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Iran says it 'strongly rejects' Netanyahu's accusation

Netanyahu: Iran clearly behind blast that hit Israeli-owned ship in Gulf

In media blitz, PM says Israel striking Iran across region, won’t permit Tehran to get nuclear weapons; refuses to rule out future bid for immunity, denies trying to delay trial

This picture taken on February 28, 2021 shows a view of the Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai's Mina Rashid (Port Rashid) cruise terminal (Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)
This picture taken on February 28, 2021 shows a view of the Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai's Mina Rashid (Port Rashid) cruise terminal (Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Iran was behind the explosion that hit an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman last week.

“This is indeed an action by Iran, it is clear,” the prime minister told the Kan public broadcaster.

Asked whether Israel would respond to the attack on the ship, Netanyahu said that Iran “is Israel’s biggest enemy and we are striking them across the region.”

The prime minister added that Israel has told the United States that Jerusalem will not allow Tehran to have nuclear weapons, no matter what the terms are of any potential multinational deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Education Ministry, February 28, 2021. (Screenshot/Facebook)

“The Iranians will not have nuclear weapons, with or without an agreement. I said that to my friend [US President Joe] Biden as well,” Netanyahu said.

Iran responded to Netanyahu’s statement, saying it “strongly rejects” the accusation that it was behind the attack. In a press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Netanyahu was “suffering from an obsession with Iran” and described his charges as “fear-mongering.”

Netanyahu’s comments were made in an interview pre-recorded on Sunday before Syrian state media reported that air defense systems were activated around Damascus due to an Israeli attack that unsourced Hebrew-language reports said was a response to the blast on the ship.

A report carried on the official SANA news agency claimed the Syrian military intercepted several Israeli missiles.

There was no comment on the reported strikes from the Israel Defense Forces, which rarely acknowledges specific attacks. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor which has had its credibility questioned in the past, said the strike hit the area of Sayyida Zeinab south of Damascus, where the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah are present.

Israel has launched hundreds to thousands of raids in the country since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, most of which were directed against Iran and its proxies. The last attack in Syria attributed to Israel was on February 15.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago. Iran has repeatedly vowed to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s killing.

The reported strikes in Syria came hours after an examination of damage to the MV Helios Ray indicated an explosion that hit it in the Gulf of Oman was caused by mines covertly attached to the ship, according to a Sunday Israeli TV report.

Channel 13 news did not cite sources for the report, which contradicted earlier reported assessments in Israel that the blast had been caused by missiles. An Israeli team is believed to be in Dubai, where the ship is undergoing repairs, to examine the vessel following the suspected attack.

The Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai’s Mina Rashid (Port Rashid) cruise terminal, February 28, 2021. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

The network said that Israel increasingly believes a naval force from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was behind the attack. Channel 12 news raised the possibility that the explosion was the work of a commando team in a fast boat that attached explosives to the ship.

The MV Helios Ray, a vehicle carrier, was traveling from the Saudi port of Dammam to Singapore when the blast occurred on Thursday. The crew was unharmed in the blast, but the vessel sustained two holes on its port side and two on its starboard side just above the waterline, according to American defense officials.

The incident comes amid rising tension between the US and Iran over its unraveling 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has sought to pressure US President Joe Biden’s administration to bring back the sanctions relief it received under the accord with world powers, which former president Donald Trump abandoned.

On Sunday Iran rejected an offer from European states to hold informal talks with the US. Washington had accepted the offer.

The blast on the ship, a Bahamian-flagged, Israeli-owned roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo vessel, recalled a string of attacks on foreign oil tankers in 2019 that the US Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied any role in those suspected assaults, which happened near the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil chokepoint.

Renewed bid for immunity?

In two radio interviews Monday, the prime minister also addressed his ongoing corruption trial and would not rule out a bid for parliamentary immunity.

“I do not interfere in this at all,” Netanyahu told Army Radio.

When asked whether he would permit a lawmaker from Likud or any other party in his coalition to promote such an effort, the prime minister answered: “I would neither promote [it] or block [it].”

Netanyahu gave up on a bid to seek parliamentary immunity last year when it became clear he would fail to muster a majority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a hearing in his corruption case at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

In the interview with Kan, Netanyahu dismissed allegations that he was trying to delay the hearings in his corruption trial.

“We are not asking for postponements, but only what is acceptable in the law,” the prime minister said. “These fabricated cases are crumbling before our eyes, and we will come out of this very nicely.”

The Jerusalem District Court announced last month that it was postponing the evidentiary stage of Netanyahu’s corruption trial until April 5, ceding to a request by the premier’s legal team for the proceedings to start after the March 23 elections.

Last month, under heavy security and after several delays due to the coronavirus lockdown, Netanyahu made a brief, mandatory appearance at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing at which he formally pleaded not guilty to the three charges against him, and his lawyers then sought a postponement of further sessions.

Netanyahu, who is the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution, and media for what he terms a “witch hunt,” alleging that they have joined forces to fabricate the charges against him in an attempted political coup.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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