Tensions are mounting between Iran and Israel. The Iranian vessel anchored off Yemen’s Red Sea coast Safiz was damaged by an explosion two weeks after an Israeli Liberian-flagged vessel was targeted by an Iranian missile halfway between Tanzania and India. A recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal dated 12 March 2021 indicated that since the end of 2019, 12 Iranian oil-carrying vessels have been attacked by Israel on their way to Syria. Correspondingly, Israel announced two attacks on its cargo ships, the first of which targeted the M.V Helios Ray in the Gulf of Oman on 25 February 2021 and another attack on 25 March targeted a vessel owned by XT Management in the Arabian Sea by an Iranian missile.
The persistence of these undeclared attacks for over a year without them going public indicates Iran’s and Israel’s willingness to put the lid on the most violent confrontations between them, otherwise known as the “shadow war”. Now, the US media disclosing news of these attacks carries obvious implications of the conflict developing to a new level, bringing about relevant regional developments that we discuss below.
Intertwined transitional developments
The Safiz incident has been associated with several developments that may mark a turning point in the naval warfare between Israel and Iran. Normally, a naval warfare has a tit-for-tat nature, meaning the war could mainly consist of successive attacks and counterattacks between rivals i.e. Israel and Iran in this case. However, the general context and the environment in which the incident occurred provide significant indicators considering the following revealing dimensions:
- The Saviz attack (on Tuesday, 6 April) took place simultaneously with the resumption of the Vienna-hosted Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks and the US State Department expressing optimism for the fruitful outcomes this step might bring, amid Israeli concerns about Washington’s complacency on those negotiations. In principle, Israel had had reservations over the agreement since its signing back in 2015. Hence, the Israeli attacks conveys a manifold message: a message to Iran that it [Israel] will not abandon its policy of escalation even if the 2015 agreement is revived and a similar message to the US that Washington’s complacency and rejoining the agreement without making it a requirement that Iran abandon its regional expansion policy will, in return, lead Israel to adopt escalation and confrontation against Iran regardless of the Iranian-US settlement of the nuclear dispute.
- According to Israeli reports, Israel’s carrying out the strike after the US aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower had passed the Saviz in the Red Sea is an indicator of Israel’s willingness to release the US away from the circle of suspected attackers. In return, the US officials’ quick response telling The New York Times that Israel had informed the US of the attack on the Safiz and that the US has no relation with the attack is a significant indicator of Washington’s desire to avoid being involved in this war. Despite the US long-standing position on the security arrangements in the Middle East and its favoring of de-escalation in the region, recent analyses of the American position indicate that Washington seeks to detract from its “leading” role in the Middle East while promoting “interest” in the region in accordance with its interests and partnerships, leaving the regional leadership to the regional powers based on the balances of power and engagement in the medium term that the current regional dynamics will yield.
- The geopolitical variable of the Israeli-Iranian engagement formula
The Safiz attack brought about a tangible shift in the current Israeli-Iranian engagement. In addition to the developments referred to above, statements of the Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on 7 April, the day following the incident, were quite revealing. During the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the operation of the Iron Dome missile defense system, Gantz indicated that Israel is working on developing its defense system but will not wait to be attacked to take action; rather, it will initiate overseas attacks according to the threats perceived, noting he will not reveal the nature of these attacks. On the other side, in the course of large-scale maritime drills it conducted in the Gulf and the Sea of Oman in January 2021, Iran announced it will conduct naval patrols in Bab Al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea. It should be noted that the first attack of the Israeli carrier M.V Helios Ray happened in the same location of these naval drills. Over and above, Israel relocated targeting to the Red Sea where the Safiz is stationed in an area between Yemen and Djibouti.
These movements contributed to expanding the theatre of the “naval warfare” between Iran and Israel, taking the war from the Middle East off the Syrian Coast to the mouth of The Gulf through the Red Sea, i.e. the new theatre of war. These developments bear watching not only because of their geopolitical significance but due to the nature of the security system in the region with Iran as an outsider. Surprisingly and noticeably, Iran was keen on confirming the Safiz is a civilian vessel to dismiss accusations of the vessel being a military base for the Revolutionary Guard or participating in an intelligence mission in the Red Sea to support the Revolutionary Guard’s military operations in Yemen.
