Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday blamed Iran for a drone attack on an Israeli-operated oil tanker off the coast of Oman that killed two people, as Tehran denied responsibility and dismissed the claim as “baseless.”
Two ship crewmen, a British and a Romanian national, died in Thursday night’s attack off the coast of Oman on the oil tanker Mercer Street, a ship operated by Zodiac Maritime, a London-based company belonging to Israeli tycoon Eyal Ofer.
Israeli and American officials have said it was apparently carried out by suicide drones that hit the ship. It marked the first-known fatal attack after years of assaults on commercial shipping in the region linked to tensions with Iran over its tattered nuclear deal.
“I now hear that Iran, in a cowardly way, is trying to evade responsibility for the incident. They’re denying it,” said Bennett at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. “I say this definitively: Iran is behind the attack on the boat.”
Bennett said, “The intelligence materials proving [Iran’s involvement] exist and we expect the international community to make it clear to Iran that they made a grave mistake. We, in any case, know how to convey this message to Iran in our own ways.”
“Iran’s bullying is dangerous not only for Israel, but also hurts global interests, such as the freedom of maritime movement and global trade,” added the prime minister.
Bennett’s comment came after Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as his British and Romanian counterparts, to coordinate an international response to the attack.
Blinken and Lapid agreed to work with other allies “to investigate the facts, provide support, and consider the appropriate next steps,” according to a US State Department statement.
Iran on Sunday denied any involvement and rejected Israel’s “blame games.”
The comment by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh marked the first official comments on the attack from Tehran, which will see a new president inaugurated Thursday.
Khatibzadeh described the allegation that Iran carried out the attack as “baseless.”
“Such blame games are nothing new,” Khatibzadeh said. “Those who are responsible for this (attack) are the ones who made it possible for the Israeli regime to set its foot in this region.”
The US Navy was escorting the tanker to a safe port.
Israel believes Iran carried out the deadly attack on the oil tanker in response to a recent cyberattack supposedly carried out by Israel, according to a report Saturday. The cyberattack in early July caused chaos in the Islamic Republic’s train system as hackers posted fake messages about alleged train delays or cancellations on display boards at stations across the country. They also urged passengers to call for information, listing the phone number of the office of the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A Channel 13 news report, which did not cite its sources, said Israel assesses that Iran was directly responding to those actions.
The report further said Iran was hoping to raise insurance costs for ships with ties to Israel.
On Friday, state-owned Iranian news network Al-Alam, citing “well-informed sources,” said the attack was in response to a reported Israeli strike in Syria that it said killed “two resistance men” last week.
A senior Israeli government source said on condition of anonymity Friday evening that “Iran is sowing violence and destruction in every corner of the region. They were so eager to attack an Israeli target that they’ve embroiled themselves and incriminated themselves in the killing of foreign citizens.”
In the wake of the attack, Defense Minister Benny Gantz called an urgent discussion with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and other defense officials on Friday. Israel was said to be considering taking in action in response to the attack.
Analysts said the attack bore all the hallmarks of tit-for-tat exchanges in the shadow war between Israel and Iran, in which vessels linked to each nation have been targeted in waters around the Gulf.
On Friday, Lapid said he had ordered Israeli diplomats to push for UN action against “Iranian terrorism.”
“I’ve instructed the embassies in Washington, London and the UN to work with their interlocutors in government and the relevant delegations in the UN headquarters in New York,” Lapid said on Twitter.