Watch: Iranian troops hijack Israeli-linked ship in helicopter attack

An image from a video supplied by a Middle East defence official shows commandos descending from a helicopter on to the ship
An image from a video supplied by a Middle East defence official shows commandos descending from a helicopter on to the ship - AP

Iranian commandos dropped from a helicopter and hijacked a vessel linked to Israel in the Hormuz Strait on Saturday, prompting Israel to accuse Tehran of “piracy”.

The maritime attack came as Israel braced for an all-out Iranian strike on its territory following the alleged Israeli killing of a top Iranian commander in Damascus last week.

US president Joe Biden cut short a weekend stay at his Delaware residence to return to Washington and “consult with his national security team about events in the Middle East”, the White House said on Saturday.

Mr Biden warned late on Friday that an Iranian attack on Israel would come “sooner [rather] than later”.

A video shared online of the attack on MSC Aries showed three men dressed in black climbing down a rope onto a stack of containers on the boat’s deck.

Iranian state media said the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had seized a foreign vessel “affiliated with the Zionist regime in the Persian Gulf”.

The Portuguese-flagged container ship is associated with London-based Zodiac Maritime, which is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.

‘Don’t come out!’

In the video, a crew member on the ship can be heard saying “don’t come out” and then telling his colleagues to go to the ship’s bridge as more figures board the vessel.

Shipping company MSC confirmed the hijacking of MSC Aries, saying that it was “boarded by helicopter” and was now being diverted to Iran along with its 25 crew members.

“We are working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing, and safe return of the vessel,” it said.

Earlier this week, Alireza Tangsiri, the commander of the IRGC navy threatened to close the Hormuz Strait if necessary, calling Israel’s presence in the United Arab Emirates a threat.

“We can close the Hormuz Strait but are not doing so. However, if the enemy comes to disrupt us, we will review our policy,” Mr Tangsiri said.

On Saturday, Israel Katz, Israel’s foreign minister, called on the European Union and the “free world” to immediately declare the IRGC a terrorist organisation and to “sanction Iran now”.

Iran is a “criminal regime that supports Hamas’s crimes and is now conducting a pirate operation in violation of international law”, Mr Katz said.

‘Iran will bear the consequences’

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) also issued a statement, warning Tehran would “bear the consequences for choosing to escalate the situation any further”.

Daniel Hagari, the IDF spokesperson, said: “Israel is on high alert. We have increased our readiness to protect Israel from further Iranian aggression. We are also prepared to respond.

“The Israel Defense Forces is prepared for all scenarios and will take the necessary steps, together with our allies, to protect the people of Israel.”

Mr Hagari did not specifically mention the ship hijacking.

Iran has continually threatened to “punish” Israel for killing its top commander Gen Mohammad Reza Zahedi along with several other IRGC officers in a strike on its Syrian embassy on April 1.

There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity to try to prevent any escalation.

The Prime Minister has been receiving regular updates over the weekend on the security situation in the Middle East, The Telegraph understands.

Rishi Sunak also chaired a one-hour Cobra meeting on Friday afternoon in the Cabinet Office, where the increasing threat from Iran was discussed, as well as the ongoing situation in the Middle East.

“We call on Iran to release the vessel and its international crew immediately,” said US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson. “Seizing a civilian vessel without provocation is a blatant violation of international law, and an act of piracy by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”

Israelis stay sanguine

“Israel on high alert as world works to stop clash with Iran,” read the front page of the Jerusalem Post on one news stand on Saturday.

The headline on another Israeli paper, Maariv, read: “Danger Zone” along with a picture of an Iranian flag and a missile being launched.

But the papers laid out for customers at a local kiosk in the coastal town of Herzliya, central Israel, on Saturday morning stood in a stark contrast to the mood on the street.

“Nothing will happen. They say it will but it won’t. It’s just talk. In Herzliya we don’t talk so much about it,” Itzik, a local supermarket owner, told The Telegraph.

Two women going for a job along the seaside were equally sanguine in the face of the Iranian threats.

“We are concerned but not nervous. We are used to it. I think an attack might happen, but on a military target, not civilian,” one of the women said.

People walking on a boardwalk with a blue sea behind
Herzliya on Saturday morning, where the mood was sanguine - Jotam Confino

On the streets of Tehran, people were more concerned.

“I don’t know who is at fault and who is not, but it is better to reach a compromise so that the war does not begin, and innocent people don’t die,” Maryam, a 43-year-old private sector worker, told AFP.

“God willing, our government will favour reason over emotion,” added Salehi, a 75-year-old retired government employee.

Some believe Tehran will respond with force to Israel’s attack on its embassy.

“War is always bad and worrying… but sometimes to achieve peace, a war is necessary,” said Ehsan, a 43-year-old university professor.

The Iranian reformist newspaper Shargh wrote on Saturday that “the longer Tehran’s response is delayed, the more it has negative consequences on the country’s economy and intensifies concerns in society”.

It is too early to be sure if Saturday’s ship seizure will be the last word from Iran in a tit-for-tat that has put the whole region on edge.

Not a new tactic

Attacking vessels in the Persian Gulf region is nothing new for the IRGC, which has repeatedly harassed and attacked ships deemed to have a connection with Israel.

It is suspected of hijacking the Asphalt Princess in August 2021 as well as the Advantage Sweet in April 2023 and the Niovi a month later. The seizure of the Advantage Sweet involved a helicopter, just as in the most recent hijacking.

Ambrey, a security firm, said it had “observed still footage of at least three individuals fast-roping from a helicopter onto what appeared to be a container ship”.

The IRGC “have previously used this method of boarding while seizing vessels in the Strait of Hormuz”, Ambrey added.

For that reason, the hijacking of MSC Aries is unlikely to be seen as the full extent of Iran’s retaliation, experts say.

It could be just the first part of a multi-pronged, unconventional attack by Iran – or the leadership may have completely abandoned its much-vaunted plans for a large-scale missile attack.

Iranian leaders prefer to avoid direct action in their shadow conflict with Israel. They tend to rely on asymmetric, veiled attacks, using their vast network of proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Regardless, Iranian regime officials seem to be very pleased about the anxiety caused without launching a single missile.

“This psychological, media and political war is more terrifying for them than the war itself, because they are waiting for an attack every night and many of them have fled and gone to shelters,” said Yahya Rahim Safavi, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader.

Experts who closely follow Iran have suggested that this could be the true goal of the recent crisis: waging psychological warfare on Israel to grind down morale, and perhaps lay the groundwork for a security slip-up in the near future.