The already simmering tensions between Israel and Iran have escalated markedly in recent months. In January, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, announced the Islamic Republic’s Navy will resume patrolling missions in the Red Sea, “to protect the country’s trade vessels and oil tankers,” after “a series of limited incidents” there. The word “incident” sounded vague when it was expressed by Iran’s military top brass. Nonetheless, a recent report by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) laid bare possible motives behind that deployment.

According to WSJ, Israel has bombed and damaged at least a dozen Syria-bound ships flying the Iranian flag in the Red Sea and other areas of the region over the past two years.

Israel’s Hebrew-language daily Maariv later claimed the naval operations against Iran were “deeper and more thorough” than previously reported.

Whereas Israel has not commented on the purported attacks and Iranian officials have so far refused to talk openly thereon, Hossein Dalirian, a security and military expert in Tehran, denies the alleged large extent and dimensions of Israeli attacks against Iranian vessels. He said, in an interview with Inside Arabia, that the reports are “part of a new psychological warfare by the Zionist regime [of Israel] against the Islamic Republic.”

A Long-term Threat to Israel

These revelations came following two recent incidents, including a blast on an Israeli-owned vehicle carrier in the Gulf of Oman in February, which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed on Iran. Moreover, on March 25, Israeli media reported that an Iranian missile hit an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing from Tanzania to India. Separately, Iran accused Israel of being behind an attack in the Mediterranean in early March that had damaged an Iranian container ship heading to Europe.

“After the attack on the Iranian cargo ship Shahr-e-Kord – though neither Iran nor Israel has claimed responsibility for the recent operations, we can say that Iran and the Zionist regime are now engaged in a covert naval war,” Dalirian, who is a well-connected and informed expert on Iranian military affairs, said. “It is the Israelis who have started this battle and the Islamic Republic will definitely retaliate and give a proportionate, or perhaps a major response to such attacks,” Dalirian added

However, Abdolrasool Divsallar, a Rome-based scholar focused on Iranian defense doctrine and security policy, believes operational and economic limitations, coupled with political complexities, might force Tehran “to remain cautious in reacting to Israeli provocations.”

Iran Israel

Shahr-e-Kord, one of the cargo ships of the Iranian Shipping Lines (IRISL) was damaged after it was targeted by an attack en route to Europe in the Mediterranean Sea in March, the company says. (Courtesy of Tehran Times)

The US sanctions former President Donald Trump reimposed on Iran after pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – officially termed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – have significantly harmed the Iranian economy. The Covid-19 pandemic has also compounded this already dire situation.

“Tehran’s short-term response might be destined to audiences inside Israeli security apparatuses to send the message that it has the means and potential to do so, but it is steering clear of a large-scale retaliation,” Divsallar told Inside Arabia.

Compared to Iran, Israel – with an annual military budget exceeding US$20 billion, plus a US$3.8 billion military aid package it receives each year from the United States – might have the upper hand due to its technological and logistical capabilities and access to intelligence provided by the US and EU militaries.

Furthermore, normalization of ties between Israel and Persian Gulf Arab states and the formation of a new regional bloc with varying degrees of opposition to any compromise with Iran could also intensify the conflict between Tehran and Tel Aviv.

“In terms of both psychology and logistics/capabilities, the normalization of relations between Israel and the Emirates and Bahrain on the one hand, and the (still) covert good relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, give a new impetus to Israel’s containment and deterrence strategy vis-à-vis Iran,” Raffaella A. Del Sarto, Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe, told Inside Arabia.

While Israel might have the upper hand with its new-found regional allies, it does not necessarily mean that Iran’s hands are tied.

While Israel might have the upper hand with its new-found regional allies, it does not necessarily mean that Iran’s hands are tied and that Tehran, with an annual military budget of just under US$13 billion, has fewer options to respond. Iran has already warned against Israeli presence in the Persian Gulf and the potential for creating tensions.

In recent years, the Islamic Republic has expanded its drone, cruise, and ballistic missile capabilities. Iran has also beefed up its naval forces, adding more advanced ships and a wide range of homegrown anti-ship missiles. In a symbolic reaction and to show off its maritime power just days after the blast on the Iranian vessel Shahr-e-Kord, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unveiled “a new underground missile base” capable of what it calls “remote warfare.”

The disclosure of the base along with a set of other factors suggest that the latest attack(s) on Iranian ship(s) might have inadvertently pushed Tehran to consider a new domain of warfare and develop unconventional capabilities “that was partly absent in the Iranian mindset.”

