercer Street, and vowed that an “appropriate response” would be forthcoming.

“There is no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behavior. We are working with our partners to consider our next steps, and consulting with governments inside the region and beyond on an appropriate response, which will be forthcoming,” he said.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “We believe this attack was deliberate, targeted, and a clear violation of international law by Iran. UK assessments have concluded that it is highly likely that Iran attacked the MV Mercer Street in international waters off Oman on 29 July using one or more unmanned aerial vehicles.”

On Monday, Britain summoned the Iranian ambassador over the attack.

Washington’s and London’s harsh criticism of Tehran comes at a critical junction in the attempt to get a nuclear deal done. Talks have been on hold for the past six weeks as Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi prepares to take office on Thursday.

Then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Tehran and world powers are involved in talks in Vienna in an effort to return Washington to the 2015 nuclear deal, lift sanctions and bring Iran back in compliance with nuclear commitments it waived in retaliation for sanctions.

“I think in the next few months it will depend on whether Iran can get a nuclear deal with the Americans. If that happens, I think the shadow war will become calmer. On the other hand, if a nuclear deal is not reached, I think there will be an escalation,” Mousavi said.