Leaks Behind WSJ Report of Israeli Attacks on Iranian Ships Likely American Message
Iranian supertanker Grace 1, shown off the coast of Gibraltar in August 2019, was released after being seized on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions, despite a US request to detain the vessel. (Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images)

Leaks Behind WSJ Report of Israeli Attacks on Iranian Ships Likely American Message

The US intends to send a message of goodwill to Iran, caution to Israel, expert says

The Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday that Israel had attacked at least a dozen Iranian ships since 2019. On Saturday, Iranian sources blamed Israel for an explosion last week that rocked an Iranian ship in the Eastern Mediterranean. This follows an on an Israeli-owned ship, which Israel blamed on Iran. Neither country wants a direct confrontation, experts explain, but the lack of a decisive response by Israel may lead to escalation.

The Wall Street Journal report said Israel was behind a string of attacks targeting Iranian ships, which were carrying oil and weaponry to Syria. It quoted US and regional officials as saying at least 12 ships were attacked since 2019. They said Israel was concerned that the funds received for the cargo would be used to finance extremism in the region.

Omer Dostri, a strategy and national security expert, and researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, has researched Iran’s navy and maritime activity. “It is more than likely that these are Israeli attacks,” he told The Media Line, referring to the alleged attacks of the past two years.

Dostri explained that “Israel certainly has both the incentive and the ability to act in the area close to Syria,” as well as in the Red Sea, where some of the attacks took place. “We know that Iran is trying to transfer both oil and weaponry via the sea to Syria and to Lebanon, for the simple reason that its attempts to transfer weaponry through Iran to Iraq, and from there to Syria and Lebanon, have run into difficulties,” he said, referring to reported Israeli attacks on Iranian transports and arms depots.

Iran, he said, “is trying to find a different route to arm or strengthen its allies, be it the Syrian regime, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Shi’ite militias in Syria.” Dostri believes that Iran’s involvement in Syria in recent years, and its efforts to strengthen its local allies –increasing the threat on Israel – is the motivation behind the attacks, if Israel is behind them.

Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security, stresses that these reports lack confirmation; Israel hasn’t taken responsibility for the events. Speaking about the Wall Street Journal report, Guzansky told The Media Line, “These leaks, which point a finger at Israel, are intended to limit Israel’s maneuvering room.” “It’s clear that these are American leaks, and their aim is obvious – it is an attempt to signal to the Iranians, ‘Here, we’re acting against something that harms you, our intentions are good, we come with clean hands to the negotiations with you. We’re even stopping the Israelis.’”

It is uncertain, however, if this will assist the Americans in bringing Iran to the negotiation table. “It isn’t clear whether they [the Iranians] are impressed by this. It is just one of those confidence-building measures used by the Americans in their relations with the Iranians.”

The leaks are also intended to send a message to Israel, Guzansky estimates. “They are drawing a line and telling Israel, ‘Don’t cross it,’” he said. The researcher believes that the leaks may limit Israel’s future ability to act. “If the administration is willing to leak a thing like this, that can harm Israel in a variety of ways,” he says, “then there’s a message here for Israel from the administration, which isn’t positive.”

The Iranian trade of oil with Syria is in breach of international sanctions placed on the Syrian Assad regime, and US sanctions on Iran.

A day or two before the Wall Street Journal report was published, an explosion occurred on an Iranian vessel in the Mediterranean. According to Reuters, on Saturday, an Iranian investigator pointed a finger at Israel, telling Iranian Nournews that “considering the geographical location and the way the ship was targeted, one of the strong possibilities is that this terrorist operation was carried out by the Zionist regime.”

The Iranian investigator said that the explosions last week could have been the result of projectiles fired from above. Dostri, however, believes the alleged attacks were most likely conducted by commando forces. “I don’t know what happened,” he stresses, yet “it can be assumed with high degrees of certainty that these would be the operations of naval commandos because of their secret nature.” The explosions would then be the result of mines or explosive devices, quietly placed by commando teams.

In recent weeks, Israel has blamed Iran for an attack on an Israeli-owned ship, the MV Helios Ray. Mysterious explosions on February 25 forced the ship, which was sailing in the Gulf of Oman, to backtrack and dock in Dubai for repairs. Also recently, Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said that Iran was behind the tar that has polluted Israel’s shoreline, causing one of the worst ecological disasters the country has experienced. While the ministry provided some evidence linking the ship to Iran, no evidence has surfaced to substantiate the minister’s claims. Israeli security officials were surprised at the minister’s claims.

This recent string of events and revelations has led to the retrospective identification of a maritime front between Israel and Iran – another arena in which the two countries quietly exchange blows. Dostri explains that the pair have chosen this indirect method of action “because they aren’t interested in reaching a direct confrontation,” which would exact a very high price for both.

However, the security expert believes that things may escalate now. The attack on the Helios Ray was an Iranian response to Israeli operations, an escalation intended to send a message to Israel. And “if Israel fails to respond, or if it takes it too much time,” he says, “then the Iranians will see that ‘we’ve escalated against Israel, and it isn’t responding – we can now escalate further.’” Dostri believes that only a “forceful, direct” answer from Israel will send a clear message to the Iranians, and stop a possible escalation between the adversaries.

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