Israel’s prime minister has accused Iran of attacking an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week, a mysterious explosion that further raised security concerns in the region.
Without offering any evidence, Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli public broadcaster Kan the incident “it was indeed an act by Iran, that is clear”.
He added: “Iran is the greatest enemy of Israel. I am determined to halt it. We are hitting it in the entire region.”
Iran promptly dismissed the claim.
The blast struck the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship, as it was sailing out of the Middle East to Singapore on Friday.
The crew was unharmed but the vessel sustained two holes on its port side and two on its starboard side, just above the waterline, according to US defence officials. The ship went to Dubai’s port for repairs on Sunday.
Iran has sought to pressure the US to lift sanctions on Tehran as the Biden administration considers resuming negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme.
The US president has said repeatedly Washington would return to the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that his predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from in 2018 only after Iran restores its full compliance with the accord.
The Helios Ray explosion recalled the tense summer of 2019, when the US military accused Iran of attacking several oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman with limpet mines, designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull.
The Gulf of Oman leads to the narrow strait of Hormuz, a vital passage for the world’s oil supplies.
Tehran has denied that it was behind the limpet mine attacks.
It remains unclear what caused the blast on the Helios Ray. The vessel had discharged cars at various ports in the Persian Gulf before the explosion caused it to reverse course.
Over the weekend, Israel’s defence minister and army chief indicated they held Iran responsible for what they said was an attack on the vessel.
Iran responded to Netanyahu’s statement saying it “strongly rejected” the claim that it was behind the explosion. In a press briefing, the foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said Netanyahu was “suffering from an obsession with Iran” and described his charges as “fear-mongering.”
Khatibzadeh also accused Israel of taking “suspicious actions in the region” against Iran in recent months to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal, without elaborating, and vowed Iran would respond.
“Israel knows very well that our response in the field of national security has always been fierce and accurate,” he said.
Overnight, Syrian state media reported a series of alleged Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, saying its defence systems had intercepted most of the missiles. Israeli media reports said the alleged airstrikes were on Iranian targets in response to the ship attack.
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Israel has struck hundreds of Iranian targets in neighbouring Syria in recent years, and Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence there.
Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah have provided military support to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in the more than decade-long Syrian civil war.
The Israeli military declined comment.
Iran has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including another mysterious explosion in July that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear programme two decades ago. Iran has repeatedly vowed to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s death.
“It is most important that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, with or without an agreement, this I also told to my friend Biden,” Netanyahu said on Monday.
Iranian threats of retaliation have raised alarm in Israel since the signing of normalisation deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September.