Zodiac Maritime, the Mercer Street’s operator, has a long history of working closely with both the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Israeli intelligence unit Mossad, using its ships to ferry arms and operatives around the region for covert operations, including assassinations.
GULF OF OMAN — Earlier this summer, the Israeli-operated oil tanker Mercer Street was attacked by drones, allegedly emanating from Iran, disabling the ship and killing two people on board. The incident, portrayed as an unprovoked attack on a civilian vessel, caused worldwide outrage, and marked a new low in Iranian relations with Israel and its Western allies. But a MintPress investigation can now reveal that Zodiac Maritime, the Mercer Street’s operator, has a long history of working closely with both the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Israeli intelligence unit Mossad, using its ships to ferry arms and operatives around the region for covert operations, including assassinations.
Zodiac Maritime is a worldwide shipping conglomerate owned and operated by the Ofer family. Brothers Eyal and Idan Ofer are Israel’s third and ninth richest billionaires, respectively, having taken over the business from their father, Sammy. The company also has a long history of working alongside the Israeli government on special operations.
Defying American sanctions, for years, Zodiac ships continued to trade with the Islamic Republic, docking regularly in Iranian ports. By the time of Sammy’s death in 2011, the U.S. government was investigating the firm and the Treasury Department had announced sanctions against it for supposedly helping Iran skirt round the American-imposed blockade.
Why such a well-established Israeli firm would breach sanctions and collaborate with an enemy state in Iran also mystified many Israeli officials, who launched their own inquiry. However, the government hearing on the affair was abruptly shut down after the chair was passed a note by a “very high-ranking security official” — that official rumored to have been Mossad Director Tamir Pardo. As soon as Committee Chairman Carmel Shama read the message, he immediately ordered all press to leave the meeting and finished the event behind closed doors. “Let’s just be clear: the note is not from a political figure and not from a business figure. It turns out that reality is much more complex, much more complicated and touchy than the average imagination can handle,” Shama offered as an explanation. The reaction from both the Knesset and the United States government suggests that this agreement was extremely secret indeed, with operations going on behind both of their backs.
The news, which Israeli media had christened “OferGate,” was immediately dropped and glossed over, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisting that the elderly Sammy Ofer, who died the same week, was a “Zionist through and through.” Meir Dagan, who had recently retired as director of Mossad, concurred, stating that the case had been “blown out of proportion,” and hinted that the Ofer family may have actually been acting in the service of the state.
Among such known missions are Zodiac Maritime cargo ships with modified hulls being used to ferry Israeli Black Hawk helicopters to Iran, where they were used by elite commando teams in reconnaissance missions against the Islamic Republic’s alleged nuclear programs. Zodiac Maritime’s business relationship with Iranian ports and shipping companies was crucial to this endeavor, providing both the cover and the means to enter Iranian waters without attracting suspicion.
The year before OferGate blew up in Israeli media, the billionaire clan’s boats were used in a successful assassination mission against Palestinian leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Mossad killed the Hamas official, responsible for procurement of weapons, in his Dubai hotel room, causing a worldwide outrage. Secret agents traveled to the United Arab Emirates on Ofer’s ships, posing as workers and using forged foreign passports. Reports suggest that al-Mabhouh was drugged, electrocuted and suffocated with a pillow in his room, with some operatives escaping on the same ship they arrived on.
Although successful, the mission did not go as smoothly as planned, as Emirati police were able to identify a number of the perpetrators. Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland expelled Israeli diplomats in protest at Mossad’s use of faked passports from their countries as cover for the operation.
Going further back, in 1988, elite Israeli forces, under the command of future Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon, used modified cargo ships to smuggle soldiers and helicopters into Tunisia, where they stormed into Tunis and killed Deputy Leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Khalil al-Wazir, before returning to the ship and making a hasty retreat.
The long history of Zodiac Maritime and other Israeli civilian shipping companies aiding the government in acts of international terrorism raises the question whether perhaps Iranian intelligence suspected something about the Mercer Street that is not publicly known. The vessel was travelling from Africa to the United Arab Emirates, and, when hit, was about to enter the Gulf of Oman — the narrow maritime passage between the Arabian peninsula and Iran. There was reportedly no cargo on board.
Yet any possibility of clandestine activities has been overlooked by corporate media when reporting on the Mercer Street attack. Instead, all such outlets preferred to echo Western governments’ framing of the events as an “unacceptable and outrageous attack on commercial shipping,” in the words of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The British connection
The 28,400 ton vessel was attacked by drones on July 29 and July 30. The two casualties reported are an unidentified Romanian worker and Adrian Underwood, a soldier with a long and distinguished record in the British army. Underwood had recently joined private security group Ambrey.
