Israel and Iran: Shadow war no more?

Are we at the point where the sides take off their masks and the conflict between them moves into the open, and if so, what should Israel’s next steps be?

The Middle East as seen from 250 miles above in this April 14, 2016 photo from the International Space Station. Countries seen, from left, along the Mediterranean coast include Egypt, Gaza, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
The Middle East as seen from 250 miles above in this April 14, 2016 photo from the International Space Station. Countries seen, from left, along the Mediterranean coast include Egypt, Gaza, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
Shaul Horev and Benny Spanier

An oil tanker was attacked in the Gulf of Oman on July 29. It sailed under the Liberian flag, under Japanese ownership, and it was operated by the London-based Zodiac Maritime, which is owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer. As a result of the attack, which was apparently carried out by a suicide drone, two crew members, one British and one Romanian, were killed. This attack was similar in nature to four others that took place over the last few months in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. Iran did not take responsibility for these operations and even denied them, despite the fact that Iranian-owned media stated that the attack was a response to a recent Israeli attack in Syria.

From the outset, in light of the naval campaign which Israel has been carrying out (according to foreign sources) over the past few years against Iran, it was right to ask two questions: firstly, how much do these operations contribute to the campaign Israel is carrying out against Iran’s nuclear program (another way of putting it: what is the strategic effectiveness of these operations); and secondly, does the political echelon, which approved these operations, take into account the possible responses by the Iranians in the maritime zone against Israel, a zone that Israel is completely dependent upon for its trade with the rest of the world.

The July 29 attack, which led to the death of uninvolved civilians, has been attributed to Iran by not only Israel but also the United States and the United Kingdom. It may mark a turning point in the so-called “campaign between the wars” waged by Israel and Iran. Are we at the point where the sides take off the masks and emerge from the shadows? In any case, this is the time to consider which course of action Israel should take.

This theater of war is located thousands of kilometers from Israel’s coast, and in this regard, Israel is in a significantly inferior position to the Iranians. In addition, since it sold its stake in Zim shipping company in 2004, the State of Israel has owned hardly any cargo ships. Out of 6,400 vessels that passed through Israeli ports in 2020, only 4 percent were Israeli-owned. That is, the local economy is almost completely reliant on international ships in order to carry out its foreign trade (which constitutes 99 percent of all Israeli trade), and it is reasonable to think that, during an emergency, it will be reliant on these ships in order to trade.

For a number of years, Israeli companies dealing in maritime trade believed that their ships’ non-association with the state would lead to their immunity from attack (including from the Iranians), but recent events have shown this assumption to be mistaken. When the companies approached the relevant authorities in Israel to receive guidelines on how to act in the face of this new reality, they received advice that suggested that the authorities who approved the naval campaign against Iran apparently didn’t take into account a potential response of the kind we have just witnessed.

Because of this, we think that the first step is for Israel to publicly define the area of the eastern Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman adjacent to Iran as an area of risk, as far as ships under Israeli ownership or which are operated by Israeli companies located in Israel are concerned. Israel must issue security guidelines to ships under Israeli ownership.

Secondly, as far as any kind of attempted attack goes, Israel should announce that all ships which sail in the area and are Israeli-owned or operated by companies based in Israel are considered to be ships flying under the Israeli flag. This means that events like the one we just witnessed will be classified as harmful to Israel’s sovereignty and naval acts of terror.

The moment the masks are removed and Israel takes upon itself the responsibility for ships sailing in the area, it will also be able to ask to participate in and be assisted by Combined Task Force 150. This is a multinational coalition naval task force, made up of 33 countries, which was established in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

The force operates from its base in Bahrain and monitors, boards, inspects and stops suspect ships as part of the global war on terror. The force operates in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and its mission is to ensure that legitimate maritime trade can travel through the area, without threats from non-state actors. On October 18, in Manama, Bahrain, Israel signed an interim agreement to establish diplomatic relations between the states, and in June 2021 Bahrain even appointed its first ambassador to Israel.

Today, the entrance of Israeli naval vessels to the Combined Task Force base in Bahrain can also increase cooperation between the countries. In addition, it will be possible to use the United Arab Emirates ports which are located around the Gulf of Oman coast, close to the current combat arena. This is all part of the promotion of the Abraham Accords and the strengthening of cooperation between the countries.

Israel also needs to work to strengthen its cooperation with the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the most powerful in the region, which is based in Bahrain (as is the United States Naval Forces Central Command). At the moment, cooperation with the Americans has significance at the declarative level. It is in Israel’s interest that the American government publicly recognize the campaign which Israel and Iran are conducting in the area, especially while negotiations over a new nuclear deal are ongoing.

Some think that the Israeli response should be carried out against Iran’s emissaries in Syria, Lebanon, and the continental space to our east. We do not intend to discuss the systemic issue, which is being dealt with by the experienced hands of the state’s Cabinet and the security establishment. However, we want to contribute to the strategic thinking which is not taking place in the Israeli security establishment regarding what is happening in the maritime arena, one of whose indicators is the campaign which Iran is waging against Israel in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman.

The contemporary naval strategy emphasizes the importance of the international and diplomatic dimensions at the expense of other fields, and Israel should exploit this dimension in the region while activating appropriate cooperation and leverage.

Professor Shaul Horev is the head of the University of Haifa’s Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center. IDF Rear Admiral (ret.) Horev has previously served as Israel’s deputy chief of naval operations; commanding officer of the Haifa naval base and commanding officer of an Israeli naval flotilla.

 Dr. (Adv.) Benny Spanier is a Research Fellow at the University of Haifa’s Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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