Middle East Cold War

Mohamed Abu Shaar , Wednesday 7 Jul 2021

As part of the ongoing, silent war between Israel and Iran, a cargo ship flying the Liberian flag was targeted in the Indian Ocean by an unknown weapon. Owned by a company managed by an Israeli businessman, the ship named Tyndall was sailing from the Port of Jeddah on its way to the UAE, but there were no Israeli nationals on board.

According to the Israeli media, none of the crew was injured and the vessel sustained no serious damage. Nor was the course of the ship connected to Israel in any way, and it did not have any Israeli nationals onboard; Iran may have made an intelligence mistake because its database of Israeli targets was outdated.

Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer had actually sold the ship to a foreign shipping company. Maariv newspaper reported that the ship was sold two months ago and is no longer owned by Ofer’s family or any Israeli company. The Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation (Kan) stated the vessel is not registered as an Israeli ship.

The incident was the latest in a series of attacks targeting Iranian and Israeli interests, as both sides quietly continue a tit-for-tat exchange without either side openly claiming responsibility. In April, an Israeli ship named Hyperion and owned by the Israeli company PCC was attacked on the coast of the UAE near the emirate of Fujairah. Israeli security officials told Israeli media that the attack was carried out by Iranian forces who launched a missile from a ship or drone.

In March, a cargo ship owned by Israeli businessman Udi Angel was hit by an Iranian missile in the Arabian Sea, according to Israeli officials, as it sailed from Tanzania to India. Although damaged, the vessel Lori continued on its journey.

The incident took place two weeks after the Iranian Maritime Shipping Company revealed that an Iranian container ship, Shahr Kord, was damaged by an attack in the Mediterranean Sea when an explosion resulted in a small fire, but without anyone on board being harmed. The last attack on an Iranian target attributed to Israel was in mid-April when the Savez, believed to belong to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was targeted by several limpet mines in the Red Sea. Savez served several purposes, including intelligence activities at sea.

The recent attack on the Tyndall in the Indian Ocean is linked to an attack on the building of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) carried out by a drone launched from Iran, and is another attack on Iran’s nuclear programme from inside Iranian territories. Analysts believe the attack on the Tyndall could be Iran’s response to the strike on the Iranian nuclear facility. Iran announced that the AEOI building was targeted last week, but not damaged.

Sources revealed that the facility located near Karaj, close to the capital Tehran, was one of the main facilities in the country for the production of centrifuges used at the two nuclear sites of Fordow and Natanz. The New York Times reported that the Iranian Centrifuge Technology Company (TESA) was on the target list presented by Israel to the administration of former US president Donald Trump in early 2020.

Israel believes that targeting interests related to Iran’s nuclear programme will hinder Tehran’s progress in this field, especially due to inconclusive talks in Vienna on the return to the nuclear deal. Tel Aviv views this deal as an attempt by Iran to buy time to make strides in acquiring nuclear weapons. Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz clearly expressed this position: “If Iran continues its progress towards owning nuclear weapons, the Middle East will be on the verge of an arms race. Israel is keeping a keen eye on all types of threats and will not allow any violation of its sovereignty.”

According to Haaretz newspaper, he added, “Our defence systems are deployed and intelligence is working to produce targets and decide intentions. We are aware of what is happening in the region, and our policy is clear. We will respond with the necessary amount of force and according to our own timing. This is what we did in the past and this is what we do today.”

Antoine Shalhat, an expert on Israeli affairs, said these repeated attacks demonstrate the scale of the stealth and intelligence war between Iran and Israel. Shalhat said that, while Tehran does not take responsibility for these attacks, the Israeli media in cooperation with international media tries to hold Iran responsible for any attack on Israeli facilities or targets.

“For Iran to respond in kind to Israel’s attacks whether in Tehran or Syria is normal,” he said. “But the question is how successful Iran can be in targeting Israeli sites.” He continued that Iranian attacks are not a great concern for Israel and the government of Naftali Bennett, but Israeli attacks on Iran whether in Syria or at home are more serious for Tehran and the region. Shalhat warned that they could explode the situation at any moment.

He continued that the fragile government of the new Prime Minister Bennett will handle Iran’s nuclear issue in a similar way to its predecessor under Benjamin Netanyahu. The only change could be the interaction between the US and Israel on the issue of targeting Iran, especially since the Biden administration is working on returning to the nuclear deal.

“The previous administration was aligned with Israel and did not object to any Israeli attacks,” he explained. “Today, there is a new administration that follows different policies. Israel will continue with its security policies on Iran, and there will be more coordination with the US administration.” Shalhat noted that the broad freedoms allowed to Netanyahu by Trump have exponentially shrunk.

Commenting on the impact of the attacks on the Vienna talks between Iran and the US, the Israel expert asserted it will not obstruct a new deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. There are predictions that progress is being made and an agreement is at hand despite tensions and the results of the Iranian elections, which produced a new player viewed as more hardline, namely the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Shalhat added that Iran could use these attacks to improve its negotiating position and prove it is still capable of confrontation despite years of sanctions, and in no hurry to return to the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, Israelis are facing a greater dilemma, as revealed by the Israeli media recently.

The official continued that the main dilemma is the lack of good assessment whether the Iranians want to return to the nuclear agreement or are using the Vienna talks to procrastinate and establish new factors on the ground, finishing important steps in the nuclear field – especially after Iran was absolved of all its obligations in the previous nuclear deal.

Israel does not seem to have any concerns about attacking Iranian targets, whether inside Iran or in Syria, especially since these attacks portray a firm image in front of Iran on the one hand, and push away any accusations by strong right-wing opposition that Israel is willing to abandon its determination to block Iran from possessing nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Iran’s new president takes a hardline position on what he views as Iran’s right to possess nuclear weapons. Tehran appears more motivated to pressure Israel and respond to attacks against its interests, especially under a new US administration that is less harsh than its predecessor.

This will most likely mean that the exchange of attacks between the two sides will escalate in the coming phase.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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