Reporting indicates that the Liberian flagged MT MERCER STREET (IMO 9539585) has been attacked approximately 152nm NE Al Duqm, Oman.
Reports by UKMTO indicated an initial attack against an unnamed vessel occurring on 29 July 21 at 0700UTC, 86nm SE Al Duqm Port. An additional report was later circulated indicating a second attack at 2340UTC. Vessels were advised to avoid the area.
Whilst precise details remain unclear, it is assessed that both incidents are highly likely to have involved the same vessel.
Wider reporting indicates that the initial report related to the sighting of an unmanned aerial vehicle(UAV) that is understood to have “deployed flares”, which were reportedly seen falling into the water.
The nature of the second attack remains unclear. However it is understood to have resulted in an explosion onboard the vessel. At the time of publishing, it is understood (unconfirmed) that two personnel were killed in the attack. One is understood to have been a senior member of the ship’s crew and the other was a member of an embarked security team.
The MT MERCER STREET is understood to have a crew of 27, comprising Romanian, Russian, Chinese, Ukrainian, Filipino, Georgian and Indian nationals.
Whilst a number of details remain unconfirmed, this latest attack bares considerable similarity to the ongoing Israel / Iran ‘shadow war’ that has seen an exchange in attacks against vessels associated with each state.
Such attacks have been ongoing for sometime however they only achieved public awareness following the attack on the Israeli owned MV HELIOS RAY, NW Muscat on 25 February 21. Since then there have been 4 confirmed attacks on vessels connected with Israel and 2 connected to Iran. A number of incidents have also been recorded throughout the Eastern Mediterranean that may be connected to these events however are less tangible in their association.
The attack on the MT MERCER STREET is now assessed to be the 5th attack against a vessel connected to Israel. In the case of the MT MERECER STREET, Zodiac Maritime, which is owned by prominent Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer, is the registered commercial operator of the vessel. Zodiac Maritime have released a a statement confirming the attack. However they have described it as a being the result of piracy. There is currently no indication that the incident was the result of any act of traditional piracy. Whilst the statement may refer to piracy, this may be due to a liberal interpterion of the asymmetric nature of the attack.
The MT MERCER STREET incident follows an attack on 03 July 21 involving the vessel CSAV TYNDALL, which was reportedly targeted by Iranian forces in a similar manner. In this incident the vessel had previously been owned by Zodiac Maritime but had recently been sold.
Whilst the attack on the MT MERCER STREET is likely yet another evolution of the ongoing tit-for-tat exchange between Israel and Iran, the ( unconfirmed) death of two personnel would represent a significant escalation in events that, if confirmed, would likely lead to significant international condemnation and would require diplomatic redress.
A number of prominent commentators following Iran have indicated that the Iranian media appear to be notably mute on the latest attack, with only limited mention of it by prominent media outlets and a handful of hard line IRGC linked social media accounts. This stands in stark contrast to previous attacks against vessels confirmed as being linked with Israel. It is assessed as highly likely that this latest incident will be seen within Iran as yet another significant intelligence and operational failure, in which Iran’s role as a responsible regional state will rightly be severely questioned.
Whilst confirmation of Iranian involvement will likely not be forthcoming, this incident is almost certainly another attack in line with the current trend of maritime tit-for-tat attacks between Israel and Iran. Such attacks come at a time of increasing sensitivity between Israel and Iran vis a vis their respective positions on an Iranian return to the JCPoA.
Iran has committed to an aggressive posture throughout the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, with an intent to dominate its immediate sphere of influence, but also in a bid to posture against what it perceives as the encroachment of foreign forces and a hedge against the thawing in relations between Israel and other regional states.
Iran has long sought to conduct forceful diplomacy through the use of asymmetric means, ranging from funding and coordinating of proxies throughout the region to the ongoing unattributed attacks within the maritime domain. Activities such as this also resonate considerably with a domestic audience within Iran that serve to fuel internal perceptions of regional dominance.
Iranian Navy and IRGC(N) have also continued to conduct harassing operations against vessels transiting the region as well as engage in GPS Spoofing and other cyber coordinated attacks.
Currently the risk profile to commercial vessels transiting the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Arabia, and Red Sea remains one in which any vessel associated with Israel and Iran remain at heightened risk as a result of the current trend of activity. Such incidents remain irregular and are highly unlikely to impact normal commercial operations throughout the region.