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Israel-Iran naval showdown could get out of hand

Aug 04,2021 - Last updated at Aug 04,2021

Since 2019 Israel and Iran have been engaged in a clandestine maritime showdown that had left commercial tankers belonging to the two countries damaged but not crippled in the high seas. Iran had resorted to this tactic in retaliation to alleged Israeli strikes, including cyberattacks, on its nuclear facilities, electric power stations and more seriously the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist last November.

Israel is also blamed for almost weekly air strikes on Iranian military targets, including weapon depots, in Syria. Pro-Iran militias in Iraq were also targeted by Israel, according to various intelligence sources. This week outgoing Iranian president Hassan Rouhani admitted that Israel was behind the theft of Iran’s nuclear archives back in 2019. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had revealed earlier this year that Israeli spy agents had infiltrated Iranian intelligence agencies.

The clandestine maritime attacks, from both sides, had been tolerated until last Thursday’s incident when an Israeli commercial tanker was hit by drones off the coast of Oman resulting in two deaths, a Briton and Romanian crew members. Israel was quick to point the finger at Iran and called on the international community to take action. Its diplomatic effort got a reluctant United States and an angry Britain to condemn the attack. Iran flatly rejected the accusations and refused to accept blame.

The exaggerated Israeli response may have to do with deflecting attention from the scandal involving the Israeli cyber firm NSO, which sold spyware mobile hacking software; named Project Pegasus, to foreign governments that spied on politicians, activists and journalists among others. Top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, promised to retaliate and an Israeli response to the attack will surely come soon.

The United States and its European allies would want this recent incident to go away sooner than later. Their efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal had hit many snags and as Rouhani is replaced by a hardliner, EbrahimRaisi, this month all eyes are on Tehran’s next move. Just before the attack on the Israeli ship, Washington had sent a positive signal to the new Iranian leader that it hopes for a normal relationship with Iran. 

The timing for this latest shadow naval war could not be worse for all parties concerned. The new Iranian leader will have his hands full trying to subdue popular anti-regime protests across the country that are getting out of control. Acute water shortage in a number of provinces has added to peoples’ anger over worsening living conditions. Israel is just recovering from an inconclusive war with Hamas in Gaza and the new coalition government is walking on thin ice. For the US and the Europeans the Middle East is today too volatile to handle. Lebanon is on the brink of collapse, the Yemen war rages on, Libya remains unstable and now Tunis is going through a constitutional crisis.

The Israeli response to the naval attack, which Israeli leaders promised that it will be coming, could make things worse for all parties. The US is trying to gauge the fallout of its pullback from Afghanistan as the Taliban capture more territory while the Europeans worry about increased tension between Washington on the one hand and Beijing and Moscow on the other. A deliberate Israel attack on Iran will almost certainly complicate the delicate talks, now suspended, in Vienna over the nuclear deal. 

But Israel is pushing its allies to have an international response to the alleged Iranian attack. As much as the US, Britain and others are standing by Israel’s side, any actual move to deter Iran at this stage may backfire. Raisi’s reaction will likely be more aggressive than his predecessor and the Iranian response could target American troops in Iraq at a sensitive phase for the Iraqi premier who had just returned from Washington having got President Joe Biden to commit to a vague US pullout from the country.

At any rate it all depends on the severity of the Israeli retaliation. If Israel chooses to wage a cyber attack on vital Iranian nuclear facilities then Tehran will have to respond. An Israeli strike on an Iranian tanker in the high seas will intensify the maritime war that has been going on for years. A more serious Iranian response could affect maritime navigation in the Strait of Hormuz. In all cases this would be a major test for Bennett and the incoming Iranian president. It is almost certain that the US would put some pressure on Israel not to provoke an international crisis.

There is no doubt that Iran would want to conclude an agreement in Vienna that would lift sanctions and give Iran’s economy a much needed lifeline. Israel is against giving Iran a reprieve and the coming few days will show how determined it is to derail any new deal.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman 

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