Less than two weeks after an Israeli cargo ship flying a Liberian flag was targeted by an Iranian missile as it sailed between Tanzania and India, the Iranian ship MV Saviz was attacked with a limpet naval mine at its stationary location in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal on 12 March, since the end of 2019, 12 Iranian oil tankers on their way to Syria were attacked by Israel. Meanwhile, Israel claims two of its cargo ships were targeted: MV Helios Ray on 25 February 2021 in the Gulf of Oman, and one month later on 25 March a ship owned by XT Management was targeted with an Iranian missile in the Arabian Sea.
This means that Iran and Israel have kept quiet for over a year about the fiercest confrontations between them, known as the "shadow war", that only came to light recently after coverage in the US media. This points to significant changes in the rules of engagement between the two sides, accompanied by relevant developments on the regional scene, as follows:
Incremental intersecting developments
The Saviz attack is linked to several developments that indicate this could be a significant fork in the "war of the ships" between Israel and Iran. Normally, the sequence in this war is an attack by Israel followed by a counter-attack by Iran or vice versa. However, the current context and climate in which the Saviz attack took place give other indicators when looking at all aspects and prospects. It reveals the following messages:
The attack on Tuesday, 6 April, coincided with the launch of the first session of talks to resume the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (5+1), known as the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna. The optimism of the US State Department on these talks hints that this track could be successful, despite Israeli warnings that Washington is being lenient. Israel objects to the 2015 deal on principle, and therefore there are several Israeli messages, not just directed at Tehran. Namely, if the deal is reinstated Israel will not halt escalation with Iran. To Washington, the message is that indulging Iran or abandoning the requisite linking the US's return to the deal to Tehran's retreat from regional expansionism, will force Israel to continue escalating against Iran irrespective of a US-Iranian settlement on the nuclear issue.
According to Israeli reports, Israel waited until the US aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower passed Saviz in the Red Sea before attacking, to avoid any blame to the US for the attack. Meanwhile, a US official told The New York Times that Israel informed Washington about the attack on the ship, and the US has nothing to do with it. This shows that Washington does not want to be embroiled in the war of the ships, despite its traditional position on security arrangements in the Middle East and the need to de-escalate in that region.
There are various interpretations of this position, including that Washington wants to scale back its "leadership" but not reduce its "interest" in the Middle East, due to interests and partnerships. Thus, regional powers can take over leadership of the region based on the outcomes of current regional dynamics, in terms of balances of power and rules of engagment in the medium term.
Geo-political aspect of rules of engagement between Israel and Iran
Currently, there is a tangible variable in the rules of engagement between Israel and Iran in light of the Saviz attack. Along with the above developments, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said one day after the attack on Wednesday, 7 April, that Israel is developing its defence systems, but will not wait for an attack from overseas. Speaking during celebrations marking ten years since the launch of the Iron Dome air defence system, Gantz said Israel will initiate attacks overseas if there are perceived threats, but would not reveal the nature of these attacks.
Meanwhile, Iran held vast naval exercises in the Gulf and Sea of Oman in January 2021 and announced it will begin sea patrols in the direction of Bab El-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea. The first attack on the Israeli ship MV Helios Ray was at the same location as the naval exercises, and Israel also relocated its attacks to the Red Sea where Saviz was anchored at a location between Yemen and Djibouti. Thus, the two rivals in the "war of the ships" have expanded their naval warfare from the east Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Syria, to the mouth of the Gulf Sea and through the Red Sea. This is the new theatre of operations.
This is significantly notable not only for geopolitical reasons, but also due to security arrangements in that area. Iran is an outsider in that part of the region, and it is unusual and surprising that Tehran was keen on commenting that Saviz was a civilian ship, in response to claims that the ship belonged to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) on a spying mission in the Red Sea as part of military operations by IRG in Yemen. There is substance to these accusations; not only existing Israeli reports on the matter, but many others on the suspicious role Saviz has played for many years at this location. Most of these reports were issued by the legitimate government of Yemen and the Arab coalition, and include indicators and clear evidence of the ship's role in providing logistic supplies to Houthis, and as the homebase for IRG operations in Yemen.
The location of the ship was carefully chosen as a strategic spot to play a multiple logistical role, whether in the war in Yemen or navigation in the area -- and not as Iran claims that Saviz is on a logistical mission to combat piracy. Iran has not submitted a single report confirming this claim.
Open theatre of war
In the past, there was a silent relentless race between Israel and Iran to deploy on the coast of the Horn of Africa, and it is often said there is infrastructure for spying hubs and action launch points for elite forces to carry out missions. Currently, Israel wants to operate openly in light of Gulf country normalisation, without secrecy or covert operations. Meanwhile, Iran, as a regional power, wants to move out of the Strait of Hormuz to reach the east of the Mediterranean Sea by passing through the Red Sea without restrictions. Strangely, Tehran showed there is military cover for these moves by deploying forward base ship and helicopter carrier Makran -- the largest of its kind in the Iranian navy, to support naval groups in distant waters, including Bab Al-Mandab and Red Sea. This is based on statements by IRG commanders during the naval exercises, to Iran's news agency Fars on 12 January, 2021.
Future implications: Security arrangements in the Red Sea
One can imagine that after conflict resolution or security arrangements in the region, any party will have the right to move through the current battle theatre of the "war of the ships". However, right now, Israel and Iran are trying to assert their influence in that area as a fait accompli, not just as the evolution of rules of engagement. This area is more than just a region of influence for countries on its coasts, and is in fact an area of sovereign influence. Israel's tiny coast on the Red Sea at the Port of Eilat does not grant it all this influence, but its military operations at this scale are a display power and expansion of its circle of influence. It is also unusual that Arab countries did not take any steps about the presence of a suspicious ship in the Red Sea for many years since the start of the Yemen war, even though the international maritime organization acknowledges this presence. According to a declaration by Iran's Foreign Ministry, the Maritime Authority was informed of the ship's presence.
In either case, this shows the fragility of security arrangements in the Red Sea by countries that have a right to influence there. These countries should reassess the situation and decide on "flexible" security arrangements that accommodate the activities of regional powers there, especially in the Red Sea, based on the rules of the Red Sea security system set by countries of influence and sovereignty there.
It seems Israel and Iran have been waging open war in the region over the past two years beyond the traditional war theatres of Lebanon and Syria. It has evolved into a shadow war that extended to Iraq by air at one point and by sea in the Mediterranean. Now, it has become a war of attrition with a wider geopolitical scope. This confirms that both sides want to keep armed clashes afar in other regional arenas. For Iran, this is one of the lessons of the Iraq-Iran war; while Israel does not want to risk an open war that is certain to have repercussions. However, the accelerated rate of strikes -- four attacks in the first quarter of 2021 compared to six strikes overall in 2020 -- could tip this delicate balance and take it to the next level, which will require other regional powers to become involved in a damaging way, as this battle's geopolitical scope expands.
Both sides have preemptively said that limiting their regional expansion in the foreseeable future is not an option. It was once a hopeful outcome during nuclear deal negotiations, and the image the new US administration tried to project, even though it lacks the vision and tools to impose it. Washington will now leave regional powers to devise formulae and balances of power resulting from ongoing wars and conflicts in the region, such as the "war of the ships".