Iran’s drone strike on an Israeli-owned oil tanker last week was but the latest in a series of skirmishes between the two states in the past two years—though it also marked a dangerous escalation, in which both sides are taking higher risks but achieving no apparent gains in their security.
The attack may have been retaliation for an Israeli attack on an Iranian military vessel in April, which may have been a response to an Iranian attack on an Israeli-owned container ship in March…and on and on the trail of tit-for-tat attacks goes, at least back to the summer of 2019, when Israel attacked a ship carrying Iranian oil and arms through the eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas—in violation of sanctions that were re-imposed when then-President Donald Trump after he withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
In the two years since, Israel has launched at least 10 attacks on Iranian vessels. It is not known how many times Iran has attacked Israeli vessels, as Iranian spokesmen have denied involvement in any of the strikes and Israeli officials have often declined to acknowledge that the strikes—which demonstrate Israeli vulnerability—occurred.
In any case, rancor over the Iran nuclear deal lies at the heart of this new cold war at sea. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister until his party lost June’s elections, was instrumental in convincing Trump to scuttle the deal—and then hyperactive in keeping President Joseph Biden from reviving it when he took over the White House in January. Congressional Republicans (and several Democrats as well) always despised the nuclear deal; Biden was keen to seek bipartisan support for a number of other contentious issues when he first gained office, and so put restarting the deal on the back burner. In the interim, Netanyahu stepped up attacks on Iran—knowing that Iran would strike back, which would make a new nuclear deal still more unpalatable politically.
On April 6, hours before U.S., Iranian, and European diplomats assembled in Vienna to reopen talks on the nuclear deal, an elite commando unit of the Israeli Navy attacked an Iranian military vessel. The next day, to drive the point home, Netanyahu said, “The deal with Iran that…threatens our destruction will not obligate us.”
The number of Israeli attacks rose considerably after Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020. As a result, speedboats manned by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) began to escort tankers through the Red Sea, then hand them off to Russian naval escorts—from a distance—through the Mediterranean. The Israeli attack in April occurred while the Russian ships were too far away to respond.
Throughout this game of tit-for-tat, Israelis and Iranians have taken care to minimize damage, usually aiming to hit (in some cases, attaching mines to) sections of the ship that would damage but not sink the vessel. However, last week’s Iranian attack on the oil tanker—owned by Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer—killed two crewmen, one British, one Romanian. Iranian spokesmen have denied involvement in the strike, as they have after every attack. But Iran’s leading ultraconservative publication, Kayhan, acknowledged the deed, claiming that the Israeli vessel was a “spy ship”—unlikely, since Israel has plenty of intelligence assets in the region without having to use a commercial ship as cover.
Both sides know that they are playing a risky game. Hossein Dalirian, a military analyst affiliated with Iran’s IRGC, recently told the New York Times, “We are at war but with our lights out.” A “senior Israeli diplomatic source” told al-Monitor that Israel’s strategy is “controlled escalation,” though the diplomat added, “The problem is that the ability to control deterioration is limited, and you could find yourself deep inside a war at any given moment without meaning to go there.”
Nations with preponderant military strength tend to fall into this trap when swatting a smaller power, especially when the latter turns out to be more determined or have more at stake. In June, after U.S. fighter jets bombed Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria (in response to the militias launching a drone strike on U.S. troop-positions in Iraq), a Pentagon spokesman said the bombing was meant to send “a clear and unambiguous deterrent message”—i.e., don’t attack us again, or we’ll attack you again, harder! The problem is, the militias did attack again—and will always do so, especially if the U.S. portrays the back-and-forth as a contest of determination. As long as the U.S. (or, in the present instance, Israel) isn’t waging all-out war, there’s no reason for Iran to back down—and every reason to keep the attacks going.
Iran is hardly blameless in this escalation. Some of the vessels Israel has attacked have carried not just oil to markets but weapons to militias that pose a threat to Israel’s security. Given the many Iranians (especially the IRGC) oppose reviving the nuclear deal or any friendly ties to the West, it may well be that some of their moves have been provocations for their own sake.
All three countries—the U.S., Israel, and Iran—have (or, in Iran’s case, is about to have) new leaders. It is possible to shift patterns. But the opportunities for détente are swiftly diminishing. It still puzzles me why Biden didn’t move quickly to re-start nuclear negotiations, taking up an EU offer to mediate a step-by-step process where the U.S. gradually lifted economic sanctions and Iran—once again—gradually cut back its enriched uranium. Now, with a more hardline president about to take office in Tehran and with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declaring (not without reason) that the Americans cannot be trusted, it may be too late. Israel’s fragile new government is in no position to take daring moves toward engaging with Iran.
Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been holding talks since April—at first in secret, now openly acknowledged—that seem to be on track to some form of rapprochement.
The main topic at hand seems to be ending the brutal proxy war in Yemen, but if broader measures are broached, they could disrupt—and possibly finish off—Saudi Arabia’s alignment with Israel (based entirely on their shared hostility to Iran), which could sour the Abraham Accords that Israel signed with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, all of which could shatter Israel’s security.
Shia and Sunni are as unlikely as lions and lambs to make peace and lie down together, but the region’s politics are shifting in one way or another, and by playing their games of “controlled escalation” and “deterrent messaging”—focusing too much on tactics, not enough on strategy—the United States and Israel are losing control of the story, shooting themselves in their heels.