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Israel Attacked Dozens of Iranian Tankers, Tehran Lost Billions

A deep dive into Israeli-Iranian naval war

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Iranian oil tanker off the shore in Istanbul, 2019
An Iranian oil tanker off the shore in Istanbul, 2019Credit: Yoruk Isik
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The report in the Wall Street Journal a week ago apparently uncovered only the tip of the iceberg of the economic warfare that Israel has been waging against Iran for the past two and a half years. According to the Journal, Israel has systematically scuttled maritime oil smuggling from Iran to Syria by striking at least 12 ships. That effort, according to American sources, is intended to disrupt the use of the funds paid for the oil smuggled to Hezbollah in order to purchase combat materiel.

The Journal noted that it also drew on additional sources, including intelligence sources in the Middle East. The first leak may have come from the Biden administration, aimed at neutralizing background noise which the Americans think might soon hamper the renewal of negotiations with Iran about the United States’ return to the nuclear agreement.

An investigation by Haaretz reveals that the report last week reflects only part of the broad picture. In practice, it appears that several dozen attacks were carried out, which caused the Iranians cumulative damage of billions of dollars, amid a high rate of success in disrupting its shipping.

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Each shipment could include a million or more barrels of oil, worth up to about $50 million, according to fluctuations in the market price. The ships set out from ports in southern Iran and cross the Red Sea, navigating the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. There were also cases in which a longer route was used, which involves circumnavigating Africa and passing through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, in order to evade attacks in the Red Sea. The port of destination is usually Banias, in northern Syria, which lies between the two largest ports on the Syrian coast, Tartus and Latakia.

The smuggling route was detected by Western intelligence organizations back in 2018. The trade in oil is intended to bypass the restrictions on international trade which were imposed on both Iran, against the background of its nuclear project, and on Syria, in response to the atrocities perpetrated by the Bashar Assad regime during the country’s civil war. The Israeli intelligence community, along with intelligence organizations in the West, realized that the Iranians had found a way to go on financing arms for Hezbollah. The money was transferred to the Lebanese organization mostly through the mediation of Syrian businesspeople, in return for the delivery of the Iranian oil to the Damascus regime.

The ships were apparently struck at many different points along their whole route, from the Red Sea in the south to the Syrian coast in the north. In one case, the Iranians alternately accused Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia when a ship carrying an oil shipment was damaged by an explosion in the Red Sea, opposite the coast of Yemen, in October 2019. It’s likely that in a large number of the other incidents, quiet acts of sabotage were carried out that damaged critical functions of the ships without this entailing the detonation of a bomb or the firing of a missile. In some cases ships were destroyed beyond repair, and the Iranians had to tow them back to the home port.

What arises from the reports is that the attacks did not include harm to those who were on the ships, or the sinking of ships, and did not cause environmental damage.

Because those behind the operations seem to have wanted very much to act below the radar and not publicize the strikes, no overt takeovers were carried out, as in past commando operations by the Israel Navy. Takeover operations were mounted against weapons ships that were on the way from Iran to unload cargos opposite the coast of the Gaza Strip or Lebanon (Karine A in 2001, Francop in 2009, Klos C in 2014), or in the course of preventing solidarity operations by international left-wing organizations with the Palestinians, notably the botched, fatal episode of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in 2010.

The legal justification behind the scuttling of the oil smuggling could rest on the argument that Iran is using the profits to underwrite weapons purchases by terrorist organizations. To date, Israel has not been required to present such proof. In July 2018, Britain stopped an Iranian oil tanker on its way to Syria when it sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar. A week later, Iran responded with a threatening operation against a British tanker in the Persian Gulf – and the British quickly released the Iranian vessel they had detained.

At the end of February this year, a cargo ship was damaged in the Gulf of Oman, apparently by the detonation of mines. The ship was partially owned by a company belonging to the Israeli businessman Rami Unger. That looks like a first Iranian signal of its ability to respond to operations attributed to Israel. Still, the damage caused was minor: there were no Israeli citizens aboard, and the ship was carrying a cargo of cars between Saudi Arabia and the Far East.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, this monthCredit: OFFICIAL KHAMENEI WEBSITE / REU

Naval blazing

Besides comprehensive and precise intelligence gathering, such an extensive operation of striking at oil ships as is attributed to Israel naturally requires an all-out effort by the navy, with its fleet of submarines, missile boats and naval commandos. The number of certificates of merit and excellence handed out in recent years by the Israel Defense Forces to navy units might attest to the scope of the operations.

All these actions, as well as reports of Israeli maritime activity against arms smuggling to Hezbollah and to the Gaza Strip within the framework of the “campaign between wars” appear to reflect a considerable increase in offensive activity in the past few years. However, in contrast to air attacks, the Syrian government and Arab media rarely report the maritime incidents – and it’s quite possible that for Israel, too, it’s more convenient for such events to take place mostly below the radar.

The extensive offensive activity completes a gradual conceptual revolution undergone by the navy under its present commander, Vice Admiral Eli Sharvit, who this year will conclude a five-year stint in the post. The new insights began to take shape back in the summer of 2006, following the attack on the missile boat Hanit on the third day of the Second Lebanon War. But it took too many years before the conclusions led to the fomenting of a revolution in building Israel’s maritime force.

The Hanit was hit opposite the coast of Beirut by a shore-to-sea missile fired by Hezbollah while Israel was enforcing a showboat maritime siege that was pretty much superfluous. Four IDF soldiers were killed by the Chinese-made C-802 missile. The attack showed that the Israeli effort to achieve maritime superiority by means of detection capabilities and advanced sea-to-sea munitions was largely irrelevant in the face of Hamas and Hezbollah. Neither adversary has a naval fleet: Their main threat derives from shore-fired weapons. The Hanit was hit because the navy was unable to identify the threat facing it from the shore and strike first to destroy it. The navy, despite its might and sophistication, was vulnerable to its direct enemies, whereas their firing systems were almost immune to strikes.

The change that was needed, which was implemented in recent years, included the establishment of a maritime fire system capable of hitting shore-based targets, and diverting part of the intelligence resources to collect far more information about targets on the shore. Concurrently, Israel became occupied with protecting its economic waters, entailing the defense of natural gas assets against attacks from the shores of the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.

These changes will also have implications in the event of war: The navy will have to scuttle the enemy’s offensive capability from the shore as one of its first goals in a conflict. In the meantime, in the period of the campaign between wars, it is apparently gaining experience in more comprehensive operations in the past few years, as part of an overall campaign – against Iranian oil smuggling to Syria, weapons smuggling to Lebanon and Hamas’s efforts to upgrade its naval commando capabilities in the Gaza Strip.

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