“Tehran’s long-term response could be building up its own and its allies’ operational potential in a similar maritime attack against Israel beyond the Persian Gulf, more into the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. This is a more long-term threat to Israel,” explained Divsallar, a research fellow at the Middle East Directions Program of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

[Another Crisis Looms Over Iran’s Nuclear Program]

[Why Iran Rejected ‘Informal’ Talks and What it Means for JCPOA]

[Prospects for Gulf Engagement with Iran: Opportunities and Challenges]

From Best Friends to Arch Foes 

Before the fall of the Shah in 1979, Iran and Israel were close friends and allies for 30 years. Iran sold oil to Israel when other oil-producing Arab countries had imposed an embargo on Israel. Tehran and Tel Aviv also maintained close military and intelligence sharing cooperation. Israel was even secretly developing a multibillion-dollar surface-to-surface missiles project for Iran, which could be fitted with nuclear warheads. Israel’s intelligence agencies also provided training to the Shah’s notorious secret police, known as the Savak.

Yet, the Islamic Revolution upended these relations. Iran severed diplomatic ties with Israel and the two nations have since turned into arch enemies and been engaged in direct and indirect hostilities. Still, their military cooperation continued during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), as Israel supplied arms to Iran and both reportedly arranged some key military engagements with each other.

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq that toppled long-time Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein changed the regional balance of power.

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq that toppled long-time Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein changed the regional balance of power. Iran gradually sought to expand its influence in the region by supporting various political parties as well as militia groups in Iraq in their push to expel American troops and later in fighting the Daesh (Arabic acronym of ISIL) terror group.

Syria has had a vital logistical role in enabling Iran to provide support to the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and since the start of civil war in Syria in 2011, Tehran has bolstered the government of President Bashar al-Assad. This alliance that stretches from Tehran to Beirut via Damascus and Gaza to Baghdad is described as the “Axis of Resistance.” In Yemen, Iran has also backed the Houthis in their fight against Saudi Arabia which in 2015 embarked on an all-out invasion in support of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government.

To contain Iran’s presence in its neighborhood, Israel has adopted a forceful approach. The Israeli military has reportedly conducted hundreds of air raids against what it says are Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq since 2012. Yet these strikes have failed to bring any major shifts in Iran’s regional strategy. Tehran has on a few occasions responded to those strikes while in general it has adopted a strategy to minimize the vulnerability of its assets against such attacks.

Iran Israel

Israel has a powerful air force — and it is not afraid to strike neighbors it perceives as a national security threat. (Photo Amir Cohen/Reuters)

It is an open secret that before the 2015 nuclear deal was signed between Iran and major world powers, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pushing for attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites. Israel has also been suspected of carrying out a wide range of clandestine covert actions including sabotage, cyber-attacks, and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists to slow down Iran’s nuclear program.

Even before Joe Biden – who has expressed a desire to restore the deal if Iran returns to full compliance first – took office as US president, the Israelis had already been plotting to hinder chances of revival of the JCPOA.

In recent weeks, Israeli officials have renewed their threats to launch “preemptive strikes” on Iran’s nuclear sites like the one they carried out in Iraq and Syria.

“This risk is certainly a real one. Israeli governments perceive the Iranian nuclear program, together with the expansion and entrenchment of Iranian influence right across Israel’s borders (most notably in Syria and Lebanon), as the most important security threat that Israel is facing today,” Del Sarto said.

How to Head Off Direct Military Conflict?  

The remarks by top military brass in Israel have drawn strong rebuke in Tehran. Iran’s General Baqeri said on March 16 that Iran has acquired what it takes to “eliminate Israel from the political geography of the region.”

Baqeri stressed a plan drawn upon a 2013 order from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, that warned Israeli cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv would be razed should Israel take military action against Iran.

The escalating cycle of fiery rhetoric between Iran and Israel amid the latest incidents at sea, has raised fears about the risk of these tensions degenerating into a full-blown regional conflict. In such a case, it begs the question: What are the options to calm down the frictions and prevent a possible disaster?

“The US administration certainly possesses the necessary leverage over Israel (and the Gulf states) to convince them to ‘scale back’ their hostile actions against Iran  . . .”

“I believe the key lies in Washington. The US administration certainly possesses the necessary leverage over Israel (and the Gulf states) to convince them to ‘scale back’ their hostile actions against Iran and to avoid provoking Tehran – while still acknowledging Israel’s concerns and right to defend itself when attacked,” Del Sarto said.

The JCPOA that Donald Trump scuttled in 2018 had contributed greatly to regional security by helping to curb the Iranian nuclear program and contain the disruptive instincts of the Israeli government. Nonetheless, the Israelis today are pushing for the extension of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and stricter limits on Iran’s nuclear program. Israel also wants to contain Iran’s regional charm offensive and development of missiles without acknowledging the security concerns of Tehran.

“It would be highly advisable to start a real dialogue with Tehran which would also acknowledge the possibility that Iran feels threatened, too, and that its actions may not be purely expansionist for the sake of gaining power,” Del Sarto noted.

In the meantime, Western capitals should act quickly to head off the threat of a direct military conflict between Iran and Israel.