Israeli Defense Officials Head to Gulf in Wake of Suspected Iran Attack on Ship

Yaniv Kubovich
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The damage to the Helios Ray ship
The damage to the Helios Ray ship following explosion in the Gulf of Oman
Yaniv Kubovich

A group of Israeli defense officials flew to Dubai on Saturday to investigate Thursday’s attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman.

Senior defense officials alleged that Iran was behind the attack, which they said was deliberate. The current assessment is that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards fired one or two missiles at the ship while it was sailing near the Straits of Hormuz, and that they knew it was Israeli.

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This ship, the Helios Ray, flew the Bahaman flag, but it is owned by an Israeli company registered in the Isle of Man. Although the ship was damaged, none of the 28 crew members were hurt. The company said that the ship headed to Dubai for repairs following the attack. 

The defense establishment has feared for some time that Iran would open a new front against Israel at sea. Defense officials have warned in recent years that this could threaten the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, severely damaging Israel’s economy, in part by slashing imports.

The Bab al-Mandab Strait, which separates Asia from Africa; the Strait of Hormuz, which separates the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman; and the Suez Canal are three of the most important maritime passages in the world. Around 20 percent of the global oil trade passes through them, and they also serve as a transit route from Asia and Africa to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe.

MV HELIOS RAY track as it left Gulf of Oman and then backtracked to UAE after explosion near IranCredit: Marinetraffic.com

For Israel, any threat to its maritime traffic through these waterways is a strategic one, since 90 percent of Israel’s imports and exports go by sea. In particular, 12 percent of its imports come through Bab al-Mandab; the annual value of these imports exceeds $15 billion.

If the Persian Gulf becomes a venue for Iranian attacks against Israel, shipping companies may start refusing to serve Israel, either for fear of being attacked or because insurance rates for ships and their cargos arriving in Israel will skyrocket. Moreover, any shipping firms that continue coming will demand much higher prices, which in turn will raise the price of products for Israeli consumers. Taken together, these developments could inflict enormous economic damage.

The Israel Navy has been preparing over the last two years for attacks on both its own ships and Israeli merchant ships. It sees the greatest threat as coming from land-based precision missiles and land-based cruise missiles rather than from Iranian naval vessels.

Senior navy officials also said that Iran has developed impressive land-based capabilities that enable it to threaten ships at a significant distance from its coast. Intelligence officials added that Hezbollah in Lebanon has similar capabilities, as do the Houthis in Yemen, where Bab al-Mandab is located. Security sources say Iran views the Houthis as a force that could attack Israeli ships at the Revolutionary Guards’ behest.

Iran has two separate navies – one belonging to its regular military and one belonging to the Revolutionary Guards. The latter has some 20,000 active servicemen, including a naval commando unit comprised of 5,000 marines whose job is to attack ports, natural gas platforms, oil facilities and so forth. This navy can launch torpedoes from either land or sea and has the ability to block waterways. It also has fast boats, mines and rockets.

Iran’s regular navy, in contrast, lacks the armaments it would need to carry out operations in the Gulf. Consequently, all maritime attacks attributed to Iran are presumably carried out by the Revolutionary Guards’ navy.

Israel isn’t yet convinced that Thursday’s attack on the ship was a response to operations that Tehran ascribes to Israel, such as recent assassinations of senior Iranian figures or attacks on Iranian facilities in Iraq and Syria in which Iranian officers have been killed. Another possibility is that Iran may be responding to the American sanctions against it with economic warfare against American allies, in which case it might well escalate such maritime attacks.

Defense officials are also concerned about trips to the Gulf by senior Israeli officials and Israeli delegations, and in some cases are ordering Israelis to avoid big events and crowded places. Just this past week, a trip by senior defense officials and defense industry executives to a defense exhibition in the United Arab Emirates was canceled due to concerns of Iranian plans to attack senior Israeli officials.

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