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Israeli Military Points to Iran in Gulf Attack
This picture taken on Feb. 28, 2021 shows a view of the Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai's Mina Rashid (Port Rashid) cruise terminal. (Giuseppe Cacace / AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli Military Points to Iran in Gulf Attack

Top defense officials finger Tehran as investigation begins

The Israeli military’s Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi on Sunday addressed the reported attacks by Iran against an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week, saying, “Iran served us a reminder that it isn’t only a nuclear threat but also spreads terror and carries out terror operations against civilian targets.”

The proximity to Iran leads us … to believe that this was initiated by them

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Saturday offered his own comments, the first official response by Jerusalem to Thursday’s apparent missile strike on the cargo ship.

Gantz said his “initial assessment” was that the explosion, which caused extensive damage to the vessel and forced it to head back to a Dubai port, was the result of Iranian aggression.

“We have to keep investigating. The Iranians are looking to hit Israelis and Israeli infrastructure. The proximity to Iran leads us … to believe that this was initiated by them,” Gantz said.

Late Thursday evening, a series of blasts was heard on board the MV Helios Ray, a cargo ship carrying cars and sailing from Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia to Singapore through the Gulf of Oman. It was later discovered to have sustained four entry and exit holes from two suspected missiles.

No casualties were incurred in the attack.

Though the vessel was flying a Bahamas flag, it belongs to an Israeli company, registered in the Isle of Man and owned by Israeli shipping tycoon Rami Ungar.

Though the vessel was flying a Bahamas flag, it belongs to an Israeli company, registered in the Isle of Man and owned by Israeli shipping tycoon Rami Ungar.

The managers of STAMCO Ship Management, which operates the Helios Ray, told The Media Line that “the case is currently under investigation by the competent authorities in the UAE. We trust that the issues with the vessel are sorted quickly and she will get underway soon.”

Officials in Jerusalem believe Iran-backed forces, and possibly Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps itself, targeted the ship with several ground-to-sea missiles, in an attempt to exact revenge over last year’s assassination of Tehran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, for which Israel has been blamed.

Reports in Israeli news outlets say intelligence officials have already departed for Dubai to oversee the investigation, and that the Defense Ministry’s position in Sunday’s cabinet discussions is to respond swiftly and militarily to the incident, possibly against Iranian targets in the region.

“As far as I am aware, Ungar doesn’t employ Israeli security teams on his ships,” Prof. Shaul Chorev, a retired rear admiral in the Israeli Navy who now heads the University of Haifa’s Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center, told The Media Line.

“In any case, the area where ships are usually more alert and protected by security guards is Bab el Mandeb strait [at the mouth of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean], because it is more prone to piracy. In the Gulf, security is often more relaxed.”

The fact that [the vessel] was hit without causing any casualties and without the perpetrators getting caught shows this was done professionally and cleanly

While Iran has not officially responded to Israel’s accusations, the daily Kayham, considered to be aligned with the Tehran government, claimed the Helios Ray was conducting an “espionage” mission in the Gulf. “The fact that [the vessel] was hit without causing any casualties and without the perpetrators getting caught shows this was done professionally and cleanly,” the paper wrote.

Tehran has blamed Jerusalem for targeting an Iranian oil tanker in the Red Sea in 2019, and the two countries traded blows last year when Iran reportedly launched a cyberattack against Israel’s drinking water facilities, to which Israel responded with a cyber strike of its own on Iran’s central naval base in Bandar Abbas port.

“It’s been a long time; they were looking for a way to retaliate and finally decided on this avenue,” Chorev said of Thursday’s events.

In the spring of 2019, a series of similar incidents in the Persian and Oman gulfs caused heightened tensions between Iran and the United States, culminating in the downing of an American drone near the Strait of Hormuz and an aborted retaliation attack by Washington.

Six tankers were targeted in a span of several weeks by missiles and mines attributed to Iran. An Iranian tanker was then seized by Britain and later released in exchange for the release of a British tanker captured in the Persian Gulf.

Chorev, who in his career commanded Israel’s submarine fleet and Haifa naval base and served as deputy commander of the nation’s navy before advising the Defense Ministry on naval and nuclear affairs, says, “The theaters of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf have over the past few years gone from the periphery to center stage” in terms of global geostrategic affairs.

“The fact that Israel was transferred to CENTCOM at the end of [then-US President Donald] Trump’s term means we should now be cooperating with the 5th Fleet. Israel needs to figure out how to collaborate with them, the way it successfully did with the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean.”

There obviously should be no Israeli ships sailing in the Persian Gulf. For instance, now with the Abraham Accords, there have been talks about an Israeli-Emirati joint venture to transfer oil to Israel. To do that, Jerusalem must address the security aspects, so that events like this latest one won’t be repeated

As for Iran, Chorev believes the two nations will continue to “trade blows.”

“There obviously should be no Israeli ships sailing in the Persian Gulf. For instance, now with the Abraham Accords, there have been talks about an Israeli-Emirati joint venture to transfer oil to Israel,” he notes. “To do that, Jerusalem must address the security aspects, so that events like this latest one won’t be repeated.”

“The other issue with this planned oil project is the potential environmental disaster, which was highlighted by the recent oil spill near Israel’s shores, but that’s a different matter,” Chorev says.

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