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May 29, 2024

Iran Drone Strikes Tanker with India Ties Amid Heightened Tensions

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Dec 26, 2023

Tensions are escalating in the Middle East after an oil tanker with reported ties to an Israeli company was damaged in an apparent Iranian drone attack off the coast of India. The strike comes amid accusations that Iran supplied drones to Russia and as both Israel and Saudi Arabia bolster ties with India.

Oil Tanker Attacked by Kamikaze Drone

On December 23rd, the Liberia-flagged oil tanker M/T Mercer Street was struck by an explosive drone while sailing around 300 nautical miles off the coast of India. The aerial attack caused no casualties but did result in minor damage to the vessel’s hull.

Unnamed American defense officials stated that the drone appeared to have been launched from Iran, with one official calling it a “kamikaze” unmanned aerial vehicle. Tehran has denied involvement.

The Mercer Street is operated by Zodiac Maritime, an international ship management company headquartered in London. Zodiac Maritime is owned by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, prompting speculation that the tanker was targeted due to its Israeli ties.

An Israeli official stated that while the Mercer Street flies a Liberian flag, “it is owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer, making it an Israeli ship to every intent and purpose.”

Escalating Iran-Israel Shadow War

The apparent strike comes amidst growing tensions between Iran and Israel, with both sides waging an ongoing shadow war across land and sea.

Over the past two years, Israeli officials have accused Iran of attacking several vessels linked to Israel. This includes a suspected Iranian drone strike on an oil tanker off Oman that killed two crew members in 2021.

Israeli leaders believe Iran is targeting their ships in retaliation for Israeli covert attacks against Iranian nuclear scientists and facilities. These include the high-profile assassinations of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020 and Revolutionary Guard Colonel Sayad Khodai earlier this year.

Timeline of Recent Iran-Israel Maritime Incidents

Date Incident
Feb 2021 Israeli-owned vehicle carrier ship MV Helios Ray hit by explosion in Gulf of Oman
Apr 2021 Iranian military vessel Saviz damaged in Red Sea explosion, reportedly Israeli sabotage operation
Jul 2021 Oil tanker Mercer Street struck by explosives off Oman coast, killing two
Nov 2022 Oil tanker Pacific Zircon hit by projectile off Oman
Dec 2022 Israeli-linked oil tanker slightly damaged by Iranian drone off India coast

Meanwhile, Israel has vowed to continue targeting Iranian assets and proxies across the region, including stepping up airstrikes against Iranian arm shipments to Hezbollah forces in Syria.

This shadow war seems poised to intensify further in the coming months, with the potential for miscalculation and escalatory attacks on both sides.

India’s Balancing Act Between Iran and Israel

The location of the strike, in waters off western India’s coast, also has significant geopolitical implications.

India has strained ties with Iran over issues like the Chabahar port and signs of Tehran drawing closer to Pakistan and China. However, New Delhi still imports oil from Iran and seeks engagement to prevent Tehran from aligning too closely with rivals.

At the same time, India has worked to expand cooperation with Israel in areas like defense, technology, and energy. This has occurred alongside rising Hindu nationalism in India under Prime Minister Modi that views Israel as a natural ally against Muslim-majority states.

Yet India also has a long history of support for Palestinian rights. Its growing security partnership with Israel risks backlash from Arab states.

As such, the attack on the Israeli-linked Mercer Street craft near India puts New Delhi in an awkward position. India seeks continued engagement with Iran while building ties to Israel and signing defense deals with Gulf Arab nations.

In response, the Indian Navy has deployed warships to the Arabian Sea and launched an investigation into the drone strike. Officials may aim to show resolve against destabilizing provocations while avoiding blame against Iran specifically.

Drones to Dominate Future Wars

Perhaps most significantly, the long-distance drone strike seems to usher in a dangerous new era of drone attacks in maritime conflict zones.

Iran showcased its expanding drone capabilities by supplying hundreds of unmanned weaponized aerial vehicles to aid Russia’s struggling war effort in Ukraine. Reports indicate these Iranian drones have been used to deadly effect against Ukrainian critical infrastructure in recent months.

U.S. officials state the drone deployed against the Mercer Street tanker had characteristics of Iranian-designed and produced attack drones. If confirmed, it would signify Iran’s drones can now strike targets up to 300 nautical miles away.

Kamikaze drones and remote weaponry remove the need to place boots on the ground near targets, enabling strikes from standoff distances and plausible deniability.

A Middle East and South Asia already beset by proxy wars may soon witness more militarized drones targeting economic and security assets at sea. Waterways critical for global trade like the Red Sea and Arabian Sea seem primed to become future battlegrounds between state and non-state actors.

India’s foreign policy balancing act now has to account for growing attacks just off its coast, endangering shipping lanes critical for its energy needs. Iran’s message seems aimed both at Israel and India – cooperation with Jerusalem will carry consequences as Tehran can now strike Israeli-linked economic targets far from Iran’s shores.

What Lies Ahead

With relations between rivals Iran and Israel plummeting, more provocative attacks against oil tankers and other vessels are likely in the short term. This seems destined to force India into difficult decisions over diplomatic overtures and military patrols.

Unclaimed attacks by stealth weapons like drones will become commonplace, heightening risk premiums for naval transit and maritime shipping across the northern Indian Ocean.

As drone proliferation accelerates, unmanned weaponry saturating Arabia may soon make these waters too perilous to ignore. New Delhi will need to take the lead on multilateral efforts addressing destabilizing strikes threatening the global commons.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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