Iran hit tanker to distract from Georgia assassination plot - Israeli officials

The targeted tanker is operated by a Singapore-based company owned by Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer.

 Tanker Pacific Zircon is seen at sea near Isle of Wright, Britain in this undated handout picture. (photo credit: David Potter/Handout via REUTERS)
Tanker Pacific Zircon is seen at sea near Isle of Wright, Britain in this undated handout picture.
(photo credit: David Potter/Handout via REUTERS)

Iran attacked an oil tanker connected to an Israeli businessman in an attempt to distract from a failed assassination plot against an Israeli businessman in Georgia, Israeli officials said on Wednesday.

The oil tanker, the Pacific Zircon, is a Liberian-flagged ship operated by Singapore-based Eastern Pacific Shipping, which is owned by Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer. The tanker itself is owned by Japanese firm Taihei Kaiun Company, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence. A statement by Eastern Pacific confirmed that the vessel, sailing in the Gulf of Oman, had been hit by a “projectile,” lightly damaging the hull. No injuries were reported in the attack.

Israeli officials said the Israeli connection to the tanker was very limited. They added that the same type of Iranian drone being used by Russia in Ukraine, the Shahed 136, executed the attack.

“This is another event that proves that Iran acts as a global exporter of terrorism. This is another time that Iran is harming global freedom of navigation,” said the officials. “Iran undermines security in the Gulf and, along the way, undermines stability during the World Cup,” which starts on Sunday in Qatar.

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman (Illustrative) (credit: ISNA/REUTERS)An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman (Illustrative) (credit: ISNA/REUTERS)

Iranian Nour News, affiliated with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, accused Israel and its Gulf allies of targeting the tanker in an attempt to “transfer” difficulties surrounding forming a government in Israel and to raise tensions and distract Iran and Qatar with “marginal events.”

The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet was aware of the incident, Commander Timothy Hawkins said, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan condemned the attack, saying Iran likely conducted the attack using a UAV.

“There is no justification for this attack, which is the latest in a pattern of such actions and broader destabilizing activities. This action further threatens freedom of navigation through this crucial waterway, international shipping and commerce, and the lives of those on the vessels involved,” said Sullivan.

US Central Command confirmed that an Iranian Shahed-series drone hit the vessel. “This unmanned aerial vehicle attack against a civilian vessel in this critical maritime strait demonstrates, once again, the destabilizing nature of Iranian malign activity in the region,” said US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said an investigation was ongoing.

“UKMTO are aware of reports of an incident in the Gulf of Oman/Arabian Sea... Vessel and crew are safe,” it said on its website.

What happened to the Israeli-owned oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman?

According to ship tracking site MarineTraffic, Pacific Zircon was last seen off the coast of Liwa, Oman, on Monday morning. It departed from Sohar, Oman, on Monday afternoon with its destination set as the Port of Buenos Aires.

The ship last reported signaling its position near the Gulf of Oman on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg.

Iranian vessels headed for Syria

The reported Iranian attack came as three Iranian vessels were headed for the coast of Syria.

On Wednesday morning, the Iranian Azargoun container ship arrived at the Port of Latakia on the coast of Syria, according to vessel tracker MarineTraffic. The vessel is subject to US sanctions.

The Iranian Arman114 and the Lotus oil tankers were also reportedly headed towards the Syrian coast in recent days, with satellite imagery showing the two departing the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean.

Iran and Israel have exchanged blows at sea before

Last year, Iran and Israel blamed each other for a string of attacks targeting each other’s vessels. Iran has long sought to target ships it thinks are linked to Israel.

In February 2021, the MV Helios Ray was hit by an alleged Iranian attack in the Gulf of Oman.

In March 2021, an Iranian ship, the Shahre Kord, was damaged by an explosion, with Iran blaming Israel for the incident. Shortly before the attack, The Wall Street Journal reported that Israel had attacked about a dozen Iranian ships carrying oil to Syria. Additionally in March 2021, an Iranian missile was fired at an Israeli-owned ship in the Arabian Sea, hitting and damaging it.

In April 2021, Israel was blamed for attacking the Iranian Saviz ship in the Red Sea. The Saviz was reportedly used by the IRGC as a forward base.

In July 2021, two crew members were killed when Iran struck the Mercer Street oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman. While the vessel is owned by a Japanese company, it was operated by the London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.

Less than a week after that attack, Iranian forces reportedly attempted to hijack the Asphalt Princess tanker off the coast of the UAE, but fled the ship after workers sabotaged the engines, according to The Times.

Reuters and Seth J. Frantzman contributed to this report.