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Illustration by Security Management

Iran Blamed for Drone Attack on Tanker in Gulf of Oman

Late last week an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, laden with explosives slammed into a cargo tanker ship off the coast of Oman killing two crew members. First Israel, then the United Kingdom, then the United States blamed the attack on Iran, which vehemently denies responsibility.

In a typically convoluted maritime situation, the ship sails under the Liberian flag, is Japanese-owned, and is operated by an Israeli-owned company. The vessel was empty and was headed from Tanzania to a UAE refueling port. After the attack, the tanker was escorted to port by U.S. warships.

According to the BBC, response to the attack is complicated by the differing objectives of the three allies blaming Iran. Israel has threatened to retaliate strongly; however, the BBC reported that the UK and the United States might prefer a more nuanced response so as not to jeopardize the possibility of revitalizing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that stalled after the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the deal. Israel does not support the nuclear deal and is therefore unconcerned how a strong response could affect the negotiations.

Another complication is Iran’s denial and call for evidence. The report says any such evidence possessed by Israel, the UK, or the United States is likely sensitive and unlikely to be released.

The attack is believed to be part of what is described as decades-long shadow war between Iran and Israel. In April, Iran accused Israel for an explosion at one of its nuclear facilities.

The New York Times reported in March that the shadow war had extended into maritime activities: “Since 2019, Israel has been attacking ships carrying Iranian oil and weapons through the eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas, opening a new maritime front in a regional shadow war that had previously played out by land and in the air,” the article said. “Iran appears to have quietly responded with its own clandestine attacks. The latest came on Thursday afternoon, when an Israeli-owned container ship, the Lori, was hit by an Iranian missile in the Arabian Sea, an Israeli official said.”

An opinion piece in Slate noted that Iran’s previous maritime attacks appeared calculated in that they damaged rather than destroyed ships, but the deaths of the two crew members in the most recent attack represents an escalation. “Iran’s drone strike on an Israeli-owned oil tanker last week was but the latest in a series of skirmishes between the two states in the past two years—though it also marked a dangerous escalation, in which both sides are taking higher risks but achieving no apparent gains in their security.”