Israel says 'evidence' links Iran to deadly tanker attack

Israel says 'evidence' links Iran to deadly tanker attack
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday Israel had "evidence" Iran was behind the deadly tanker attack off Oman despite its denials, and warned his country could "send a message" in retaliation.
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In Jerusalem, Bennett slammed Iran's "cowardly" denial (Getty)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday Israel had "evidence" Iran was behind the deadly tanker attack off Oman despite its denials, and warned his country could "send a message" in retaliation.

Bennett's statement came after Iran rejected its arch-foe's "baseless accusations" it was responsible for the attack that killed two crewmen, and vowed to defend its interests after Israel pushed for UN action against it.

"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," the Israeli premier said at the weekly cabinet meeting.

"In any case, we know how to send a message to Iran in our own way."

The MT Mercer Street, managed by prominent Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, was attacked Thursday off Oman.

A British security guard and a Romanian crew member were killed in what the US military and the vessel's operator Zodiac Maritime said appeared to be a drone strike.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Sunday London believed the attack was "deliberate, targeted, and a clear violation of international law by Iran" which "UK assessments" showed Iran used "one or more UAVs" to target the tanker.

"Iran must end such attacks, and vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law," Raab said in a statement.

The Israeli army said its chief of staff held a conversation with his UK counterpart about "recent events in the region and common challenges faced by both countries".

Earlier Sunday, Iran denied involvement in the attack, with foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh saying Israel "must stop such baseless accusations".

"Iran will not hesitate for a moment to defend its... interests and national security," he told a news conference.

In Jerusalem, Bennett slammed Iran's "cowardly" denial, saying he could "determine with absolute certainty that Iran carried out the attack against the ship".

"Iran's aggressive conduct is dangerous not only to Israel, but also harms global interests, freedom of navigation and international trade," Bennett said.

Retired general Yossi Kuperwasser said Israel's response would probably contain two elements -- try to create global pressure against Iran and retain its ability to act "beyond the diplomatic realm".

"My assumption is that the intention is first and foremost the continued action against the Iranian presence in Syria," Kuperwasser told Israeli military radio.


Tit-for-tat strikes


On Saturday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agreed to work with other allies "to investigate the facts, provide support, and consider the appropriate next steps", the State Department said.

Maritime analysts Dryad Global said the attack was the fifth against a ship connected to Israel since February.

The tanker was travelling from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates with no cargo aboard when it was hit, Zodiac Maritime said.

In recent months, there have been several reported attacks on Iranian ships that Tehran has linked to Israel.

In March, Iran said it was "considering all options" in response to an attack on a cargo ship in the Mediterranean that it blamed on Israel.

And in April, Tehran said its freighter Saviz was hit by an "explosion" in the Red Sea, after media reports said Israel had targeted the ship.

The New York Times reported at the time this was an Israeli "retaliatory" attack after "Iran's earlier strikes on Israeli ships".

The attack came at a time of heightened tension between the foes, with reports of a series of tit-for-tat strikes on shipping since early March.

In a March report that cited US and Middle East officials, the Wall Street Journal said Israel has targeted at least a dozen vessels bound for Syria, mostly carrying Iranian oil, since late 2019.

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

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

The accord was strained when in 2018 former president Donald Trump withdrew the US from it unilaterally and reimposed sanctions.