Based in the provincial English city of Hereford, Ambrey boasts that its 600 operatives work in over 20 countries worldwide, providing security and training services around the globe. Hereford is also the headquarters of the SAS, Britain’s most elite fighting force. Because of the SAS, the city of barely 60,000 people has become arguably the worldwide center for mercenaries, a recent report noting that no fewer than 14 private military and security companies are based there. Ambrey itself has deep connections to the British armed forces, with most of its directors serving long tours of duty in its ranks.
The United Kingdom has close links with the Israeli national security state, supplying the IDF with over $500 million worth of weapons since 2015, much of this being aircraft or high tech machinery. British units provide training to their Israeli counterparts and there is even a small British force stationed inside the Jewish state. The U.K. and Israel now conduct joint war games as well as share intelligence. As Declassified UK noted, the United Kingdom also plays a crucial role in maintaining Israeli nuclear weapons, supplying submarine components that maintain the country’s nuclear capabilities.
Israel also enjoys significant influence in the U.K., selling weapons and funding political groups. Indeed, a recent investigation found that one third of the British cabinet, including Prime Minister Johnson, have been directly financed by Israel or pro-Israli lobby groups. Earlier this year, former Conservative Minister Alan Duncan claimed that he was blocked from being appointed Middle East Minister by Israeli pressure groups “for no other reason than that I believe in the rights of the Palestinians.” “The Israelis think they control the Foreign Office. And they do!” he added — a statement that goes beyond even the wildest remarks of Labor politicians accused of anti-Semitism.
Zodiac Maritime and the Ofer family also have close connections with Great Britain. Sammy Ofer himself served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. And although Zodiac Maritime is legally based in Monaco, its day-to-day operations are run from London, with much of its fleet registered in Britain. Ofer donated substantial sums to British institutions, giving £20 million (around $27 million) to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in East London and £3.3 million (~ $4.5 million) to restore the historic ship Cutty Sark. There is now an entire wing of the National Maritime Museum named in his honor. In 2008, he was awarded the title of Honorary Knight of the British Empire. Ofer’s sons Eyal and Idan also reside in London, and both have continued their father’s tradition of giving ostentatiously to local art and cultural institutions.
Anatomy of an attack
Although the Mercer Street is operated by Zodiac Maritime, it is actually owned by a subsidiary of the Japanese shipping conglomerate Nippon Yusen Group. And despite Zodiac being an Israeli-owned and controlled company, it is, as previously noted, headquartered in London and technically registered as a Monaco-based operation. On top of all this, the Mercer Street flies a Liberian flag, as around one in ten big ships do. Such is the tax-avoiding world of international big business.
Built in 2013, the Mercer Street sailed throughout Africa, Europe and Asia. It was hit by a sustained attack from suicide drones on the evening of July 29 and the morning of July 30. In addition to the two human fatalities, the ship suffered considerable damage to its bridge, rendering it out of action. Zodiac Maritime refused to answer questions about the extent of the damage, reveal the identity of the Romanian individual killed, or confirm or deny its relationship with the Israeli government when asked by MintPress.
Responding to distress calls, the U.S. Navy sped to the ship, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan escorting it to a safe port. U.S. Central Command conducted an investigation into the affair, concluding that three UAV drones were used in the attack, and that military-grade explosives were used to blast a 6-foot hole in the topside of the pilot house, badly damaging its interior as well. Meanwhile, Britain immediately flew a team of 40 SAS commandos to eastern Yemen, acting on the theory that Iranian-supported Houthi rebels could have been behind the attack. That the United States and United Kingdom were so quick to act raises questions about how closely they are coordinating with each other and against Iran.
The U.S. and Israel both blamed Iran for the incident. “Upon review of the available information, we are confident that Iran conducted this attack,” said Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. “We are working with our partners to consider our next steps and consulting with governments inside the region and beyond on an appropriate response, which will be forthcoming.”
