As the two nations stalk each other on the seas, experts warn both sides must carefully calibrate their actions so as not to trigger an all-out war
The UK and US have blamed Iran for an attack on an Israeli-linked oil tanker in which two crew members, including a British national, were killed.
The MV Mercer Street, which is operated by an Israeli-owned firm, was attacked last Thursday in a suspected drone strike off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea. It appears to be “the latest escalation in an undeclared ‘shadow war’ between Israel and Iran”, the BBC says.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused Iran of carrying out a “deliberate, targeted” assault that constituted “a clear violation of international law”, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was considering “next steps” with the UK and other allies, with “an appropriate response… forthcoming”, says NBC.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh has condemned the allegations, saying this was not the first time Israel and its allies had made such claims.
“Wherever this regime has gone, it has brought with itself insecurity, terror and violence. Those responsible [for this attack] are the ones that allowed the Israeli regime to set foot in this region,” he said.
Despite Tehran’s denials, “there is little doubt” the attack was launched by Iran, said The Times in its leading article this morning.
“Crippled by American sanctions, beset by growing domestic anger and frustrated that its export of terrorism and violence… Iran’s leadership has struck out in proxy retaliation for the restrictions and the attacks on its nuclear programme,” the newspaper said. “Not for the first time, it is risking a counterstrike by Israel.”
Israel and Iran have been engaged in tit-for-tat hostilities for decades, but tensions have flared in recent months.
When Israel and Hamas clashed in Gaza in May, Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, launched attacks with new Shehab drones, which had a strong resemblance to Iran’s Ababil 2 drone, prompting suspicions they had been supplied by Tehran.
A month earlier, on 11 April, a power failure apparently caused by a deliberately planned explosion hit Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. Iranian officials called it sabotage, blamed Israel and vowed revenge. “This is a crime against humanity and carrying out such actions is in line with the essence of the Zionist regime,” said Khatibzadeh at the time.
These events are “only the latest in a saga that has lasted – on and off – for almost the entire century”, says David Patrikarakos in the New Statesman. “Neither Iran nor Israel will yield. And while their governments lambast each other in public, they also stalk each other on the seas.”
At issue, centrally, are Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. When Iran and several world powers signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 after years of painstaking negotiations, Israel was among the few countries that opposed the agreement, arguing that it would not contain its adversary’s nuclear programme in the long term.
After the Trump administration left the deal in May 2018 and Iran stopped implementing its JCPOA commitments in response, Israel “escalated a shadow war with Iran to disrupt Iranian shipping and retard Iran’s nuclear advances”, says Sina Azodi on the Atlantic Councilblog. “That war has now come increasingly into the open and… could spark a wider conflict.”
Despite the growing hostilities, “the underlying theme of the shadow war is brinkmanship”, says BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner. “Neither side can afford to look weak but both Iran and Israel know they need to carefully calibrate their actions so as not to trigger an all-out war.”