Suspected Ship Hijack Ends as Tensions With Iran Soar
(Bloomberg) -- A suspected hijacking of a vessel near Iran has ended, after stoking tensions already inflamed by a deadly drone attack on an Israeli-managed tanker in the same area.
The Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess was briefly boarded by armed men on Tuesday halfway between Iran and the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman, according to a Gulf government official. The men then left the vessel around midnight local time, the official said. Bloomberg News was unable to contact the ship’s Dubai-based owner or operator to confirm the information.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, denied that Iran’s forces boarded ships in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman, and warned against “rumors and the fake news of Western and Zionist media.” The U.S. and its allies have also blamed Iran for last week’s drone attack, which caused frictions to soar in and around the waterways of the Persian Gulf that carry many of the world’s oil exports.
The U.S. has vowed a “collective response” to that strike, which killed a Romanian and a Briton. Israel said military action may be needed.
“It is time for diplomatic, economic and even military deeds. Otherwise the attacks will continue,” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Wednesday.
Iran has denied involvement, and its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps warned it would react “decisively and powerfully” to any provocation.
Major General Hossein Salami, commander of the Guards Corps, said Wednesday that “we’re ready for any scenario” in the Persian Golf and “our missile, defense, naval and drone systems and ground forces are at a level of high preparedness to respond to any threat at any level, anywhere,” according to the semi-official Irna news agency.
Oman said it had dispatched navy ships and its air force to secure international waters after the latest incident.
“What we need to be doing, fundamentally, is calling out Iran for very reckless behavior,” the U.K’s Chief of the Defence Staff Nick Carter told BBC Radio 4’s Today program, saying it was important to restore deterrence.
Shipping attacks have escalated in recent years amid tensions between Iran versus the U.S. and its Israeli ally, but fatalities are unusual. The U.S. activated a maritime force with partners in 2019 to help protect sea lanes in the Middle East after a series of regional attacks, including on Saudi oil facilities.
Crude Traders Keep a Close Eye on Middle East Tension
The incidents come at a sensitive time for the region and Iran, which confirmed an ultraconservative new president on Tuesday and is weighing when and whether to re-enter stalled talks with world powers over its controversial nuclear program, which the West believes could help deliver Tehran a bomb. The U.S. wants to engage in the diplomacy and is seeking to rejoin a 2015 nuclear deal that would limit the atomic work in return for sanctions relief.
Amid the heightened frictions three rockets were fired from Lebanon toward Israel, the Israeli military said Wednesday, with no injuries reported. Recent rocket attacks from Lebanon have been attributed to Palestinian factions based there.
The U.K. has told the United Nations Security Council that Iran was probably behind last week’s drone attack, a first step in bringing the issue before the world body.
“Initial assessments by the U.K. and international partners, shared by Romania, concluded that it is highly likely” that the merchant vessel Mercer Street was attacked by “Iran off the coast of Oman using one or more Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” missions from the U.K., Romania and Liberia wrote in a letter to the council.
The U.S. supports the U.K. and urges the Security Council to condemn the tanker attack, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Wednesday.
Iran responded to the Security Council president that the U.K.-led group didn’t provide “a shred of evidence to substantiate their claims,” calling it “factually wrong and politically and ethically irresponsible.”
In its own letter to the Security Council, Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan said the latest attack is “yet another instance of maritime terrorism undertaken by Iran on the high seas, similar to other recent attacks that I have already brought to the attention of the Security Council, asking that concrete action be taken.”
It’s unlikely that the U.K. and allies, including the U.S., can win support for a statement blaming Iran in the 15-member Security Council, where nations including Russia and China have veto power. Israel said earlier it had given allies “hard evidence” that Iran was behind the hit. Previous diplomatic rebukes against Iran, which is under international sanctions, have not previously deterred attacks blamed on it.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.