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The Mercer Street, a Japanese-owned Liberian-flagged tanker managed by Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime that was attacked off Oman coast as seen in Cape Town, South Africa, in this file picture obtained from ship tracker website, MarineTraffic.com. Image Credit: REUTERS

Jerusalem: Israel’s key allies the United States and Britain joined it Sunday in blaming Iran for a deadly tanker attack off Oman, despite Tehran’s denials, and Washington vowed an “appropriate response”.

The US and British statements came after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said there was “evidence” linking Iran to the attack after the Islamic republic rejected its arch-foe’s “baseless accusations”.

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

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

Israel had blamed Iran, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid saying on Friday he had ordered its diplomats to push for UN action against “Iranian terrorism”.

On Sunday, Iran denied involvement, and foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Israel “must stop such baseless accusations”.

“Iran will not hesitate for a moment to defend its... interests and national security,” he told journalists.

Shortly afterwards, Bennett accused Iran of “trying to evade responsibility for the event” in a “cowardly manner”.

“I determine, with absolute certainty, that Iran carried out the attack against the ship,” Bennett said.

“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,” he said.

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

‘Appropriate response’ forthcoming

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London believed the attack was “deliberate, targeted, and a clear violation of international law by Iran”, and “UK assessments” showed Iran used “one or more UAVs” (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) 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.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was “confident that Iran conducted this attack,” and vowed that an “appropriate response” was forthcoming.

Later Sunday, Lapid noted he had spoken with Blinken and Raab in recent days, and that he was “pleased” both countries “condemned these terrorist acts”.

“Israel will continue to hold conversations with our allies around the world and work together to formulate the necessary steps to combat ongoing Iranian terror,” Lapid said in a statement.

Israel’s chief of staff has spoken to his British counterpart about “recent events in the region and common challenges faced by both countries”, a statement said.

Retired general Yossi Kuperwasser told military radio Israel would probably follow two tacks - create global pressure against Iran and retain its ability to act “beyond the diplomatic realm”.

Tit-for-tat strikes

Maritime analysts Dryad Global said Thursday’s 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.

There have been several recent reported attacks on Iranian ships that Tehran has linked to Israel.

In March, Iran said it was “considering all options” after 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”.

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. AFP