In fact, these accusations have substance. While the Israeli reports making such accusations is not new, a constant stream of reports, mostly security reports from the Yemeni government and the Arab Coalition, have given rise to many suspicions as to the role of the vessel stationed in this location for years. These reports provided clear evidence and indications on the role of the vessel in the logistical supply of Houthis and being an operations base for the Revolutionary Guard. Certainly, choosing the vessel’s location wasn’t left to chance; it has been tactically chosen for the vessel to serve different logistical purposes whether with regard to the war in Yemen or navigation in the region rather than to play an anti-piracy role as Iran has been claiming for years without delivering any report that provide supportive evidence of piracy.
An open theatre of war
For long, there has been a constant undeclared Israeli-Iranian rivalry to deploy on the coasts of Horn of Africa. Also, there has been a talk of the existence of spying hubs and action launch points for elite forces carrying out specific missions in the area. Recently, with the Israel’s normalization agreement with the Gulf countries, Israel seeks to bring its operations in this theatre to light, rather than keeping them under wraps. In return, Iran, as a regional power, aspires to move out of the Strait of Hormuz toward the east of the Mediterranean Sea passing through the Red Sea without restrictions. Strangely enough, Iran movements in this direction come in broad daylight showing military cover as is evidenced by deploying of the helicopter carrier Makran – Iran’s largest military ship – with “the aim of supporting naval groups in distant waters including those in Bab Al-Mandab and the Red Sea”, leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard declared to Fars News Agency on 12 January 2010.
Future implications: Security arrangements in the Red Sea
Normally in naval warfare, and after the settlement of disputes and making regional security arrangements, any party is supposed to have the right to neutrally move in the naval theatre of war. However, the current Israeli-Iranian conflict doesn’t seem to offer a likely scenario with both Israel and Iran trying to exert coercive influence as a fait accompli not as a consequence the development of engagement, in spite of the fact that these areas are not just spheres of influence for coastal countries but are in fact areas of sovereignty. In fact, Israel’s narrow window to the Red sea through the Port of Eilat doesn’t give it such influence and its expanding of military operations at this scale is intended as both a show of power and an expansion of its circle of influence. The Arab countries’ inaction toward the existence of a suspicious vessel in the Red Sea for long years raises eyebrows, particularly with the International Maritime Organization acknowledging and being informed about such presence as has been stated in Iran’s Foreign Ministry declaration. Overall, this context reveals the precariousness of security arrangements by influential-countries in the Red sea – a situation that requires re-evaluation by these countries to enforce “flexible evolving” arrangements that encompass a wide range of activities of regional powers in the area, particularly in the red sea, given rules included in the Red Sea Maritime Security System established by sovereign-countries.
The two-year war between Israel and Iran seems to have pushed the envelope of traditional war theatre in Syria and Lebanon to a shadow war fought over Iraq’s sky at some time and in the Red sea at others, eventually evolving into a war of attrition in a wider geopolitical vantage. If this shadow war is any indicator, it demonstrates the willingness of both sides to keep armed clashes far from regional arenas, a lesson that Iran has learned from its war with Iraq while Israel, on its part, doesn’t want to roll the dice with an open war that might cast its shadow on it. However, the accelerated rate of strikes – four attacks in the first quarter of 2021 relative to six strikes overall in 2020 – might disturb the balance taking the war to a new level requiring other regional powers to inevitably involve in the war given the expansion of the battle’s geopolitical scope.
More importantly, both sides seem to have preemptively ruled out the possibility of limiting their regional expansion in the foreseeable future, a scenario that had been hoped for back within the nuclear negotiations or within the overall picture that the Biden administration tried to project while lacking the vision and tools to establish it, and will have to leave it to the regional powers to handle the balance of power equation depending on what outcomes the ongoing conflicts and wars would bring.