Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Could the Israel-Iran Shadow War Explode?

Israel-Iran Shadow War
An Israeli-linked Japanese-owned tanker MT Mercer Street, off the port of the Gulf Emirate of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. On July 29, 2021, two crew members of the tanker MT Mercer Street, managed by a prominent Israeli businessman’s company, were killed in what appears to be a drone attack off Oman, the vessel’s London-based operator and the US military say, with Israel blaming Iran. Karim SAHIB / AFP

Sophia Akram

A conflict conducted in the shadows has come out into the open after two people died from an attack on an Israeli-linked sea vessel. With speculation rife around tangential incidents, could the latest signs of aggression spill out into all-out war as indicated by senior officials? It is likely tensions continue but direct conflict is not yet on the cards, say analysts.

An attack on 29 July, off the coast of Oman, was the latest in a dangerous tit-for-tat at sea between regional rivals Iran and Israel, which, for the first time, resulted in two casualties — one Briton and a Romanian. The international community responded, including the US and UK who blamed the suicide drone on Iran.

The drone attack took place in international waters on the Liberian-flagged oil tanker MV Mercer Street, owned by Zodiac Maritime, an Israeli company. Soon after, an “incident” took place on the Gulf-owned Asphalt Princess near the UAE, later confirmed as a hijacking that Israel also blamed on Iran.

Iran denied both claims saying the accusations were “to prepare the public opinion of the international community for hostile action against the honourable nation of Iran.”

It is the first time the Israel-Iran shadow war being played out at sea has caught global attention, with Iranian tankers also having been targeted by Israel over the last two years, including those transporting oil to Syria. A subsequent explosion onboard an oil tanker moored in the Syrian port of Latakia also raised suspicions of it being an Israeli revenge attack for Mercer Street but little more is known at the time of writing.

Analysis by the Telegraph newspaper found 20 attacks have taken place within six months this year and that these attacks have steadily increased since 2019.

“You can attack a Japanese-owned, Liberian-flagged vessel simply because it’s linked to an Israeli billionaire. It’s a very useful way of launching deniable attacks that don’t directly target your adversary,” said Control Risk Group’s Cormac McGarry to Politico. Although it has implications for the rest of the world as through the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz travels vast amounts of oil and goods vital to many Northern Hemisphere countries.

Israel’s rhetoric against Iran since these incidents has been to suggest military action. Benny Gantz, Israel’s defence minister, told media outlet Ynet that Israel was prepared to strike Iran.

“Iran is a global and regional problem and an Israeli challenge,” he said. “We need to continue to develop our abilities to cope with multiple fronts, for this is the future.”

However, analysts dismiss the likelihood of direct war between the two countries.

“The main thrust of Israel’s response after the Mercer Street attack is to push for Iran’s diplomatic isolation,” Crisis Group’s senior Israel-Palestine analyst Mairav Zonszein told Fanack.

Sina Toossi, a senior analyst at the National Iranian American Council, agreed, explaining that each nation had a deterrent — Iran with its ballistic missile capability and Israel has nuclear weapons.

“The Israelis called it the war between wars, but it is a period of increased military confrontation in the region. Whether this will spill into a direct conflict… I think right now both sides are mutually deterred from doing that,” he said.

Naval attacks are, however, just one face to a multi-sided asymmetric war between Israel and Iran, played out by proxy in other conflict theatres, cyberspace and against Iran’s uranium enrichment programme.

On 9 July, Israel disrupted Iranian train traffic causing “unprecedented chaos at train stations throughout the country,” with notice boards referring travellers to a phone line that belonged to supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Iran also blamed Israel for an explosion at its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz and the assassination of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on 27 November 2020.

Israel has also conducted airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria with more than 500 strikes in 2020 alone, according to the Israeli chief of staff Aviv Kochavi, which he claimed: “slowed down Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.”

Meanwhile, Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, who man the border between Lebanon and Israel and who some claim is a proxy for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, also fired rockets into “disputed” territory on 6 August, sparking fear an escalation in hostilities between regional players was imminent.

However, Hezbollah said it targeted open ground near Israeli forces to retaliate for Israeli airstrikes that also struck open areas in a three-day exchange. Neither party wanted to change its rules of engagement. Several Israeli army generals reportedly said, however, that they expected military confrontation with Lebanon.

“We are going to a regional war against Iran, we need to take the initiative,” said a former senior Israeli army officer, noted Middle East Monitor.

While Gantz’s role as defence secretary has demonstrated some continuity between the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the new coalition led by Naftali Bennett some have commented that Bennett may be even more hawkish than his predecessor.

Since the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office, “Iranian aggression has escalated in every point in the Middle East by land, air and sea,” said Bennett.

Raisi also elected his cabinet this week, appointing hard-liner Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to foreign minister with the new team representing a break from the more moderate approach of predecessors Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“They were consistently advocating for restraint in the face of maximum pressure,” said Toossi. “The Raisi team are going to raise the cost for actions against Iran.”

Despite neither side likely interested in all-out war, “new governments and situations are being tested,” said Zonszein, “and the risk is that what’s been a shadow conflict over the past several years comes fully out into the open.”

The risks of any escalation carry high costs for both parties with wider regional and international implications. It also makes the US job of successful negotiations with Iran to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or “nuclear deal”, which Israel opposes, much harder, which is in part Israel’s objective. The other is to thwart Iran’s wider influence in the region, which it sees as a threat to its own security. For their part, some argue the Iranians are trying to improve their leverage in talks.

Hindsight, however, may be a more insightful tool in establishing how escalation to this point came to be.

“It is very sad that we are back to the point where we’re talking again, potentially, of Israel and Iran going to war, Israeli launching military strikes,” said Toossi.

“All of this really serves to show the failure of Trump’s policy of leaving the nuclear deal and imposing maximum pressure because all of this is derived from that.”

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