A rather important debate has raged within Israel’s defense establishment over the past week. Was the terrorist attack on the Israeli-owned cargo ship MV Helios Ray in the Gulf of Oman an isolated incident or the opening of a new front in the conflict between Israel and Iran?

Ultimately, this question will only truly be answered if and when the Iranians carry out another attack. At that point, Israel will know for certain whether the Iranians have expanded the conflict beyond all borders and declared every Israeli interest, anywhere on the planet, a target. Such a scenario will require a complex response, primarily defensive in nature, and involves more than a few questions. For example, does Israel need to respond and risk an escalation every time a direct or indirect Israeli interest is harmed?

As of now, the overriding opinion in Israel is that this attack was Iran’s response to the assassination of chief Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Ever since he was killed last November on the outskirts of Tehran (in a hit attributed to the Mossad), the Iranians have sought revenge. Their initial desire was to strike at Israel from Yemen.

Israeli defense officials identified this threat in time and responded in a variety of ways. Israel expanded coordination (mainly intelligence sharing) with the Americans, with the aim of receiving early warnings of such a strike, increased its all-around battle readiness and put its air defenses on heightened alert. It also sent secret and public messages (to Iran, but also Yemen) that such an attack would be met with a response.
The Israeli-owned cargo vessel “MV Helios Ray” in a still shot taken from video ostensibly filmed by an Iranian drone. Source: YouTube.
It’s doubtful the Houthis—Iran’s loyal proxy in Yemen—are operationally mature enough to carry out an attack of this complexity. Although various reports have noted the requisite drones for such a strike have already been transferred to Yemen, their numbers appear to be small and they aren’t fully operational yet. Nevertheless, this development is extremely troubling to Israel because it potentially opens a new front, distant and complicated (geographically, intelligence–wise and operationally) and against an enemy that has already proven to be completely unrestrained and willing to unflinchingly subjugate itself to any whim of its Iranian patron.
The disagreement between Cohen and Kochavi

In discussions held in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Helios Ray, the consensus was the Iranians knew it was Israeli owned and had targeted it for this reason. This is a relevant question not just in terms of the response (which according to foreign reports came three days later in the form of an Israeli airstrike in the Damascus area), but in terms of understanding the overall situation. In 2019, the Iranians carried out a series of attacks on Western vessels—mainly oil tankers—in the Persian Gulf. This was one way for them to avenge the sanctions imposed after the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, which also restricted their oil exports—Iran’s main revenue source. Through these attacks, Iran sought to say: If we can’t export oil freely, no one can.

Two oil tankers were attacked on June 13, 2019, in the Gulf of Oman, less than one month after Iran was blamed for attacking four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Source: Screenshot.

This Iranian aggression was only curbed at the time after the Americans pounded on the table and made it clear to Iran that retaliation would be severe. Now, it remains to be determined whether the Iranians have indeed relaunched this campaign—meaning every foreign ship is a target as Tehran hardens its positions ahead of renewed nuclear talks—or if this was just an isolated, surgical operation against a target affiliated with Israel.

Defense officials are convinced the attack was intentional, aimed at a specific target. Although the ship was sailing under a foreign flag and its ownership was under a chain of companies all registered abroad, the trail leads to Israeli businessman Rami Ungar, who owns dozens of cargo vessels specializing in shipping cars. It appears the Iranians did meticulous intelligence work regarding the ship and its movements, and it also stands to reason they had agents at Dammam Port in Saudi Arabia, from where the ship embarked to Singapore. Real-time intelligence is critical for the success of such an operation, and again highlights the long arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

One of the various types of fast-attack craft used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, seen here taking part in maneuvers in the general area of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, in February 2015. Credit: Sayyed Shahab-o-Din Vajedi via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s no question the Iranians didn’t want to sink the ship. Had they wanted to, they would have succeeded. The intention was to damage it but not kill anyone on board. In the past, Tehran (and its proxies) was far less picky, but it appears the Iranians wanted to walk a fine line: Respond, but without sparking an escalation that could jeopardize its vital interests.

