By repeatedly attacking Iranian ships at sea and celebrating the news through leaks about it, Israel is playing with fire.
When the United States and Iran are struggling to find a formula to bring them back to the 2015 nuclear deal, it seems Israel’s leaders and heads of security and intelligence are trying to derail any possible reconciliation between Tehran and Washington.
This week saw the most recent of an increasingly common trend. On Tuesday, an Iranian ship called Saviz was hit by a mine while sailing in the Red Sea, near the Eritrean coast.
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The attack has been widely attributed as another operation of this kind by Israeli naval commandos. Israel did not comment on the incident.
However, the New York Times, which has become a washing machine to launder Israeli official leaks, said a US official had notified his administration that Israeli forces had struck the vessel.
The full extent of the damage was not reported, only that the Saviz had been damaged by a mine that had been attached to the vessel.
According to the US official, the Israelis described the attack as retaliation for earlier Iranian strikes on Israeli vessels, and said the Saviz had been damaged below the waterline.
Though officially registered as a cargo ship, the Saviz is practically a military vessel, owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and manned by its special forces.
Iranian websites and social media claimed Saviz’s mission was to combat pirates, but western intelligence sources argue that the ship has been known to be used as a platform for Iranian intelligence gathering missions and to execute clandestine operations.
A new maritime war
Israel and Iran’s maritime war began in 2018, after Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed painful sanctions on Tehran.
Washington’s unilateral strategic decision was and still is a major blow to the Iranian economy, particularly to oil, its main export industry.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen encouraged Trump and provided him with a strong tailwind.
The decline of Iran’s economy forced Tehran to reduce financial support for its Shia militias deployed in Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Oil tanker Stena Impero as it leaves Bandar Abbas port in southern Iran. The Stena Impero was held by British forces en route to Syria in 2019 (AFP)
Israeli military intelligence estimates that Iran’s subsidies for Hezbollah’s budget – about $700m a year – have suffered significant cuts since 2018.
This led to salary cuts for tens of thousands of Hezbollah fighters, shrunken payments to the families of those who were killed or wounded in the Syrian civil war and fewer training exercises, undermining military preparedness and fitness.
Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias needed cash, and General Qassem Soleimani, the legendary commander of the elite Quds Force who was assassinated by the US in January 2020, came up with a creative plan.
He arranged for oil to be smuggled and sold in Syria, thus circumventing the international sanctions imposed on both Damascus and Tehran.
The idea was to utilise Mossad and military intelligence capabilities to obtain precise information that would enable Israel to sabotage Iranian boats without either sinking them or causing ecological disaster
Every possible means of misleading western espionage agencies and international shipping companies was used.
Iranian oil began to be loaded at ports using shell companies, and smuggled out on tankers with recently altered names.
Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese dealers bought the oil, and in exchange paid the Shia militias and Hezbollah in Syrian lira.
Both Syria and Lebanon’s currencies have plummeted over the past year, but despite their low value they are liquid nonetheless.
Soleimani’s sophisticated moves challenged Israel, which responded with its own plan. The broad idea was to begin a large-scale preventive campaign using military, diplomatic, economic and psychological tools.
This was translated into dozens of secret intelligence-gathering operations by military intelligence and Mossad units, alongside thousands of air strikes on targets associated with the Shia militias, Hezbollah and the IRGC.
Most of the attacks were carried out in Syria, others on the Iraqi border, and a few isolated ones allegedly took place in Lebanon. That is how the battle between Israel and Iran spilled over from ground, air and cybersecurity to the seas.
The idea was to utilise Mossad and military-intelligence capabilities to obtain precise information that would enable Israel to sabotage Iranian boats without either sinking them or causing ecological disasters.
The blabbing begins
It all worked well until Iran decided that enough was enough.
A few weeks ago, the IRGC decided to retaliate in measure. Its forces hit a cargo vessel partially owned by Israeli car dealer and shipping magnate Rami Ungar, which was ferrying vehicles from East Asia to India. Ungar is a friend of Mossad’s Cohen and even donated money to his synagogue.
Such a move would never have occurred if Israel had not repeatedly leaked news of its attacks on Iranian ships. Iran could no longer turn a blind eye.
And Tehran quickly followed up with another attack. The Revolutionary Guard’s naval commandos sabotaged another ship owned by Israeli businessmen Ehud Angel, business partner of the Ofer family.
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The Ofer family owns a fleet of Singapore-based ships and oil tankers, which in the past used to do business with Iran and eventually were sanctioned by the Obama administration.
As long as the sabotage missions were done clandestinely and under the public’s radar, it was convenient for Iran to ignore them as though they had not happened.
But the moment the blabbing began, it was clear to the Israeli diplomatic and military leadership that this would be a dangerous game with a boomerang effect.
Iran can pay back and do the same thing. A maritime sabotage war is the last thing that Israel needs. About 90 percent of goods Israel imports and exports come and go by ship. The maritime routes are Israel’s underbelly.
The wave of reports is also annoying shipping circles, for fear of destabilisation that would jack up insurance costs and losses. In addition, the new US administration is deliberating its policy vis-a-vis Iran and trying to decide how to return to the nuclear deal and lift sanctions.
Confrontation at sea damages White House aspirations for stability and progress.
At the end of April, Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Yossi Cohen, who is leaving his Mossad post, intend to travel to Washington to discuss Israel’s concerns about the growing possibility that the US and Iran will overcome their difficulties and clinch a new nuclear deal.
Nevertheless, US officials, realising that the Israeli maritime campaign aims to damage the nuclear talks, will warn Israeli leaders not to push their luck.