Pentagon investigative team says Iran was behind attack on Mercer Street tanker

Images shows damage to the Mercer Street vessel caused by an UAV attack 29-30 July 202

By Jennifer Hansler and Ellie Kaufman, CNN

(CNN) -- A US Defense Department expert team concluded that the drone behind the deadly attack on the Mercer Street commercial vessel was produced in Iran, US Central Command said in a statement Friday.

The assault on the Mercer Street, which left two crewmembers dead, has ratcheted up tensions in the region and prompted unified outcry from the G7 coalition of nations, whose foreign ministers placed the blame squarely on Iran and condemned the attack as "a clear violation of international law."

"All available evidence clearly points to Iran. There is no justification for this attack," the G7 joint statement released Friday said.

The Pentagon's investigative team, which dispatched to the vessel from the USS Ronald Reagan naval carrier, found that the tanker was targeted on July 30 by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) "loaded with a military-grade explosive," according to the Central Command statement. It had been targeted the day prior "by two unsuccessful explosive UAV attacks."

'Extensive damage'

The July 30 attack, which caused "extensive damage" to the ship, "required calculated and deliberate retargeting of M/T MERCER STREET by Iran," according to Central Command.

"The use of Iranian designed and produced one way attack 'kamikaze' UAVs is a growing trend in the region," an executive summary included in an accompanying report from US Central Command said. "They are actively used by Iran and their proxies against coalition forces in the region, to include targets in Saudi Arabia and Iraq."

The US team shared evidence with both British and Israeli explosive experts, according to the statement, and "both partners concurred with the US findings."

The Mercer Street, which was off the coast of Oman at the time of the attack, is operated by a company chaired by an Israeli businessman. The rhetoric between Israel and Iran has grown increasingly bellicose in the wake of the deadly incident and as Iran's new hardline President Ebrahim Raisi takes office.

On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz responded "yes" when asked whether Israel was ready to attack Iran. A spokesperson for Iran's foreign ministry said military action would be met with a "decisive" response. That message was echoed on Friday by Iran's deputy United Nations ambassador, who warned "against any such adventurism and miscalculations" and blamed Israel for the attack on the tanker.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke on Friday with Gantz. The two "expressed concern about Iran's proliferation and employment of one-way attack UAVs across the region and committed to continue cooperating closely on regional security," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a readout.

"They agreed to work together alongside allies and partners in condemning Iran's aggression that undermines freedom of navigation, and they exchanged views on next steps," he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly vowed a "coordinated response" to the attack, although the State Department declined to go into specifics about what such a response could entail.

A threat to peace

Blinken and his G7 counterparts -- fellow foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the High Representative of the European Union -- called on Iran "to stop all activities inconsistent with relevant UN Security Council resolutions, and call on all parties to play a constructive role in fostering regional stability and peace."

"Iran's behavior, alongside its support to proxy forces and non-state armed actors, threatens international peace and security," the joint statement Friday said.

"Vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law," the statement said. "We will continue to do our utmost to protect all shipping, upon which the global economy depends, so that it is able to operate freely and without being threatened by irresponsible and violent acts."

Two crewmembers, a Briton and a Romanian, died in the attack on the Mercer Street tanker on July 30.

According to the Central Command report, "the crew followed appropriate procedures, gathered in safe haven inside the ship, and informed their company of an attack."

The explosion following the UAV's impact on the tanker created "an approximately 6-foot diameter hole in the topside of the pilot house and badly damaged," the tanker's interior, the release said.

"Explosive chemical tests were indicative of a nitrate-based explosive and identified as RDX, indicating the UAV had been rigged to cause injury and destruction," it said.

The team of explosive experts were able to recover pieces of the drone used in the successful third attack, including part of the wing "and internal components which were nearly identical to previously collected examples from Iranian one-way attack UAVs," Central Command said.

"The distance from the Iranian coast to the locations of the attacks was within the range of documented Iranian one-way attack UAVs," the release said.

After the US investigative team analyzed the aftermath on-scene, some material was transferred to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain and then, "to a US national laboratory for further testing and verification," the release said.

The US team shared evidence with United Kingdom explosive experts at the US Fifth Fleet headquarters. Evidence was shared with Israeli explosive experts virtually, the release said.

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