DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An oil tanker associated with an Israeli billionaire has been struck by a bomb-carrying drone off the coast of Oman amid heightened tensions with Iran, officials said Wednesday.
The attack on the Liberian-flagged oil tanker Pacific Zircon happened Tuesday night off the coast of Oman, a Middle East-based defense official told the Associated Press. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they did not have authorization to discuss the attack publicly.
While no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, suspicion immediately fell on Iran.
Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, the head of the US Central Command, told the Wall Street Journal that Iran was behind the attack.
“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,” Gen. Kurilla said.
An Israeli official, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unpublicized details of the attack, said that it appeared Iran carried out the attack with a Shahed-136 exploding drone. Iran has supplied those drones to Russia, which has been using them to target infrastructure and civilian targets in Ukraine.
“It is an Iranian attack, there is a consensus on this in the Israeli intelligence and defense community,” the official said.
Pictures of the Pacific Zircon: pic.twitter.com/pZF4Gziq1g
— Faytuks News Δ (@Faytuks) November 16, 2022
Pacific Zircon is operated by Singapore-based Eastern Pacific Shipping, which is a company ultimately owned by Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer.
In a statement, Eastern Pacific Shipping said the Pacific Zircon, carrying gas oil, had been “hit by a projectile” some 150 miles (240 kilometers) off the coast of Oman.
“We are in communication with the vessel and there are no reports of injuries or pollution. All crew are safe and accounted for,” the company said. “There is some minor damage to the vessel’s hull but no spillage of cargo or water ingress.”
Tehran and Israel have been engaged in a yearslong shadow war in the wider Middle East, with some drone attacks targeting Israeli-associated vessels traveling around the region.
The US also blamed Iran for a series of attacks occurring off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in 2019. Tehran then had begun escalating its nuclear program following the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from its atomic deal with world powers.
Iran’s government did not acknowledge the attack on the Pacific Zircon. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Oil prices rose slightly as news of the attack spread, with benchmark Brent crude trading above $94 a barrel.
It wasn’t immediately clear where the vessel was Wednesday. Satellite-tracking data from late Tuesday provided by MarineTraffic.com put the vessel deep in the Arabian Sea after leaving the Omani port of Sohar.
Since the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal, nonproliferation experts warn the Islamic Republic now has enough enriched uranium to make at least one nuclear weapon if it chose, though Tehran insists its program is peaceful.
Iran also has been lashing out at its perceived enemies abroad amid monthslong nationwide protests now challenging its theocracy.
Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said the attack “does not come as a surprise.”
“The risk of attacks against shipping and energy infrastructure in the wider region is rising mainly due to the lack of progress in US-Iranian nuclear diplomacy and the decision by Washington to apply further sanctions pressure on Iran,” he said. “Since 2019, Iran has consistently responded to new US sanctions with covert military action in the region.”
“There is not just an increasing risk of disruptive attacks against energy infrastructure in the region, but also a growing risk of a wider military confrontation with more serious consequences for world energy markets,” he added.
The oil tanker attack also comes just days ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. While Doha maintains good relations with Tehran, with whom it shares a massive natural offshore natural gas field, Israelis will be attending the soccer tournament. Iran’s national team also will face Britain and the US in first-round matches, two countries it accuses of fomenting the unrest in Iran.