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Iran suspected of Eastern Pacific tanker drone attack

Shipping once again on alert for drone attacks as the latest explosion demonstrates malicious actors' ability to attack shipping with unmanned aerial vehicles during hours of darkness

Head of US Military Central Command General Michael Erik Kurilla points to Iran as the source of a drone attack that targeted a tanker, operated by Israeli Idan Ofer’s Eastern Pacific Shipping

IRAN was responsible for an exploding drone attack that hit an Eastern Pacific Shipping-operated tanker off the coast of Oman on Tuesday evening, according to the US military.

The Liberian-flagged Pacific Zircon (IMO: 9539573) was hit “by a projectile”, according to the vessel’s operators, approximately 150 miles (240 km) off the coast of Oman at about 1530 hrs on November 15.

No official response has been issued by the Iranian government. However, General Michael Erik Kurilla, the head of US Central Command, which is responsible for American military operations in the Middle East, denounced the attack as another sign of Iran’s threat to the Middle East.

“This unmanned aerial vehicle attack against a civilian vessel in this critical maritime strait demonstrates, once again, the destabilizing nature of Iranian malign activity in the region,” said General Kurilla in a statement issued to Lloyd’s List.

According to Eastern Pacific Shipping only minor damage was sustained to the hull of Pacific Zircon, which was carrying a cargo of gasoil at the time of the attack. 

Eastern Pacific has confirmed that there were no injuries and the damage to the hull did not result in any water ingress or pollution.

“We are in communication with the vessel and there are no reports of injuries or pollution. All crew are safe and accounted for. There is some minor damage to the vessel’s hull but no spillage of cargo or water ingress. Our priorities are to ensure the continuing safety of the crew and vessel,” a statement issued by Eastern Pacific said on Wednesday.

Pacific Zircon had departed the Omani port of Sohar on November 14 before turning off its AIS. The vessel then turned on its AIS at 1540 hrs on Tuesday, just after the attack.

While the attack will be the subject of forensic investigations by security forces and flag administration officials, the consensus among security analysts points to Iran as the likely source of the attack. 

Last year, the US accused Iran of launching a similar drone attack on the Zodiac-operated tanker Mercer Street, which killed two crew members.

The fact that Pacific Zircon is operated by Israeli Born Idan Ofer’s Eastern Pacific and Mercer Street was owned by Mr Ofer’s elder brother Eyal Ofer has led security analysts to conclude that the attacks were politically targeted.

Iran denied any involvement in the Mercer Street attack.

“This recent attack is worrying in the sense that it demonstrates malicious actors' ability to attack shipping with unmanned aerial vehicles during hours of darkness,” said BIMCO’s head of maritime safety and security Jakob Larsen. “It is worth noticing the parallels to the July 2021 attack on Mercer Street and the apparent increased risk to assets with links to Israel. In other words it seems this specific threat is not directed against merchant shipping in general.”

A security alert issued by the US Maritime Administration, Marad, prior to the Mercer Street attack concluded that “explosive unmanned aerial vehicle attacks on merchant vessels… represents a growing threat”.

The Marad alert recommended vessels operating in the Middle East Gulf to review their security measures in line with existing industry best management practice, but no specific recommendations exist for UAV threats.

Although drones had been suspected in a handful of attacks in the region, prior to the Mercer Street incident, UAVs had been a rumour discussed among security analysts as a worst-case risk. The attack on Pacific Zircon will reignite concerns that shipping is being targeted amid growing concern about Iran’s military threats to the region as Tehran grapples with protracted protests at home that have undermined the government’s grip on power.

Investigators will be looking to confirm initial reports that the Pacific Zircon attack was another example of the Shahed-136 drone being used to target maritime assets, the same kind of Iranian drone that Russia has used to carry out a series of attacks in Ukraine. The Shahed-136 drone was also confirmed as being used in the Mercer Street attack.

According to Lloyd’s List Intelligence, Pacific Zircon is operated by Eastern Pacific but owned by Japanese firm Taihei Kaiun Company, based in Imabari. The tanker is classed by ABS and insured by London Steamship P&I.


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