Is the US Signaling to Israel on Iran?
Report citing US officials of Israeli attacks on Iranian oil tankers could be intended to lower maritime tensions in the region, analysts suggest
A report accusing Israel of conducting covert maritime attacks on Iranian ships could be a signal from the Biden administration that it would like Israel to de-escalate tensions with its archnemesis.
An exclusive report by The Wall Street Journal made waves this week after it alleged that Israel had used water mines and other weapons to attack at least a dozen Iranian tankers that were smuggling oil and weapons to Syria.
Iran has continued to trade oil with Syria, in violation of US and international sanctions. Citing US and regional officials, the Wall Street Journal report said that since late 2019 Israel had been sabotaging Iranian ships in a bid to prevent them from generating hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of sales for the Islamic regime. Israel believes this money would then be used to fund extremist groups in the region.
None of the ships that were targeted were sunk as a result of the attacks, which were carried out in international waters purportedly with the knowledge of the US; however, The Wall Street Journal said that at least two were delayed in making their oil deliveries to Syria.
[They were] trying to send a signal to Israel to stop doing these kinds of things while [they] are indirectly negotiating – maybe even directly – with Iran. The exposure was intended. … The administration doesn’t like that Israel is still continuing with its covert war with Iran
Yossi Melman, an Israeli analyst specializing in security and intelligence affairs who also writes for Haaretz, believes that information about Israel’s clandestine maritime campaign was intentionally leaked to the press by the Biden administration.
“[They were] trying to send a signal to Israel to stop doing these kinds of things while [they] are indirectly negotiating – maybe even directly – with Iran,” Melman told The Media Line. “The exposure was intended. … The administration doesn’t like that Israel is still continuing with its covert war with Iran.”
US President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly stated that it would like to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but progress has been slow as both sides demand concessions from one another.
“It’s just a matter of who will blink first,” Melman said.
Israel has so far refused to comment on the Wall Street Journal report but senior Israeli security officials reportedly called on maritime tensions with Tehran to be de-escalated, according to Israel’s Walla news site. Tensions are particularly high in the Egyptian region of the Strait of Hormuz, which divides the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman.
Israel has long carried out attacks against the Iranian regime via airstrikes in Syria as well as cyberattacks. The maritime front, taking place in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, is an extension of that ongoing conflict, Melman noted.
Due to the widespread media coverage of the campaign, Israel will likely now pull back.
“We are active on all fronts; it’s a war of attrition,” Melman said. “There are daily cyberattacks between Israel and Iran. But with the boats, I think it’s unwise.”
Israeli defense analyst Amir Oren echoed Melman’s statements, adding that the Wall Street Journal report is “very credible” and that the maritime campaign represents yet another front in the longstanding war between the two countries.
“What’s new is the visibility because both sides usually prefer to conduct it without much fanfare,” Oren told The Media Line.
“You haven’t seen anyone take credit either for that or for the attack on the [cargo] ship [in the Gulf of Oman],” he said, referring to the explosion that struck an Israeli-owned ship last month. Intelligence experts widely believe Tehran is behind the incident.
The London Times on Saturday reported that Israel’s clandestine maritime attacks caused at least one oil spill in the Red Sea in October 2019. It further suggested that the massive oil spill that hit Israeli and Lebanese coasts last month could be connected to these sabotage efforts.
Israeli politicians blamed a Libyan tanker carrying crude oil from Iran to Syria for the spill, which damaged some 170 kilometers (105 miles) out of 190 km (118 mi) of Israel’s beaches last month, according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz has dismissed speculation that Israel may have inadvertently caused the ecological disaster.
Neither Melman nor Oren believes that there is any connection to the two reports.
“There are many such tankers [in] the waters here and in the Red Sea,” Oren related. “It just so happens that this one was responsible for the leak, but this was not an Israeli act that went wrong.”
Melman agreed, noting that Iran relies on “lousy shipping vessels” to smuggle oil in order to evade detection. The poor quality of the ship is what led to the spill.
“It was accidental. I have no doubt about it,” he stressed.