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Analysis

Iran showing increasing nerve as fight with Israel spreads to the sea

In Iraq and Yemen, over its nuclear program and more, Tehran has evidently taken a decision to flex its muscles

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Illustrative: The 207-meters-long container vessel 'IRAN PIROOZI' anchors at the quay of Aker MTW Shipyard in Wismar, northern Germany, after the namegiving ceremony on Friday, Oct. 24, 2003. (AP Photo/ Thomas Haentzschel)
Illustrative: The 207-meters-long container vessel 'IRAN PIROOZI' anchors at the quay of Aker MTW Shipyard in Wismar, northern Germany, after the namegiving ceremony on Friday, Oct. 24, 2003. (AP Photo/ Thomas Haentzschel)

As reports emerged Thursday of another Iranian strike on an Israeli civilian vessel, it appeared that the confrontation between Iran and Israel was escalating dangerously at sea.

This fits into a pattern that has unfolded in recent months. Iran has taken a more aggressive posture on several fronts, both rhetorically and in its operations, as tensions rose with the new US administration and Iran’s adversaries in the region.

Thursday’s attack wasn’t the first time Iran allegedly struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship. On February 26, a blast struck the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged cargo ship, in the Gulf of Oman. Netanyahu accused Iran of attacking the ship. Iran swiftly denied the charge, but experts say the attack bears hallmarks of previous attacks ascribed to Tehran.

The operation seems to have been carefully planned, and mirrored a series of attacks on tankers in 2019 and an Iranian campaign against shipping vessels four decades ago.

The incident early Thursday morning — in which an Israeli-owned vessel reportedly came under missile fire in the Gulf of Oman — didn’t come out of thin air. According to The Wall Street Journal, Israel has been carrying out covert strikes on Iranian vessels, and other ships with Iranian cargo. If true, the latest attack may well be part of a more assertive Iranian response to such actions.

The report said Israel has targeted at least 12 ships bound for Syria, most of them transporting Iranian oil in violation of international sanctions, with mines and other weapons. Some of the alleged Israeli strikes, which took place in the Red Sea and other areas, targeted Iran-linked weapons shipments, the report said. The attacks did not sink the tankers but forced at least two of the vessels to return to port in Iran.

Israel sought to halt the trade in oil because it believed the profits were financing regional extremists, the report said.

If indeed Israel has been attacking Iranian shipping for more than a year, why has the Islamic Republic taken the decision to respond now?

For one, Tehran has been desperate to respond to a series of military setbacks. Senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was traveling on a highway outside the capital in November 2020 when he was killed by what was reported as a remote-controlled machine gun. Tehran blamed Israel.

The assassination came after months of mysterious explosions in Iran, including a blast and fire that crippled an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which is widely believed to have been an act of sabotage allegedly carried out by Israel.

In addition, Iran remains under crippling US sanctions that it is longing to find a way out of.

While Syria is consumed by a decade-long civil war, Iran has been trying to open a new front on Israel’s border. It has sent allied forces to the Syrian Golan Heights to set up infrastructure for carrying out attacks on Israeli targets. It has also been working to arm its Hezbollah proxy terrorist group with precision rocket capabilities, shipping weapons through Syria to Lebanon.

However, Israel has displayed competence in sniffing out Iranian actions and a firm willingness to disrupt them using military force, launching hundreds, even thousands, of strikes against Iran and its proxies in Syria and Iraq since 2011.

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters carry the coffin of Jihad Mughniyeh, killed in an alleged Israeli airstrike, during his funeral in a southern Beirut suburb on January 19, 2015. (Joseph Eid/AFP)

“This fits in with Iran being frustrated in its efforts to get at Israel from Syria, where Israel dominates, now acting in their own backyard against Israel because, first of all, it’s a proven modus operandi,” said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

At the same time, Iran is operating with a newfound confidence. Donald Trump — the unpredictable, pugnacious US president who walked away from the nuclear deal and ordered the assassination of the Revolutionary Guard’s extraterritorial Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani — is out of office in the US. His successor, Joe Biden, seems determined to avoid getting sucked into the Middle East, and has stated his desire to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Biden has also signaled that he will be less unconditionally generous to countries in the Arab and Israeli anti-Iran bloc: He waited for weeks to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his election; he’s begun to squeeze Saudi Arabia on its human rights record; In February, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concerns to Egypt over its human rights policies and its plans to buy Russian fighter jets.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on foreign policy at the State Department, March 3, 2021 in Washington. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

And the existence of the WSJ article itself, based on conversations with US officials, might be an indication of displeasure in the Biden administration toward Israel.

“In my opinion, the Americans leaked the report,” said Raz Zimmt, Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies. “Apparently they’re not so happy with what we are doing, which might be the most interesting aspect of this entire story.”

As Iran notices the daylight emerging between the US and its allies, it has been making moves across the region.

Dr. Raz Zimmt (YouTube screenshot)

In Iraq, a string of rocket attacks in February struck near the US embassy and bases housing US forces. Earlier this month, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen said they attacked a Saudi oil facility in the port city of Jeddah.

Iran has also projected confidence around its nuclear program. Iran’s supreme leader on Sunday reiterated the Islamic Republic’s “definite policy” that Washington must lift all sanctions before Tehran returns to its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran has been steadily violating the restrictions of the deal, including on the amount of enriched uranium it can stockpile and the purity to which it can enrich it.

“This might be connected to the new administration,” Zimmt said. “And to the Iranian estimation that the danger that existed in recent months under Trump no longer exists, so they can push the envelope.

“They might also estimate that Israel is limited, even though I don’t know if that is a correct assumption — but they might think that Israel’s freedom of action is limited because of the new administration and because of the political crisis. So they are willing to take chances they weren’t willing to take in the past.”

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