Shipping mysteries grow: Is Israel really attacking Iranian vessels?

Is it a coincidence that one day a US newspaper reports on alleged Israeli attacks and the next day Iran says that a ship is targeted?

An enduring mystery surrounds the timing of Iran’s claim that one of its ships was struck by an explosion en route to Syria, and Iran’s assertion is that Israel is the prime suspect.

Iran reported on March 12 that the Shahr E Kord ship was damaged, and by Saturday, it had upped the claims to include allegations that this was “terrorism” caused by Israel.

The timing of the Iranian claim came a day after the Wall Street Journal revealed that Israel had attacked 12 ships making their way to Syria with Iranian oil, and possibly also with Iranian weapons.

Is it an amazing coincidence that one of Iran’s ships was damaged a day before the WSJ report and that Iran then held this up as evidence against Israel a day after? Is this directly linked to the WSJ report, somehow, and what is the background of these kinds of attacks on ships in the region, that have increased tensions since 2019.

The WSJ report quoted US and “regional officials” and said the attacks went back to 2019. What was already known was that it was Iran that had been allegedly attacking ships. It is a major shift for Iran and media to claim that Israel has done so.

In May 2019, four ships were hit with mines in the Gulf of Oman and two more were attacked the following month. This happened close to Iran, and the US pointed to Tehran as the culprit.

More maritime tension then followed: Iran grabbed the Stena Impero, a British flagged ship, in July 2019 after the UK seized the Grace 1 that was moving Iranian oil to Syria. Timing is everything. Iran had seized ships in the past or harassed them, usually as part of some kind of cycle of pressure. It seized a South Korean ship, for instance, in early January as part of demands to get back frozen assets in South Korea. Major countries such as France have sought to encourage more security for shipping in the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

What is the context of the latest reports? The timing of the Iranian accusation that one of its ships was struck this week seemed uniquely timed to come after the report in the US media about Israel’s alleged targeting of ships going to Syria.

Iran’s Press TV clarified that “last month, an Israeli-owned cargo ship said it had come under attack while it was in the Sea of Oman.” The Israel-owned Helios Ray was struck by a mysterious explosion on February 26 and sent to the UAE for repairs. Israel blamed Iran on March 1 but Iran denied its involvement.

Now, Iran appears to be claiming that on March 9 or 10, its ship was attacked while going to Syria. Iran’s ship did appear to drift around on March 10 in the waters about 150 km. off the coast of Haifa, according to analysis of the ship’s route posted online.

Then, the WSJ published its article on March 11. Considering the time it takes to research and run an article of this depth on historic shipping incidents, it would seem incredibly difficult for the article to have been written with any confirmed knowledge of the March 10 incident.

Photos of a damaged Iranian ship that relate to the article show the Sabiti, damaged in 2019. This leaves a mystery about the timing of the WSJ article’s appearance and Iran’s immediate subsequent claims that its ship was struck the same week.

All of this leads to a lack of clarity about what is happening at sea. In August 2020, for instance, the US said it seized four shipments of Iranian petroleum headed for Venezuela. Then, there were the four ships tracked heading to Venezuela from Iran in May 2020.

The Shahr E Kord and its route, as well as previous allegations about the ship moving illicit cargo are now of interest to those who track ships. Reports in 2019 indicate the same ship was involved in shipments to Libya in the midst of the civil war there.

The strange timing of Iran’s claims about the ship, which is named after a city in Iran, illustrate the murky world of shipping, especially when such shipping is linked to Iran or Iranian attacks, and now, Israel-Iran tensions. Is it a coincidence that one day, a US newspaper reports on alleged Israeli attacks, and the next day, Iran says that a ship widely known to be involved in other shipments to conflict zones, is targeted in an attack?

Many mysteries remain about the May and June 2019 attacks on ships, as well as Iran’s illicit use of ships to conduct trade with Syria and other countries amid US sanctions. Mysteries also surround an oil spill off the coast of Israel last month that turned into an ecological disaster which Israel’s environmental protection minister blamed on Iran.
And then, there are cases like that of the Gulf Sky ship which disappeared in July 2020 off the coast of the UAE and ended up off the coast of Iran, allegedly hijacked. The crew remains unpaid. That ship now appears back in business.

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