The most recent event among a series of incidents that occurred with regard to the cold war between Israel and Iran threatened to drag in major powers like the US and Britain into a potential conflict in West Asia. A drone or UAV attack was conducted on a medium-sized fuel tanker named the MV Mercer Street on July 30 off the coast of Oman leading to the death of two people – a Romanian and a British security guard. While the vessel is Liberian-flagged and Japanese-owned, it is operated by an Israeli-owned company, Zodiac Maritime. A forensic investigation completed by the US military’s Central Command on the attack against the Mercer Street concluded that the UAV that was used in the attack was produced in Iran. Iran has denied the allegations. Less than a week after this incident, a Panama-flagged bitumen tanker named the MV Asphalt Princess was seized by certain armed men in the congested approach to the Strait of Hormuz. They supposedly ordered that the vessel be sailed to Iran but they left the vessel after sometime. It is suspected that Iranian forces were behind the seizure although Iran has denied it again.

There have been several attacks on Israeli-linked shipping this year, all blamed on Iran and all denied by Tehran. Earlier this year, an Israeli-owned cargo ship, the MV Helios, was badly damaged with two large holes in its hull, while transiting the Gulf of Oman. Israel is believed to be behind an explosion on the hull of an Iranian military supply ship, the Saviz, in April in the Red Sea caused by limpet mines. Israel and the Saudi-led coalition in nearby Yemen believe that Saviz was a ‘mothership’ supplying weapons and other equipment such as speedboats to Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen. The Houthi movement is also known as Ansar Allah. Israel is also believed to have targeted ships bound for Syria carrying Iranian oil and military supplies. These tit-for-tat attacks between the two sides, which began in 2019, also include Israel’s suspected assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, including the assassination of the head of the covert military aspect of Iran’s nuclear programme, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran in November 2020, and its successful attempts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programmes. 

This is besides Israel’s routine bombing of missile and rocket bases and supply lines in Syria, especially since early 2017, belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran’s elite military force separate from the Iranian regular armed forces, and Iranian proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah. The Hezbollah of Lebanon has recently fired rockets against the disputed Shebaa farms area under Israeli control in response to rare Israeli air raids on southern Lebanon, which itself was in response to rocket fire from Lebanon. These attacks were the heaviest since the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. These attacks by both sides are related to the overall regional situation with rising tensions between Israel and Iran. 

The alarming rise in overt and covert military actions between Iran and Israel threatens to complicate the many existing tensions and conflicts in the whole of West Asia. Until now, no one had been killed in the attacks on shipping between Israel and Iran in the waters of the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. But the killing of a British citizen in the latest attack could misfire on Iran’s plans if it leads to US use of force. For one, it could lead to the loss of what Iran hopes to gain by playing the long game of waiting for all US troops to leave Iraq by the end of this year, leaving Iran to take advantage of the vacuum. In the event of any US action against Iran for protecting commercial shipping, the US can muster all the firepower that it has using the many air and naval bases and assets that it has in the region. The superior advantage that Iran has over Israel because of its long coastline in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea could become a liability in the face of an American onslaught. Iran should have anticipated such a risk because of the multinational nature of present-day commercial shipping operations even while targeting Israeli-operated ships.

Regarding the Israeli targeting of the Iranian military supply ship off the Yemeni coast, it displays Israel’s affinity with the views of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis. But even within the latter alliance, Israel is closest to the UAE. Israel seeks friendly relations with the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC), one of the factions in the conflict in Yemen, who are separatists seeking the secession of southern Yemen from the Yemeni state. The STC is also fighting the Houthis, and Israel’s support for it should be seen in the light of the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE. Israel sees UAE’s annexation of the Yemeni island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea favourably as securing the safety of the approaches to the Red Sea from Iran and its allies like the Houthis. Israel is also worried about a direct attack on its Red Sea port of Eilat by the Houthis using ballistic missiles or rockets supplied by Iran, and Israel has taken necessary precautions for the protection of the port. All of these events are signs that the Iran–Israel contest is getting further entrenched in the wider region

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Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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Dr Shelly Johny is Senior Fellow (West Asian & Security Studies) with Centre for Public Policy Research

Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny is Senior Fellow (West Asian & Security Studies) with Centre for Public Policy Research

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