Damage to Iranian Tanker Suggests an Intensifying Israeli Campaign

4 MINS READOct 15, 2019 | 21:01 GMT
The Big Picture

After several months of attacks targeting Saudi, Emirati and other oil and gas infrastructure in the Middle East, Iran has apparently been attacked itself. While retaliation is one possibility, a more likely explanation could be an expanding strategy by Israel to prevent Iranian tankers from delivering fuel to Syria.

An incident involving Iran's Sabiti oil tanker on Oct. 11 in the Red Sea increasingly appears to have resulted from an attack, marking the latest major hostile incident in a region on edge in recent months after Iranian or Iranian-backed attacks on oil-related targets. Images released by Iran in the last several days show two large holes in the tanker's starboard hull, suggesting a projectile or limpet mine breached it.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have so far not blamed a specific country for the incident, though they have vaguely referenced that "regime" assistance was involved. Israel, not Saudi Arabia or the United States, probably would have been most likely to carry out such an attack.

Capability and Intent

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States has publicly acknowledged any military response to the September attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, and instead, appear to be looking for ways to de-escalate tensions with Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump does not want a military response for fear of escalating the situation, although he has increased the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Moreover, the United States would not be expected to attack an Iranian vessel in the Red Sea, something that could cause an environmental disaster.

Though Saudi Arabia's geographic proximity to the incident means it could have carried out the attack, initial reports suggest Saudi officials were scrambling to determine the extent of the damage, including its environmental fallout, and trying to determine if Iran had launched a false-flag operation to justify attacks on Saudi infrastructure along its Red Sea coast. And while Saudi Arabia and the United States would like to deter further Iranian actions, an unacknowledged attack — like this one — does little to establish deterrence.

Unacknowledged attacks do, however, fit into Israel's modus operandi. Israel has a long history of launching attacks against Iranian targets — often to prevent supplies and support from reaching Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories — without claiming them.

Limiting Iranian Support in Syria and Lebanon

For Israel, reducing Iran's ability to ship fuel and oil to Syria whether through sabotage or other attacks, thereby limiting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' and Syrian President Bashar al Assad's forces access to it, is a clear priority. Targeting Iranian fuel supplies to Syria more aggressively would jibe with Israel's overall more aggressive campaign to limit Iran's ability to support its forces in Syria or the forces of its proxies. Israel has become more actively engaged in striking Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targets inside Syria lately and is likely behind a string of attacks targeting depots and other facilities linked to the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq since July. Israel has not acknowledged its involvement in such attacks despite a number of leaks suggesting it was behind them, though in August Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did publicly threaten military action in the Red Sea should Iran try to close down the Bab el-Mandeb waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden.

Unacknowledged attacks fit into Israel's modus operandi.

For much of 2018-19, Syria has been mired in a near-constant fuel crisis, something Iran has sought to ease. But Iran has struggled to fully alleviate the fuel crisis in Syria. After protests in April following reductions in fuel subsidies and a winter of pro-al Assad forces burning through fuel stockpiles, Iran finally managed to send a shipment of foreign oil to Syria's Baniyas refinery.

More Iranian tankers have followed suit, but several have experienced technical issues, such as the Helm tanker, which issued a distress call in the Red Sea in August, preventing it from delivering its cargo. Shipping rules in the Suez Canal forbid commercial ships experiencing technical or mechanical issues from transiting the canal. Iran's only alternative involves rounding the Cape of Good Hope and entering the Mediterranean via the Strait of Gibraltar, but the British decision to seize the Grace 1 tanker in July as it plied that route has reduced the value of that option. For its part, Iran has few options for directly retaliating against Israel other than in the Golan Heights.

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