On Monday, the UK Foreign Office summoned newly appointed ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran in London, Mohsen Baharvand, following Iran’s attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker in the Gulf, which killed civilians crew members. Middle East Minister James Cleverly communicated to Baharvand, “Iran must immediately cease actions that risk international peace and security and reinforced that vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law”. Romania similarly summoned the Iranian ambassador in Bucharest.
On July 29, two crew members on Mercer Street – a Romanian captain and a British security officer – were killed in an apparent drone attack, leading Jerusalem to accuse Tehran of “sowing violence and destruction.” The Liberian-flagged tanker ship, owned by a Japanese company, and operated by London-based Zodiac Maritime, is part of Israeli Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. Multiple countries are affected, but Israeli interests may have been the target.
The attack on the Mercer Street demonstrates the continued escalation in the silent “shadow war” between Israel and Iran. In recent times, Iran has accused Israel of targeting nuclear sites and scientists. Therefore, attacks on both Israeli and Iranian-operated vessels and facilities recently have been seen as tit-for-tat incidents. This time is different, as the strike Thursday night delineates the first fatal attack during years of assault on commercial shipping in the region.
While Iran did not directly acknowledge the attack, the Tehran Times reported, “No country claimed responsibility for the strike, but the Iranian news channel Al-Alam [state-owned media corporation Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting] said the attack came in retaliation for an earlier Israeli strike against the al-Dhaba’a airport in the Syrian city of al-Qusayr which killed two men from the Resistance.” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, told reporters that “the Zionist regime (Israel) has created insecurity, terror and violence”. On Monday, Iran warned the UK, U.S., and Israel that any actions in response to the drone attack on the tanker “will be met with a severe and decisive answer”.
It appears the strike comes as Tehran is formulating plans for a tougher stance with the West. Iran inaugurates Ebrahim Raisi as president on Tuesday, the ultraconservative protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, domestic issues continue to plague Tehran. As the largest anti-government protest in 18 months spread to Tehran last week, water shortages continue to cause significant social unrest.
Over the weekend, DEBKAfile, (Israeli military intelligence website based in Jerusalem), reported that Iran for the first time launched a suicide drone against an Israeli-operated merchant vessel (Mercer Street), north of the Omani island of Masirah in the Indian Ocean. The ship was underway from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated there was “evidence” that longstanding foe Iran was responsible. Mr. Bennett warned that “we know how to send a message to Iran in our own way”, while Tehran rejected what it called the “baseless accusations”. Most in Israel agree that even though Iran did not take responsibility for the attack, its fingerprints are all over it.
UK and U.S.
On Sunday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stated London believes Iran has used drones against the Mercer Street, and called the attack a “deliberate, targeted, and a clear violation of international law”. Raab added, “Iran must end such attacks, and vessels must be allowed to navigate freely.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington is “confident that Iran conducted this”, and that an “appropriate response” would follow. The U.S. Navy 5th Fleet spokesperson stated, “Initial indications clearly point to a drone-style attack.”
American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher are escorting the Mercer Street as heads to a safe port, the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet said in a statement early Saturday. “U.S. Navy explosives experts are aboard to ensure there is no additional danger to the crew and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack.”