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Iran rejects Israeli accusation over tanker attack

TEHRAN, Iran: The Iranian authorities have rejected claims by Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom its forces attacked a ship off Oman earlier this week. At least two crew members were killed in the attack.

Spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry Saeed Khatibzadeh condemned the allegations during a virtual news conference on Sunday, saying this was not the first time Israel has made such claims.

“Wherever this regime has gone, it has brought with it insecurity, terror and violence. Those responsible [for this attack] are the ones that allowed the Israeli regime to set foot in this region,” he said.

“Whoever sows wind will reap a storm,” Khatibzadeh said, warning that Iran will defend its national security wherever necessary.

Liberian-flagged oil tanker Mercer Street, managed by a company belonging to Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, was struck late on Thursday northeast of the Omani island of Masirah, in an apparent drone attack that killed a Romanian and a UK national.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, have alleged Iran was behind the hit but have yet to provide evidence.

“I just heard that Iran, in a cowardly manner, is trying to shirk responsibility for the event. They are denying this. I determine, with absolute certainty: Iran attacked the ship,” Bennett said at the cabinet meeting on Sunday, as posted on the Israeli PM’s Twitter account.

“The intelligence evidence for this exists and we expect the international community will make it clear to the Iranian regime that they have made a serious mistake. In any case, we know how to send a message to Iran in our way.”

US State Secretary Anthony Blinken said on Sunday he was “confident” Iran conducted the attack using armed drones.

“There is no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behaviour,” he said in a statement, adding that the US is consulting with governments in and beyond the region on an “appropriate response”.

In a statement published on Sunday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was “highly likely” Iran attacked the tanker in international waters with one or more drones.

“We believe this attack was deliberate, targeted and a clear violation of international law by Iran,” he said. “Iran must stop such attacks, and vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law.” After the attack, US Navy vessels escorted Mercer Street as it headed to a safe port.

Foes Iran and Israel have frequently accused each other over the years of attacks on interests, vessels and nuclear facilities. But their years-long enmity has intensified in recent months as world powers try to salvage Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal which, if successful, would lift harsh US sanctions on Iran.

The incident involving Mercer Street took place days before Ebrahim Raisi is due to be inaugurated as Iran’s eighth president on Thursday. The hardline judge has promised to work to restore the accord, unilaterally abandoned by the US in 2018, but the fate of the deal is still unclear as several key issues remain unsolved.

A seventh and potentially final round of talks in Austria’s capital, Vienna, is expected to commence soon after Raisi assumes office.

Observers expect Iran and the US to be at odds over which sanctions should be lifted and how, and how Tehran needs to scale back its nuclear programme that has significantly expanded after the US abandonment of the nuclear deal.