Middle East Tensions Rise as Israel Says Iran Attacked Ship

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Middle East Tensions Rise as Israel Says Iran Attacked Ship

Amy Teibel, Verity Ratcliffe and Arsalan ShahlaMon, 1 March 2021, 12:54 pm

(Bloomberg) — Israel accused Iran of attacking one of its cargo ships in the Gulf of Oman last week, as tensions mount over the U.S.’s desire to rejoin a nuclear deal with Tehran.

“It was indeed an act by Iran, that’s clear,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday in an interview with Kan radio, a local station. Iran “is Israel’s greatest enemy and we are striking it across the region.”

Israeli media reported that the country launched missile strikes on Iranian targets in Syria over the weekend in response to the assault on the ship. Israel’s military did not comment.

The Israeli-owned car carrier, the Helios Ray, was struck by an explosion while sailing 100 kilometers (62 miles) off the coast of Oman either on Feb. 25 or the early hours of Feb. 26. None of its crew was hurt and the vessel is now docked in Dubai for repairs.

A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said “we categorically reject” Israel’s allegation that Tehran was to blame.

Friction between the countries has been high as U.S. President Joe Biden explores rejoining a 2015 accord designed to reduce Tehran’s nuclear activities. Netanyahu opposes Washington returning to the pact, saying it would pave the way for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 and tightened sanctions on Tehran.

Iran has accused Israel of several attacks in the past year. It said Israel sabotaged one of its nuclear facilities in July and assassinated a top Iranian nuclear scientist in November.

Israeli Education Minister Yoav Galant, a retired general, told the Ynet news website the damage was caused by a mine “apparently attached to the exterior by a commando force in a nighttime naval operation.”

The attackers would have known from open-source material it was an Israeli vessel, Galant said.

The Helios Ray, owned by Tel Aviv-based Ray Shipping Ltd., was traveling from Dammam in Saudi Arabia to Singapore. It had traversed the Strait of Hormuz when the explosion occurred, according to tracking data compiled by Bloomberg and information from U.K. Maritime Trade Operations, which serves as a link between the Royal Navy and commercial vessels in high-risk areas. The ship turned around on Feb. 26.

The Associated Press, citing unidentified American officials, said the explosion created two holes on each side of the ship, just above the waterline.

Several merchant vessels have been attacked or detained in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman over the last two years, rattling oil and shipping markets. Iran seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in January and its forces boarded another ship in the Gulf of Oman in August 2020. It also detained the U.K.-flagged Stena Impero for several months in 2019.

Four oil vessels were attacked with explosives in May 2019 while at anchorage off Fujairah, a United Arab Emirates port on the Gulf of Oman coast. Two more were sabotaged in the Gulf of Oman in June. Iran was blamed for the incidents but denied involvement.

(Updates with Israeli minister’s comments in eighth paragraph.)

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