Israel’s shadow moves out to sea

Protesters outside Parliament in Tehran on Nov. 28, 2020, after the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist. Israel and Iran have fought a clandestine war across the Middle East for years. (Photo: NYTimes)
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — The sun was rising on the Mediterranean one recent morning when the crew of an Iranian cargo ship heard an explosion. The ship, the Shahr e Kord, was about 50 miles off the coast of Israel, and from the bridge they saw a plume of smoke rising from one of the hundreds of containers stacked on deck.اضافة اعلان

The state-run Iranian shipping company said the vessel had been heading to Spain and called the explosion a “terrorist act”.

But the attack on the Shahr e Kord this month was just one of the latest salvos in a long-running covert conflict between Israel and Iran. An Israeli official said the attack was retaliation for an Iranian assault on an Israeli cargo ship last month.

Since 2019, Israel has been attacking ships carrying Iranian oil and weapons through the eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas, opening a new maritime front in a regional shadow war that had previously played out by land and in the air.

Iran appears to have quietly responded with its own clandestine attacks. The latest came Thursday afternoon, when an Israeli-owned container ship, the Lori, was hit by an Iranian missile in the Arabian Sea, an Israeli official said. No casualties or significant damage were reported.

The Israeli campaign, confirmed by American, Israeli, and Iranian officials, has become a linchpin of Israel’s effort to curb Iran’s military influence in the Middle East and stymie Iranian efforts to circumvent US sanctions on its oil industry.

But the conflict’s expansion risks the escalation of what has been a relatively limited tit-for-tat, and it further complicates efforts by the Biden administration to persuade Iran to reintroduce limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

“This is a full-fledged cold war that risks turning hot with a single mistake,” said Ali Vaez, Iran program director at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. “We’re still in an escalatory spiral that risks getting out of control.”

Since 2019, Israeli commandos have attacked at least 10 ships carrying Iranian cargo, according to a US official and a former senior Israeli official. The real number of targeted ships may be higher than 20, according to an Iranian Oil Ministry official, an adviser to the ministry and an oil trader.

The Israeli attacks were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Most of the ships were carrying fuel from Iran to its ally Syria, and two carried military equipment, according to an American official and two senior Israeli officials. An American official and an Israeli official said the Shahr e Kord was carrying military equipment toward Syria.

The Israeli government declined to comment.

The extent of Iran’s retaliation is unclear. Most of the attacks are carried out clandestinely and with no public claims of responsibility.

The long-running shadow war between Israel and Iran has accelerated in recent years. Iran has been arming and financing militias throughout the region, notably in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political movement that is a longtime enemy of Israel.

Israel has tried to counter Iran’s power play by launching regular airstrikes on Iranian shipments by land and air of arms and other cargo to Syria and Lebanon. Those attacks have made those routes riskier and shifted at least some of the weapons transit, and the conflict, to the sea, analysts said.

The dynamic complicates already fraught efforts by the Biden administration to reconstruct the 2015 nuclear deal that imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in exchange for sanctions relief. Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, reinstating those sanctions and imposing a raft of new ones.

“It jacks up the political price that the Biden administration would have to pay to provide the Iranians with any kind of economic reprieve,” Vaez said. “If Iran is engaged in this kind of tit for tat with Israel, while also putting pressure on American presence in the region, it makes restoring the deal much more difficult.”

Israel’s leadership believes the previous nuclear deal was insufficient and would like to scuttle any chance of resurrecting a similar pact. An Israeli official said the attacks were part of a broader strategy to strong-arm Tehran into agreeing to tougher and longer curbs on its nuclear ambitions, as well as restrictions on its ballistic missile program and its support for regional militias.

The Israeli offensive against Iranian shipping has two goals, analysts and officials said. The first is to prevent Tehran from sending equipment to Lebanon to help Hezbollah build a precision missile program, which Israel considers a strategic threat.

The second is to dry up an important source of oil revenue for Tehran, building on the pressure US sanctions have inflicted. After the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s fuel industry in late 2018, the Iranian government became more reliant on clandestine shipping.

The effectiveness Israel’s campaign is unclear. Some of the targeted ships were forced to return to Iran without delivering their cargo, the US official said.

The Iranians associated with the Iranian Oil Ministry said that in all cases the vessels sustained minor damage, the crews were not hurt and repairs were conducted within a few days.