JERUSALEM — An oil tanker managed by an Israeli-owned shipping firm was attacked on Thursday night off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members, according to the firm.
The attack raised questions of whether it was the latest salvo in a maritime shadow war between Iran and Israel. The Israeli-owned firm, Zodiac Maritime, said that the two crew members killed were from Britain and Romania, and that on Friday afternoon the vessel was sailing under the protection of an American naval escort. The firm provided no further details.
The British Defense Ministry said it was investigating reports of an attack on a merchant vessel off the coast of Oman but gave no further details, while the Israeli Army said it did not comment on foreign reports.
Zodiac described the attack as “a suspected piracy incident” aboard the Mercer Street, a 200-yard-long tanker, as it sailed to the United Arab Emirates from Tanzania. The ship is owned by a Japanese company and sails under a Liberian flag.
But Zodiac, which manages the Mercer Street, is owned by Eyal Ofer, an Israeli shipping magnate, prompting some analysts to speculate that it may have been targeted by Iranians.
The ship’s route would have taken it through a strait between Oman and Iran where several attacks on private Israel-linked ships have occurred in recent months — episodes that Israeli officials have blamed on Iran.
In early July, a cargo ship once owned by Zodiac was attacked by Iran in the Indian Ocean, according to an Israeli official, who said Iran mistakenly believed that ship was still owned by Zodiac.
Hans Tino Hansen, the chief executive of Risk Intelligence, a security analysis firm that tracks incidents in the gulf, said, “The pattern of the attack and the outcome seems like a serious escalation in the Iranian-Israeli ‘tit for tat’ engagement that have been ongoing in the maritime domain over the last couple of years.”
Since 2019, Israel has targeted ships carrying Iranian weapons and oil through the eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas — the latest iteration of a regional shadow war between Iran and Israel that has been waged for years across the Middle East.
Israel has been accused of frequent attacks and assassinations on Iranian soil, mostly targeting nuclear facilities, and it conducts airstrikes against Iran-linked groups fighting in the Syrian civil war.
Iran has armed and financed groups throughout the Middle East, notably in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Yemen and Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political movement that has long opposed Israel.
Tensions have risen in recent months as the United States has tried to reinstate a lapsed 2015 agreement that saw Iran pledge to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of foreign restrictions on the Iranian economy.
Israel opposes any reinstatement of the deal, which Israeli officials believe does not sufficiently restrict Iran’s nuclear program or curb its expansionist aims in the region.
Israel is believed to have acquired nuclear weapons in the 1960s, though the government has never confirmed it.