By Kamyar Hatef
THE confrontation between Iran and Israel is not a new subject. Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, there has been a non-surreptitious conflict between Iran and Israel.
Although this conflict isn’t clandestine, it has never led to a direct military conflict between the two countries. Iran and Israel have always pursued their goals through indirect means, such as establishing proxy groups in the neighborhood of their rival, sabotage, and assassination.
When the flames of civil war broke out in Syria, Israel hoped that the fall of Bashar al-Assad would cut off the land route that connected Iran to its strategic ally in Israel’s neighborhood, Hezbollah of Lebanon.
This road includes Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and was completed after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the gradual rise of the Shias in Iraq after 2003.
Assad’s remaining in power caused Israel concern about the renewal of Iranian power in the region and prompted them to open a new front against Iran. This new front was the open seas.
The Wall Street Journal reports that since late 2019, Israel has targeted 12 Iranian ships and oil tankers carrying Iranian fuel to Syria, which caused severe oil pollution in the Red Sea in October 2019. These measures urged Iran to perform actions in order to guarantee the safety of its ships and tankers in the Red Sea.
Iran, which had previously sent the Alborz destroyer, one of the best-equipped Iranian destroyers, the Khark logistics ship, and a submarine to bolster its presence in the Red Sea, has accelerated its naval enlargement program.
Although Iran has affirmed that its naval presence in the Red Sea is to counter piracy and secure its commercial convoys, a look at the extent and type of forces deployed to the Red Sea indicates that more significant intimidation could be threatening Iran’s interests.
During the annexation of the IRINS Makran to the Iranian navy, Sardar Bagheri, Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, declared: “We will re-establish the Red Sea, where the merchant vessels of the Islamic Republic have faced some limited attacks in recent times, in our naval patrol area, and we will establish the full security of our vessels and oil and commercial fleet in that sea.”
In response to Israeli attacks on Iranian ships and tankers, it is believed that Iran targeted Israeli-owned Helios Rey on March 27 near Oman, causing minor damage to the ship. Observers believe Israel retaliated by targeting the Iranian container ship Shahrekord, 75 miles off Israel’s coast, during a retaliatory act on March 11, 2017. It is further suspected that this occurrence provoked a limited and balanced Iranian response on April 25, when it was announced that an Israeli cargo ship bound for India was hit by a rocket. Nevertheless, the series of targeting rival ships did not end here.
The Iranian ship Saviz, known as Iran’s logistics station in the Red Sea, was attacked, and the Israeli state-owned Kan 11 television channel described it as a response to the damage done to Israeli ships. On April 15, the Israeli Hyperion ship was targeted near the port of Fujairah in the UAE. Although some see this as a retaliatory move by Iran against an Israeli cyberattack on the Natanz facility, given the attack’s proximity to targeting the Saviz and following the logic of the two countries’ limited naval conflict, this is likely a continuation of previous struggles.
What can be deduced from this maritime confrontation are the precise rules that the two countries have set for the confrontation with each other, which is avoiding escalation and spreading the conflict to other fronts. The two rivals could be trying to increase their power by consolidating their position and creating deterrence against their rival.
They have chosen a limited naval conflict firstly because there is no confrontation between the military forces of the two sides therefore the vital interests of the two countries will not be jeopardized. Secondly, while conveying their message effectively to the other side, they leave a smaller footprint on domestic and international sensitivity with this model of confrontation. Nonetheless, this process cannot continue in the same way because the continuation of these irregular naval conflicts will ultimately be detrimental to Israel.
The overwhelming majority of Israel’s imports and exports are by sea. Israel relies on a small and efficient navy, unlike Iran, which has an extensive but underdeveloped navy.
Despite having this advanced navy, Israel will not be able to protect its merchant convoys over large distances, and could have been the message that the Iranians were sending to the Israeli side by targeting an Israeli cargo ship bound for India. Iran’s non-modern but large navy could pose a major threat to Israel’s maritime trade and merchant convoys at long-distance.
Also, for environmental reasons, Israel will never be able to sink Iranian tankers. Israel will always have to only damage Iranian ships because sinking them will contain international responsibility and the possibility of oil pollution of nearby waters. Therefore, the continuation of this situation could change the balance to Iran’s favour and Israel’s detriment.
Kamyar Hatef is a political and social activist in Iran and a master student of International Relations at Allameh Tabatabai University of Tehran
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