US declines to back Israel on charge of Iranian ship sabotage

US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a news briefing in Washington, Feb. 3, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Jaquelyn Martin)
US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a news briefing in Washington, Feb. 3, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Jaquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Friday, an Israeli-owned cargo ship, the MV Helios Ray, was attacked by mines in the Gulf of Oman.

The ship had been traveling from the Saudi port of Dammam, on its way to Singapore. After the attack, it was taken to Dubai for repairs.

Israeli media reported that limpet mines had been attached to the ship, causing four holes in its hull, just above the water line. They speculated that the mines were attached to the ship, while it was in a port and then set off later.

Dammam is on Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, on the Persian Gulf. Although Saudi Arabia is known for its strict brand of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, areas of its eastern coast, including Dammam, have a significant Shi’a population. Shi’a constitute just under a quarter of the city’s population of one million, according to official Saudi statistics, and the number may actually be higher.

Israeli officials were quick to blame Iran for the attack, in significant part because there is no other reasonable suspect: with the ability and motive to attack an Israeli ship in such a fashion.

Moreover, in 2019, there were a series of similar attacks on commercial shipping in the Gulf of Oman. US officials blamed Iran.

Thus, on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told an Israeli broadcaster, “This was indeed an operation by Iran. That is clear.”

The US now holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council. On Tuesday, Israel’s UN ambassador, Gilad Erdan, wrote both the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, and the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, charging that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was behind the attack and calling on the Security Council to condemn Iran.

Erdan cited both the IRGC’s seizure of a South Korean oil tanker in January and the 2019 attacks.

“These and other repeated Iranian and Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks at sea not only jeopardize the safety and security of international shipping,” he wrote, “but also constitute blatant and repeated violations of the United Nations Charter and of Security Council resolutions.”

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price was asked at Tuesday’s press briefing about the Israeli charge that Iran had been responsible for the attack on its ship.

Price gave a perfunctory answer. “Certainly we’re calling for an investigation into that,” he said. “I would need to refer you to Israeli authorities though for their assessment. I just don’t have anything to add from here.”

There was not even a condemnation of the attack. Nor was there any acknowledgment that Iran was, indeed, a plausible suspect, particularly given its earlier attacks on shipping in the same area.

“The Biden administration is trying to manage a policy of engaging with, but also restraining, where it sees necessary, Israeli activities against Iran and Iran-backed groups,” Nicholas Heras, a Senior Analyst at the Newlines Institute told Kurdistan 24.

But as Heras warned, “Israel is engaged in an escalation chain with Iran, which if the Biden team is not careful, could lead to provocation between the Israelis and Iranians that could send nuclear diplomacy with Iran spinning into the void of impossible.”

Iranian Attacks on Other Countries

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz suggested that Iran’s aggression had been triggered by the US effort to hold discussions over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, which US President Donald Trump abrogated in 2018.

“In recent days, we saw efforts by Iran to act to improve its bargaining position in negotiations on the nuclear deal,” Gantz said on Tuesday.

Alternatively, Iran may believe that the Biden administration is so keen to re-establish that accord that it is prepared, in effect, to tolerate attacks to which the previous administration would have responded with more vigor.

Starting some two weeks ago, with the Feb. 15 assault targeting the base of the anti-ISIS Coalition at Erbil International Airport, Iranian proxies in Iraq have launched rockets at two military bases, where Americans are located, in addition to the US embassy in Baghdad.

The US responded to the three assaults, by bombing Iranian facilities in Syria, near its border with Iraq, which are used by the two Iranian-backed Iraqi militias that were behind the rocket attacks.

Subsequently, the Pentagon said that Iraqi casualties had been limited: one militia fighter dead and two others wounded.

A fourth rocket attack against the US-led Coalition, on Al Asad Airbase, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, followed n Wednesday morning.

Read More: Rockets target Al-Asad base housing coalition personal in western Iraq

Al-Asad is one of the three major bases, along with Erbil and Baghdad, to which the US-led Coalition has consolidated its troop presence in Iraq over the past year, as it has pulled out of smaller bases, both because Iraqi forces have become more capable of operating on their own and as a force protection measure.

Read More: Coalition to continue Iraq operations, as Patriot missiles arrive, and base consolidation proceeds

In January 2020, following the US assassination of Qasim Soleimani, head of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Iran launched a major missile strike on Al-Asad. However, Iran has relied on its Shi’a militia proxies for rocket attacks, and they do not ordinarily operate in Sunni Anbar province. That point could make the task of attribution more difficult.

Attacks on Saudi Arabia

The Biden administration has also reached out to the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen in an effort, along with the UN, to mediate an end to the country’s devastating civil war.

The Houthis now control most of the country, but the US effort at peace-making has not been reciprocated. Rather, it precipitated a Houthi offensive to gain control of Marib, an area rich in oil and gas, and the last territory still under the control of the internationally-recognized government.

In addition, the Houthis have repeatedly fired missiles and launched armed drones against Saudi Arabia, which has been a major military backer of the government.

On Saturday, the Saudis announced that they had intercepted a missile attack aimed at Riyadh and three bomb-laden drones that targeted a southern province.

The US “strongly” condemned the “Houthis’ attacks on population centers in Saudi Arabia,” but, on Monday, yet another Houthi attack on southern Saudi Arabia followed.

Editing by John J. Catherine