Israeli security, political and military circles are agitated amid increasing military tension with Iran, highlighted by the recent attack on the Natanz nuclear facility and the announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which looked like a claim of responsibility. He has been criticised for this breach of Israel’s usual tight-lipped policy in such matters; the principle of secrecy and ambiguity normally guides all Israeli operations. Netanyahu, therefore, may have pushed Iran to retaliate, as it did when it targeted an Israeli-owned ship days after the Natanz incident.
In Washington, the Biden administration has made an unprecedented public call for Israel to stop the “chattering” which may disrupt negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal. The Americans know that the leaks regarding the attacks attributed to Israel were not approved by the occupation state’s senior security officials.
According to military analysts, Iran’s attack on the MV Hyperion Ray may not have been a response to the bombing of Natanz, but rather a continuation of the existing conflict between Tel Aviv and Tehran which has seen the latter disrupt regional shipping routes for Israeli vessels while making sure not to cause a real escalation. Although both will incur losses, Israel will probably suffer the most in economic terms.
Neither side really wants to be drawn into an economically and politically devastating war, but the escalation of the maritime harassment is what is making the headlines since Israel stopped the smuggling of oil to Syria from Iran, which uses the profits from such deals to back Hezbollah. The Iranians responded by damaging Israeli shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Both are major sea lanes for cargo vessels passing through the Suez Canal en route to and from Europe and Asia.
Maritime insurance rates have increased as a result, pushing overall shipping costs up. Israeli business is suffering heavy losses.
The ships that Israel attacks are owned by Iran, mostly by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and are usually secured by an Iranian company, or linked to Tehran’s client states and even smugglers. The effects and economic costs are much less in such cases.
It is now in Israel’s interest to de-escalate the maritime conflict with Iran, which also wants to calm the situation, not least because of the Vienna negotiations for America’s return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. If the issue with Israel deteriorates further, then the US may be lobbied to impose harsher sanctions on Tehran.
Moreover, Iran knows well that Israel enjoys maritime freedom in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The relatively minor damage to the Hyperion Ray suggests that Tehran also knows that it cannot and should not allow the situation to escalate.
Israeli generals have pointed out that the attack on the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran took several months to plan and was designed to be carried out at a time decided by the Mossad spy agency. It too appears to have been a case of nuisance value rather than an attempt to derail the nuclear processes going on there. Iran was required to devote time and resources to investigating the incident, but it will be business as usual very quickly.
Mossad, the Israel Defence Forces, and the Shin Bet domestic security agency often carry out acts of sabotage aimed at hindering and disrupting the capabilities of hostile forces, even in periods of calm. As such, the element of secrecy and ambiguity over responsibility has been always designed to conceal intelligence sources, prevent or reduce international condemnation, and avoid political rifts with other countries. Such acts aim to enhance Israel’s security while weakening its enemies or, at the very least, placing obstacles in their path.
The Israeli government and Mossad may have decided to change the ambiguity policy, but the military establishment remains very strict about secrecy and discretion, especially over its operations in Syria. This prompts us to ask about Israel’s intentions to abandon a decades-long policy and if there is a security reason behind the taking of this step.
It is important to note that Iran has the potential to cause great harm to Israel, including kidnapping Israelis or damaging the interests of Jewish institutions abroad, neither of which would be for the first time. We only need to understand the factors behind Tehran’s attacks on ships belonging to Israel and Tel Aviv’s fear that Iran might raise the level of its response and fire missiles at Israel.
There are some within Israeli decision-making circles who do not believe that attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities are the appropriate way to undermine the Vienna negotiations. Israel does not have much influence over the Biden administration, which is keen to finalise the nuclear deal with Tehran. At the same time, the escalation of the maritime conflict between Iran and Israel is necessarily linked to the nuclear talks, so the assessment about its appropriateness is likely to be more pertinent following the bombing of the Natanz facility.
Whichever way the situation develops, though, one thing is certain. Israel’s military preoccupation with Iran is growing.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.