A heated debate arose in Israel over the appropriate response, portions of which reached the press. The hawkish line, spearheaded by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, called for a harsh response. The moderate line, espoused by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, called for a measured response unlikely to trigger a borderless conflagration in which Israel has no interest for the time being.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi during an event honoring outstanding IDF reservists, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2019. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.

According to the reports, although Kochavi’s line was adopted—Iranian targets were attacked in Syria, Israel’s most convenient arena in which to retaliate—it wasn’t necessarily the correct call at this juncture. More than a few officials, within the IDF, too, believe Israel could have shown restraint and leveraged the incident from a diplomatic perspective to tarnish Iran; and that if it chose to retaliate regardless, the response should have been far more forceful.

One year ago, Iran launched a cyberattack on Israel’s water infrastructure. The attack only resulted in minor damage, but it was claimed that Israel’s response was relatively strong, according to foreign reports partially paralyzing Iran’s main port, Bandar Abbas, for several weeks. Those who hoped Iran would get the message, however, were quickly disillusioned: Iran only stepped up its belligerent cyberattacks on Israel.

It’s doubtful they learned the lesson this time either. The Iranians have become adept at absorbing the attacks in Syria, and they won’t start a world war over them. “What happens in Syria stays in Syria,” as one senior Israeli official said. “[The Iranians] noted with satisfaction this week that Israel [attacked] in its comfort zone, not where it hurts them.”

Documentation of alleged Israeli airstrikes near Damascus on Feb. 15, 2021. Source: Majd Fahd/Twitter.

This is crucial in terms of the next round, if and when it erupts. As stated, the experts are divided over whether the attack was an isolated incident or part of a new and broader campaign.

“We are in a new event, the first of its kind,” said IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, the former head of the Strategic Division in the Planning Directorate of the IDF General Staff and now a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. “It was a signal that Israel also has a soft underbelly, and can be hit anywhere in the world. The Iranians essentially wanted to tell us, ‘Don’t mess with us.'”

Orion believes Iran is orchestrating this campaign separate from its nuclear project.

“The Iranians are multi-tasking. They are managing both campaigns simultaneously,” he said.

At the same time, Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the INSS specializing in Iran, says the Iranians have no interest in sparking a broad conflict with Israel at the moment. “Not over this, not at this juncture, and not with this administration in Washington.”

An ongoing fight for survival

Tehran’s main focus right now, said Zimmt, is the nuclear issue. “They are playing hard to get, even more than expected. Their fundamental position hasn’t changed, and they won’t come back for nothing or give up anything until the Americans do something substantial.”

This “something” is the removal of sanctions. In the West, officials hoped Iran would be brought to its knees; that internal processes within the country, maybe even a regime change, would have occurred. In the past, Zimmt predicted that this wouldn’t happen. The Iranians, he argued, are stronger and tougher than we think. He was right. The economic situation in Iran is indeed awful, but they have learned to live with the sanctions, and have even increased oil production from a record-low 300,000-400,000 barrels per day in the middle of last year to around one million per day today. This gap affords a lifeline that will allow the Iranian economy to keep its head above water, even if sanctions aren’t lifted anytime soon.

Protesters in the streets of Iran demonstrating against a massive hike in gas prices by the government, November 2019. Source: Screenshot.

The widely accepted view in the West is that the Iranians are eager to return to the nuclear deal, here and now. It’s unclear if this is indeed the consensus in Iran. Zimmt says there are more than a few voices in Iran right now who believe their country must not enter another agreement framework with the West, and that the status quo as a nuclear threshold-state is preferable. Their logic is rooted in the fear that in another four years the administration in Washington will be replaced and paralyzing sanctions re-imposed. “They’ll want to make sure this can’t happen,” said Zimmt.

