The late night Thursday attack of an Israeli-managed vessel in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman which left two international crew members dead was the result of a drone strike, the US Navy's Fifth Fleet has said in a Saturday statement.
The US Navy had boarded and assisted in the distressed Liberian-flagged 'Mercer Street' tanker's moving to safer waters on Friday after the incident which had initially been reported as possible piracy. The US military had immediately conducted an investigation in the aftermath, and is now citing "clear visual evidence that an attack had occurred," according to the new statement.
"Initial indications clearly point to a (drone)-style attack," the US Navy said, without naming specific evidence for that conclusion. Currently a pair of US warships, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher, are escorting the Mercer to a safe port.
London-based Zodiac Maritime, owned by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, had issued a statement on Friday confirming that two crew members died as a result of the attack, including one Romanian and one British crew member. As we noted in our initial reporting, one prominent maritime security risk management firm is pointed to a likely drone attack.
This was followed by state media in Iran appearing to confirm that it was carried out by the Islamic Republic as "retaliation" for recent Israeli attacks and sabotage operations, including the latest airstrikes on Iran-backed targets inside Syria.
Late in the day Friday and early Saturday, reports out of Israeli media and The New York Times have cited Israeli intelligence officials who say "several" drones struck the tanker:
The New York Times reported that two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said that "the attack appeared to have been carried out by several unmanned Iranian drones that crashed into living quarters underneath the ship’s command center, or bridge." This looks like a serious and complex attack that is not just a major escalation, but a new use of Iran drone technology.
Drones carried out the attack on a tanker managed by an Israeli-led firm, killing two people, officials said — apparently the latest in a series of maritime clashes between Iran and Israel.@PatrickKingsley @ronenbergman https://t.co/luag310Uin— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) July 30, 2021
US officials are also pointing the finger at Iran, reports CNN: "A US defense official familiar with the details of the incident said Friday that the tanker was attacked by an armed drone thought to be operated by Iran."
So it appears the 'tanker wars' are back and in full force, with industry analysts Dryad Global describing that "this latest attack has the hallmarks of the ongoing Israel/Iran 'shadow war'". The Israelis have taken the incident to the Untied Nations, likely also as part of efforts to halt nuclear negotiations in Vienna, which are already stalled at least into August.
Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke with his British counterpart Dominic Raab, and noted "the need to respond harshly" to the attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker, his office says.— Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian (@manniefabian) July 30, 2021
"Israel's foreign minister said he has ordered the nation's diplomats to push for UN action against Iran over a deadly attack on a ship managed by an Israeli billionaire," AFP reports. "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," Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement.
All of this likely means we're about to see the Israelis escalate in a major way if the recent tit-for-tat history of military strikes is any guide. And none of this bodes well for the prospect of the upcoming seventh round of indirect US-Iran JCPOA nuclear talks in Vienna, which might prove to be derailed before they even get started again - and then there's Iran's new hardline president entering office in a matter of days on August 3rd, to complicate matters further.