By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif*
Since 2019, Israel and Iran have been engaged in a clandestine maritime showdown that has left commercial tankers belonging to the two countries damaged but not crippled. 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 airstrikes on Iranian military targets in Syria, including weapons depots. Pro-Iran militias in Iraq have also been 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 in 2019. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also 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, killing two crew members, one Briton and one Romanian. Israel was quick to point the finger at Iran and called on the international community to take action. Its diplomatic effort got a reluctant US and an angry UK to condemn the attack. Tehran flatly rejected the accusations and refused to accept the blame.
The exaggerated Israeli response may have something to do with it wanting to deflect attention from the scandal involving the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group, which sold mobile phone hacking software — known as Project Pegasus — to foreign governments that used it to spy on politicians, activists and journalists, among others. Top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, have promised to retaliate and an Israeli response to the attack will surely come soon.
The US and its European allies will want this recent incident to go away sooner rather than later. Their efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal have hit many snags and, with Rouhani now replaced by hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, 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 hoped for a normal relationship with Iran.
The timing of 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 nationwide anti-regime protests, which are getting out of control. Acute water shortages in a number of provinces have added to people’s anger over their worsening living conditions. Israel is 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 currently too volatile to handle: Lebanon is on the brink of collapse, the Yemen war rages on, Libya remains unstable, and now Tunisia is going through a constitutional crisis.
The Israeli response to last week’s naval attack, which its leaders have promised is coming, could make things worse for all parties. The US is trying to gauge the fallout of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the Taliban capturing more territory and besieging major cities, while the Europeans worry about increased tensions between Washington on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. A deliberate Israeli attack on Iran would almost certainly complicate the delicate Vienna-hosted nuclear deal talks, which are currently suspended.
But Tel Aviv is pushing its allies for an international response to the alleged Iranian attack. As much as the US, UK and others are standing by Israel’s side, any actual move to deter Iran at this stage may backfire. Raisi’s reaction would likely be more aggressive than his predecessor and the Iranian response could target American troops in Iraq at a sensitive time for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who has recently returned from Washington, having got President Joe Biden to commit to a vague US pullout from the country.
It all depends on the severity of the Israeli retaliation. If Israel chooses to launch a cyberattack on vital Iranian nuclear facilities, then Tehran will have to respond. An Israeli strike on an Iranian tanker on the high seas would 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, it will be a major test for Bennett and Raisi alike. It is almost certain that the US will put some pressure on Israel not to provoke an international crisis.
There is no doubt that Iran wants to conclude an agreement in Vienna that would lift sanctions and give its economy a much-needed lifeline. But 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. Twitter: @plato010