Iran seizes cargo ship in Strait of Hormuz, Israel goes on high alert


Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized a cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday, saying the vessel was linked to Israel, which went on high alert over a possible direct Iranian attack that would ramp up a decades-old standoff between the regional foes.

The Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, now in its seventh month, has driven up tensions in the region, spreading to fronts with Lebanon and Syria and drawing long-range fire at Israeli targets from as far away as Yemen and Iraq.

While those hostilities have been carried out by Tehran-backed militias, an April 1 strike that killed senior Iranian military officers in Damascus changed the equation. Blaming Israel — which has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility — Iran vowed retaliation.

That threat has been taken seriously by world powers, several of which have advised their citizens against travel to the region. Israel, meanwhile, has pledged to respond in kind for any Iranian attack on its turf.

Jordan on Saturday declared its airspace closed, in a possible precautionary move given the likelihood of its territory being overflown by any missiles exchanged by Iran and Israel.

Earlier on Saturday, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported that a Guards helicopter had boarded and taken into Iranian waters the Portuguese-flagged MSC Aries.

MSC, which operates the Aries, confirmed that Iran had seized the ship and said it was working “with the relevant authorities” for its safe return and the wellbeing of its 25 crew.

MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, Zodiac said in a statement, adding that MSC is responsible for all the vessel’s activities. Zodiac is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz accused Iran of piracy.

Citing Middle East developments, the White House said U.S. President Joe Biden cut short his weekend plans to confer with national security advisers. On Friday, Biden warned Iran against attacking Israel but said such a scenario could be imminent.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant to pledge “full U.S. support” in the face of Iran, the Pentagon said.

In Israel, where schools have dispersed for the Passover holiday, the military called off youth camps and hikes for the coming days and said the armed forces were on high alert, with dozens of combat planes circling and ready for any orders.

“We are closely monitoring a planned attack by Iran and its proxies against the State of Israel … and we are determined to take any measures required to defend the citizens of the State of Israel,” Gallant said in a video statement.

“We have added new capabilities – on land, in the air, at sea, in our intelligence directorate, within the State of Israel and together with our partners, led by the United States.”

On Tuesday, the Revolutionary Guards’ naval head, Alireza Tangsiri, said the force could close the Strait of Hormuz, which lies between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, if necessary.

He said Iran viewed as a threat to Israel’s presence in the UAE, with which Israel established diplomatic relations in 2020 as part of the “Abraham Accords” mediated by the United States.

Analyst Hasan Alhasan of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said if the seizure of the MSC Aries was in retaliation for Israel’s strike on Iran’s Damascus embassy compound, it showed a desire to save face without a wider escalation.

“Iran may be trying to play on fears that it could obstruct shipping through the strait, a passageway of greater significance to global oil and gas supplies than the Red Sea,” he said.

“If Iran were to limit itself to seizing commercial vessels linked to Israel, then it would minimize the risk of an all-out conflict but damage its own credibility,” he added.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi group has disrupted global trade with attacks on shipping in the Red Sea for months, saying it is aiming at vessels linked to Israel in retaliation for Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

The United States and Britain have carried out strikes against Houthi targets in response to the attacks on shipping.

The Joint Maritime Information Center, run by a Western-led naval coalition, said vessels intending to navigate the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important energy routes, should exercise caution and not loiter.



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