How Israel and Iran’s shadow war is fought at sea
The latest developments come as the return of the United States and Iran to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) becomes increasingly feasible.
Several high-profile incidents occurred in 2020. Over the summer, explosions took place at Iranian military and nuclear facilities, including the Natanz underground facility. Iran declared the incident an act of “sabotage” as suspicion fell on Israel.
Then, in November, the head of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated. Although unproven, the tactics used strongly suggested that it was an operation by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.
The incident continued a long history of strikes against Iran’s nuclear program, with at least four Iranian nuclear scientists murdered between 2010 and 2012, including some of Fakhrizadeh’s MPs.
These patterns also made Israel the prime suspect in the latest attack on the Natanz nuclear power plant on April 11. Iranian leaders confirmed the incident a day later and blamed Tel Aviv.
|Iranian soil is not the only place where the shadow war is taking place. Since 2019, incidents have also occurred at sea, notably in the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Peninsula.|
The attack caused significant damage to facilities and could have delayed Iran’s uranium enrichment for nine months. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the attack “nuclear terrorism” and pledged revenge. Shortly after the attack, Iran began enriching uranium to 60% purity.
However, Iranian soil is not the only place where the shadow war is taking place. Other battlefields such as Lebanon, Syria and cyberspace also play an important role. Since 2019, incidents have also taken place at sea, notably in the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Peninsula.
The two sides have carried out attacks and counterattacks according to a pattern where Israel has been accused of damaging Iranian ships and Tehran is suspected of responding with attacks on Israeli cargo ships.
As part of the campaign, Israel is suspected of carrying out a mine attack in mid-April on the Iranian freighter Saviz in the Red Sea. According to Iranian media, the ship’s primary purpose was to escort Iranian merchant ships in the Red Sea.
However, reports have also claimed that the Saviz is serving Iranian Revolutionary Guards for espionage as well as a maritime base to support Houthi rebels in Yemen. Israel reportedly informed Washington shortly in advance of the attack, which is not without consequences.
Israel has not commented on the incident. However, days after the attack, Defense Minister Benny Gantz reiterated his country’s propensity to take preventative measures. “We have offensive systems operating 24/7, 365 days a year, and they are ready to go into action in any arena and over any distance.”
Although the conflict at sea has intensified since the attack on an Iranian tanker in October 2019, it has remained less at the center of public debate than Israeli operations against Iranian forces in Syria. Since then, Israel has reportedly attacked more than a dozen Iranian ships, at a cost of billions of dollars to Tehran.
|Israel reportedly attacked more than a dozen Iranian ships, costing Tehran billions|
For example, an Iranian tanker was damaged by mines off the Syrian coast in February. In March, a fire broke out on the Shahr e Kord, also off the Syrian coast, when an explosive object struck the ship.
Israeli ships were also targeted. In February, the MV Helios Ray was damaged by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman. On March 25, the cargo ship Lori was attacked in the Arabian Sea, traveling from India to Tanzania. According to official reports, none of the ships were sunk in the process and no crew member was injured.
Although Israel has yet to publicly acknowledge its role in the conflict, its motives are clear.
On the one hand, Israel is trying to prevent Iran from arming Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. Ships suspected of delivering weapons are therefore a prime target. Additionally, by targeting Iranian oil tankers, Israel is trying to prevent Iran from circumventing international sanctions to sell oil and use the proceeds for military operations.
However, another dynamic plays a crucial role in the conflict. The Israeli attacks serve as a message to Washington and undermine US efforts to re-enter the JCPOA. Despite Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is peaceful, Israel is convinced that Tehran is working to develop a nuclear warhead that could threaten Tel Aviv in the long term.
Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not be bound by any agreement reached between Europe, the United States and Iran and that it will continue to consider the measures necessary to ensure the security of the country, even if this means sabotage negotiations.
The most recent attack on Natanz is proof of this. Not only did this occur a day after Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, an annual celebration of Iran’s nuclear progress introduced in 2006, but also days before US and Iranian negotiators met in Vienna to the first talks about a return of the JCPOA since Joe Biden took office.
|Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not be bound by any nuclear deal between Europe, the United States and Iran and that it will continue to consider the measures necessary to ensure the security of the country.|
With the mediation of the European contractual partners Germany, France and Great Britain, two working groups will now facilitate a coordinated procedure towards progress. However, resistance to a deal is not only high in Israel but also in Washington and Iran.
Iranian extremists have positioned themselves against any attempt to return to an agreement with the West. In addition, with the approach of elections, the time has come for President Hassan Rouhani to step down with historic foreign policy success.
Israel is aware that its attacks on Iranian facilities could force Iran to react in a way that could jeopardize the negotiations. This is one of the reasons why Iran has remained somewhat silent on many previous incidents. However, increased publicity could force Tehran to retaliate and make a deal even more difficult.
The question also arises as to whether the Biden administration was made aware of the Natanz attack. If so, Biden is pursuing a complicated strategy – a tightrope diplomatic act that could backfire pretty quickly.
If the US administration was not informed, it would be an indicator that Netanyahu is inclined to continue his tradition of snubbing Democratic presidents through counterproductive unilateral actions against US interests, in this case the JCPOA. If so, the attack on Saviz will not be the last of its kind.
Thomas O. Falk is a London-based freelance journalist who focuses on US affairs and the Middle East. He has written for Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, il Giornale and other outlets.
Follow him on Twitter: @topfalk