Iran Seizes Commercial Ship Linked to Israel

Iranian forces seized a container ship with links to Israel in the Persian Gulf on Saturday, as leaders in the Middle East and beyond watched for a retaliatory strike by Iran against Israel.

MSC, a major shipping company, said on Saturday that the MSC Aries, which is registered in Portugal, had been boarded by “Iranian authorities” via helicopter as it passed the Strait of Hormuz.

A video shared by Iranian state media showed a military helicopter hovering above what appeared to be the stern of the ship, with at least two soldiers descending a rope onto the deck.

The soldiers were part of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, according to IRNA, the state news agency.

Though it is operated by MSC, the 1,200-foot cargo vessel belongs to an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, which is part of the Zodiac Group, owned by the Israel-born billionaire Eyal Ofer, making it a possible target for Iranian retaliation. Tehran has vowed a retaliatory strike after blaming Israel for an attack on an Iranian embassy building in Syria that killed 12 people, among them top military generals.

Israel Katz, Israel’s foreign affairs minister, confirmed the seizure on social media and said Iran’s leadership was “a criminal regime that supports Hamas’ crimes and is now conducting a pirate operation in violation of international law.”

Six months after the Hamas attack on Israel that started the war in Gaza, the seizure comes amid fears of a wider conflict involving Iran directly. Iran is a backer of Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, but has so far stayed clear of direct involvement. On Friday, President Biden said that he expected Iran to launch a retaliatory attack “sooner than later,” and reiterated that the United States remained committed to the defense of Israel.

It was not immediately clear if the seizure of the ship was part of Iran’s promised response to the attack in Syria, but it was not the first time Iran had directly seized a commercial vessel. In January, Iran’s navy seized a tanker loaded with oil off the coast of Oman. In that seizure, soldiers also descended from a hovering helicopter.

Before the war in Gaza, the United States said that Iran had “harassed, attacked or interfered” with more than a dozen internationally flagged merchant ships in recent years.

For their part, the Houthis have disrupted a significant part of the world’s shipping by attacking dozens of vessels heading to or from the Suez Canal.

The MSC Aries had 25 crew members on board, according to its operator.

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