The West is wary of tensions between Iran and Israel, which at the very least could ruin nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the 5 + 1 countries. That is why Washington and European capitals took their time to respond to an attack on an oil tanker belonging to an Israeli company off the coast of Oman. Only under Israeli pressure did London and Washington blame Tehran for the attack.
The attack is the latest in a long series of skirmishes, direct and indirect confrontations between Iran and Israel, in a “shadow war” or “grey war” raging on several fronts, including shipping, nuclear activities, allies and proxies in the arenas of Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The escalation occurred in the week in which Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi will take office. It is a turbulent start to his presidency that opens the door to further tensions between Tehran and the West.
Benny Gantz, Israel’s defence minister said Monday that Iran’s alleged attack on a merchant ship in the Arabian Sea last week was “a stepping-up of the escalation” of hostilities by Iran, and called for international action.
Addressing the Knesset, Gantz said that the drone strike on the MV Mercer Street, which is managed by Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime, which left two crew members dead — one from the United Kingdom and one from Romania — was “in violation of international law and human morality.” He charged that Iran was behind at least five attacks on international shipping in the last year. “This is exactly the reason why we must act now against Iran, which is not only striving towards nuclear arms but is also bringing about a dangerous arms race and intends to destabilise the Middle East with terrorist militias who are armed with hundreds of drones in Iran, Yemen, Iraq and other countries in the region.”
Gantz also said that any future agreement between world powers and Iran to rein in its nuclear programme must also address Iran’s “aggression in the region and harming both innocent people and to the global economy… This is not a future threat, rather a tangible and immediate danger,” he said.
For its part Tehran has denied any involvement, but US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said America was “confident that Iran carried out this attack. It follows a pattern of similar attacks by Iran, including past incidents with explosive drones,” he told reporters at the State Department. “There is no justification for this attack on a peaceful vessel on a commercial mission… a direct threat to freedom of navigation and commerce that took the lives of innocent sailors.”
Blinken said the US was in close contact with the U.K., Israel and Romania, and “there will be a collective response.” He did not elaborate on what that response might be.
In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Iran “should face up to the consequences of what they’ve done”. He described the incident as “an unacceptable and outrageous attack on commercial shipping... It is absolutely vital that Iran and every other country respects the freedom of navigation around the world, and the UK will continue to insist on that.” Johnson also said that Iran must “immediately cease actions that risk international peace and security”. Calling it an “unlawful and callous attack,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK and its allies were planning a coordinated response.
But a senior Iranian official has sought to ease a diplomatic row with the UK that erupted after London blamed Tehran for the fatal drone attack on the oil tanker in the Gulf, cautioning that an escalation “doesn’t help anybody”. Mohsen Baharvand, Iran’s ambassador to London, told the Financial Times that London’s decision to blame Tehran for the assault on the MV Mercer Street was a “very premature reaction”. Speaking hours after he was summoned to the Foreign Office over the incident, he added that the dispute should not damage relations between the two countries or derail talks with the UK and other nations intended to revive the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers.
“We understand one of the UK’s citizens has lost life and that is for everybody a regrettable act, but that doesn’t mean you can put the blame immediately on one country. You have to investigate the case, you have to have evidence,” Baharvand said. “We are not for escalating — escalation doesn’t help anybody.”
Baharvand also emphasised that the nuclear talks should not be affected by the current tensions. He said that the talks, held in Vienna, had made “very good progress”. But he added three key requests by Iran: a guarantee that the US could not unilaterally abandon the deal in the future; the lifting of sanctions; and avoiding linking the talks to Iran’s missile programme or its regional policies.
In response to the UK summoning Iran’s ambassador, Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the British charge d’affaires in Tehran to protest Raab’s comments. The Iranian Foreign Ministry rejected and condemned “hasty, contradictory and unsubstantiated statements,” the ministry said. Iran will defend itself with a timely, appropriate and decisive response to any “adventurous action”, adding that this is not the first time that Britain has made accusations against Iran without providing evidence.
Iran and Israel are locked in a shadow war, trading accusations that they launched attacks against each other’s merchant vessels and other interests. Tehran accused Israel of assassinating a top nuclear scientist last November and of attacking its main uranium enrichment site at its Natanz atomic facility in July this year. Baharvand also said Israel had attacked 11 Iranian merchant vessels this year.
US President Joe Biden has pledged to revive the 2015 accord and remove sanctions if Iran moves back into compliance with the agreement. But the tanker attack risks complicating an already complex and fragile process. The nuclear talks have in effect been put on hold since Raisi won Iran’s presidential election in June. Raisi has said he will continue with the negotiations, but with hardliners, who are wary of engaging with the West, in full control of all branches of the state, Tehran is expected to take a tougher stance.
For ordinary Iranians, the current tension threatens to cast doubt on the success of negotiations to return to the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions, which have devastated the economy and exacerbated social pressures in the country. The escalation with the West may also push the new Iranian president to adopt a more hard-line approach at home and abroad and repeat the mistakes of successive Iranian governments. In a rare farewell statement by outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, his words were filled with apologies to the Iranian people for the “pain they suffered”.
In his final cabinet meeting, Rouhani defended his eight years in power but admitted that his regime was not always entirely honest with Iranians, who in recent months have endured a series of crises including power cuts, water shortages, the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, many protests and several mysterious incidents including a fire at a chemical plant in Shiraz, an explosion at a power plant in Ahvas, an explosion at a liquid fuel production facility near Parchin, and east of Tehran.
These incidents have left the Iranians in a dark mood. It is no wonder that Rouhani should end his term with an apology, amid fears that the next few days might be no better.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly