Wed, 21 Apr 2021

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Iran of carrying out an attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman last week, a charge rejected by Tehran.

'This was indeed an operation by Iran. That is clear,' Netanyahu told state radio Kan in an interview aired on March 1.

"Iran is the greatest enemy of Israel. I am determined to halt it. We are hitting it in the entire region," Netanyahu said in response to a question about whether Israel would retaliate.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh "strongly rejected" the claim that the country was behind the attack and said Netanyahu was "suffering from an obsession with Iran."

The Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray, a vehicle carrier, was traveling from the Saudi port of Dammam to Singapore when it was struck by an explosion on February 25.

The blast did not cause any casualties but the ship's Israeli owner said it left two 1.5-meter-diameter holes in the side of the vessel.

The Bahamian-flagged vessel, registered in the Isle of Man, is currently docked in Dubai, where an Israeli team has been sent to investigate.

Iran or its regional proxies are believed to be behind a number of attacks on shipping in the strategic Persian Gulf in recent years, including incidents involving two Saudi oil tankers in May 2019. Iran has denied carrying out those attacks.

Iran blamed Israel for the assassination of its top nuclear scientist in November and vowed to retaliate.

Meanwhile, overnight Syrian state media reported suspected Israeli air strikes south of Damascus. Israeli media reports said the alleged strikes were on Iranian targets in response to the ship attack.

Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes on Iranian and affiliated forces in Syria, where Israel says it seeks to prevent Tehran from entrenching on its doorstep.

The explosion on the Israeli vessel occurred around the same time as U.S. air strikes on February 25 targeted Iran-backed militia groups in eastern Syria believed to be behind a spate of recent rocket attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq.

It also comes amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran over the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal. U.S. President Joe Biden says his new administration is open to diplomacy with Tehran after his predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from the nuclear accord and reimposed sanctions, prompting Iran to gradually breach its commitments.

But the two sides remain locked in disagreement over which country must move first, with Iran wanting immediate sanctions relief and the United States demanding Iran first return to compliance with its nuclear commitments.

Israel has been one of the most vocal opponents of the nuclear accord.

In the interview aired on March 1, Netanyahu said Iran 'will not have nuclear weapons -- with or without a [nuclear] agreement. I said that to my friend Biden as well.'

Iran has always denied pursuing nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes.

With reporting by AP, Kan, and Reuters

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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