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was even more confident — and belligerent. “I determine, with absolute certainty, Iran carried out the attack against the ship,” he stated. “The intelligence evidence for this exists and we expect the international community will make it clear to the Iranian regime that they have made a serious mistake… We know how to send a message to Iran in our own way,” he added.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, at the Cabinet meeting today:
"The world recently received a reminder of Iranian aggression, this time on the high seas. The Iranians, who attacked the ship 'Mercer Street' with UAVs, intended to attack an Israeli target.https://t.co/g0BpFHJKEy pic.twitter.com/Tj3zkqkBm3
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) August 1, 2021
Iran, for its part, has rejected the accusations. “Regarding the politically motivated statements made by the United States and the United Kingdom in this meeting against Iran concerning the Mercer Street vessel incident, I reiterate, once again, our firm rejection of these unsubstantiated allegations,” said Zahra Ershadi, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, who stressed that “the Islamic Republic of Iran is highly interested in, and attaches great importance to, maritime security.”
This is, however, far from the first time Iran has been linked with attacks on Israeli vessels. Indeed, earlier that month, a UAE-bound ship in the Strait of Hormuz, previously owned by Zodiac Maritime, was hit, with Israeli officials pointing the finger at Iran. The Times of Israel speculated that the incident could have been a response to an Israeli attack on an Iranian centrifuge production site in June.
Israeli-owned ships have also come under fire in April, March, and February of this year, each time Jerusalem suspecting Iran. The last of these, the attack on the MV Helios Ray, damaged its hull. Ambrey operatives were also providing security for that ship. “This was indeed an operation by Iran. That is clear,” Netanyahu told the press at the time. Iran also denies responsibility for these attacks. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh stated that Netanyahu suffered from “Iranophobia” and suggested that he was using the incidents as a distraction to Israel’s domestic problems.
However, few seem to believe that Iran is entirely guilt free. National security blogger Richard Silverstein described the Mercer Street incident as Iran repaying Zodiac Maritime in kind for its role in helping the Israeli military. “President Raisi seems intent on conveying a strong message: whatever you may have thought of [former President Hassan] Rouhani, he was a walk in the park compared to what I will be,” Silverstein wrote.
Receiving less press attention, Israel has also been carrying out a campaign against Iranian ships, targeting at least 12 Syria-bound vessels, most of them carrying Iranian oil. One such attack earlier this year backfired heavily on Israel, however. IDF commandos successfully attached a mine on an Iraninan oil tanker in the Mediterranean. But the resulting blast led to over 1,000 tons of oil leaking into the sea and washing up on Israeli beaches, causing the worst ecological disaster in the country’s history. Animals and coastal areas were covered in oil, forcing the government to close Israeli beaches for weeks afterward, as thousands of people worked to clean up the spill.
In April, Iranian military ship MV Saviz was attacked in the Red Sea. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz stopped short of claiming responsibility, but stated that “Israel must continue to defend itself,” adding that, “Any place we find an operational challenge and necessity, we will continue to act.” But officials in Gantz’s government reportedly privately confirmed to the U.S. that it was indeed responsible for the attack. An Iranian military vessel also mysteriously caught fire and sank in early June of this year.
Israel has also carried out numerous attacks on the Iranian nuclear program, the most notable of which was perhaps the assassination of top scientist Moshen Fakhrizadeh last November. While traveling between a meeting and a university lecture in Tehran, Fakhrizadeh was gunned down, with many reports suggesting that a remotely operated gun mounted on a truck was responsible. Former Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen strongly hinted his agency was involved in the killing.
Iran is currently in negotiations with the United States about a redesigned nuclear deal, something that Israel strongly opposes. In 2018, President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Barack Obama’s nuclear deal, but later tried to convince other nations to sanction Iran based on the Islamic Republic’s non-adherence to the agreement he had personally scuppered. The recent series of attacks have done nothing to help the prospect of a long-term accord being reached.
American sanctions have already inflicted serious hardship on Iran, sending the prices of consumer goods soaring and the value of its currency, the rial, plummeting. Oil production has sputtered, as the country can find few buyers for its primary national export. The price of food has also become a serious issue for many. “The sanctions deliberately target ordinary Iranians, women and children,” Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Professor of English Literature at the University of Tehran, told MintPress last year. “They are designed to kill hospital patients and to create poverty. They have had partial success.”
The assault on the Mercer Street provokes many questions. If Iran did indeed attack the ship, why did it do so? Did they suspect or know anything about what was on board? Or was this simply another episode in the tit-for-tat spat that has been escalating between the two countries for years? How closely does Zodiac Maritime work with the Israeli security services? What is the role of the British mercenary group in all this? And to what extent does Israel work with the U.S. and U.K. on these issues? As with so much in the world of espionage, the truth rarely comes out quickly, if at all.
Editor’s note | Additional support and research for this article were provided by MintPress News staffer, Lowkey.
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.