It’s unclear whether Iran’s intransigence is tactical or strategic. Whether its purpose is to maximize what it can achieve through negotiations and return to the original nuclear deal, or whether it represents a true change. “This will be tested only when the Americans lift sanctions [or not, Y.L.],” says Zimmt. “If even then the Iranians don’t make any concessions, we’ll know something fundamental has changed over there.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meeting with Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations on Sept. 24, 2019. Credit: Office of the Iranian President.

Until then, the Iranians will remain in survival mode and continue to harden their position. This serves the regime in terms of accumulating bargaining chips for possible talks (where they can concede enriched uranium, advanced centrifuges and more), but it also serves the regime domestically: In another three months, Iran will hold presidential elections. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants the next president to be a conservative. Hence, he likely won’t want to grant outgoing President Hassan Rouhani the prize of securing the removal of sanctions and could seek to prolong the difficult economic situation.

A security guard versus state terror?

Now back to the terror attack on the cargo ship: Even if Israel wants to, it can’t actually protect every Israeli interest around the world—certainly not in the free commercial world. Ungar’s ships are registered under foreign companies for financial reasons, but also to facilitate freedom of movement. Under an Israeli flag, they would be barred access to ports in countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, and others that are still in a state of war with it.

Over the past decade, efforts to safeguard maritime movement have increased significantly. This wasn’t due to terrorism, but piracy. Quite a few actors realized it was an easy way to make money, and began robbing ships. The world was rather indifferent to this process until it became a matter of life and death: People were abducted and/or killed, and intervention became necessary.

The MV Faina, hijacked by the Somali pirates, Sept. 28, 2008. Credit: U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons.

Part of the problem was that old-world conventions stipulated it was illegal to bear arms at sea. The only exceptions (according to foreign reports) were ships under the Israeli flag, which carried armed guards under orders from the Shin Bet security agency. Once the threat of piracy finally reached a tipping point, various regulatory measures were enacted that allowed armed guards aboard ships. Yet still, this remained a complex matter because ships move from country to country, and protocols were introduced to resolve issues such as depositing firearms at ports. Floating armories were even built in several places around the world where firearms can be rented and returned. Numerous shipping companies also hired security guards (mainly Ukrainians and Sri Lankans at first, but today also Indians and Pakistanis) who accompany the voyages and are supposed to defend the vessels.

However, “a security guard can’t help against state terror,” according to Kobe Buchris, a former officer in the IDF’s naval commando unit, Shayetet 13, and one of the leading experts in Israel on maritime security. “No commercial ship will be fitted with the same threat detection systems you might find on a navy missile boat. It’s simply not economical. The ship owners are old-school. They are very old-fashioned and obstinate. When the piracy began, they were recommended solutions, and they began implementing some of them only when the insurance companies demanded it.”

The first of four new Sa’ar 6-class corvettes commissioned for the Israeli Navy arrives at the Haifa Port on Dec. 20, 2020. Photo by Meir Vaknin/Flash90.

Buchris says there are several solutions available, even against the current threats.

“You can operate drones for surveillance and scouting, and you can use divers to make sure limpet mines haven’t been attached to the ship,” he said.

These types of measures would reduce the threats, not negate them. It would still be possible to hit any ship at sea in a variety of ways (from missiles to suicide drones) and, as stated, no civilian ship will be fitted with the same systems found on military vessels.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier “USS Abraham Lincoln” transits the Suez Canal in Egypt on its way to the Persian Gulf, May 10, 2019. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dan Snow/Released.

The only real solution, according to Buchris, is a military one. Intensive activity that will prevent and deter attacks, and if need be, punish the perpetrators. This is what the Americans did in 2019, and this should be Israel’s goal, he believes. The question is whether Israel is capable of doing this alone, in the distant reaches of the Persian Gulf. In the past, Israel has proven capable of deterring the Iranians, but if this is indeed a new type of broad, borderless campaign, it will have to enlist the help of partners and convince them that the fight against Iranian terror—no different from the nuclear program—is not just an Israeli problem, but a global interest.

Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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