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Iran's Retaliation to Israel at Sea Has Been Largely Symbolic. That Could Change

Much has been written about the Iranian ship Israel struck. No less important is the timing

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The flooded engine room of the Iranian ship the Saviz after it was attacked in Red Sea off Yemen.
The flooded engine room of the Iranian ship the Saviz after it was attacked in Red Sea off Yemen. Credit: Nournews via AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

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The attack on Tuesday that was attributed to Israel, in which an Iranian ship in the Red Sea was damaged by a mine, was not a routine operation. It differs from its predecessors in the nature of the target, the timing and in terms of its context.

The ship that was hit, the Saviz, was originally a freighter. According to companies that analyze shipping data, it has spent most of its time in recent years in the area in which it was attacked, between the coasts of Yemen and Eritrea. Western intelligence sources say the vessel belongs to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and that it serves as a mother ship – a maritime command post of sorts, a floating military base that’s responsible for intelligence and commando operations. The ship is equipped with speedboats and cranes with which to lower the boats into the water.

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The Saviz is thought to have supplied Iranian assistance to the Houthi rebels in Yemen during the civil war that’s going on there, as well taking part in operations targeting neighboring Saudi Arabia. The ship provides the Revolutionary Guards with a permanent presence in a region that is sensitive for Iran – a main shipping route linking it (and the countries of Central and East Asia) to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe.

As Haaretz reported last month, dozens of maritime attacks against Iranian ships have been carried out in the past three years, mostly in the Mediterranean but also in the Red Sea. The bulk of the attacks were against ships that were smuggling oil from Iran to Syria. The funds generated from the oil have been used to underwrite arms purchases for Hezbollah. According to foreign media reports, attacks have also recently resumed against ships that have smuggled arms to ports in northern Syria.

The Saviz is a target of a different order. According to the reports, this attack appears to constitute an explicit Israeli message to Tehran, after the Iranians – in response to attacks on them – struck two ships partially owned by Israeli companies in the area of the Arabian Sea. The attack inflicted direct damage on the Revolutionary Guards, in addition a blow to the group’s prestige, once its connection to the ship was made public.

Officials await the start of a meeting in Vienna of the joint commission on the Iranian international nuclear accord, April 6, 2021. Credit: EU Delegation in Vienna/Reuters

That’s where the question of timing enters the picture. Because the Saviz was present in the region for a extended period, it doesn’t appear that this was a case of a narrow operational window of opportunity necessitating action specifically on the date of the attack. Nevertheless, according to American sources, the attack took place on Tuesday morning – hours before the start of the first session of negotiations between Iran and the major world powers aimed at paving the way for the United States to rejoin the international Iranian nuclear agreement.

The New York Times reported that Israel informed the United States about the attack immediately after it took place. It’s hard to believe that this was a coincidence. The announcement of the attack is a signal that Israel is continuing to pursue a proactive, aggressive line against Iran even as, in Israel’s view, Washington adopts a conciliatory approach and seeks a quick return to the nuclear accord.

The report in Haaretz about the naval campaign was preceded by a report, narrower in scope, in the Wall Street Journal. If the source of that report, which appeared at the beginning of March, was the Biden administration, it might attest to the Americans’ desire to neutralize Israeli background noise ahead of the resumption of the nuclear talks.

But if that was the original intention, it completely missed its target. Precisely the reverse happened: Additional details were made public in Israel, the Iranians attacked another Israeli-owned ship and Israel seems to have reacted for its part by raising the bar in response.

The current situation between the sides can be considered a naval campaign – but not a war. Neither country has a very large navy, and most of the vessels aren’t in proximity to one another. But the campaign is expanding across distant sectors. It has involved dozens of attacks, and the Iranians recently decided to fight back.

A damaged silo at the Saudi Aramco oil facility in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia following a drone strike claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels, Nov. 24, 2020.Credit: Fayez Nureldine/AFP     

These events will not necessarily only have implications in the naval arena. Iran has an abundance of other options in acting against Israel, ranging from ballistic missile attacks and the use of drones (as were used in the attacks against oil targets in Saudi Arabia), to rocket fire from a relatively short range, originating from the Syrian border.

Officially Israel has not been issuing responses regarding these developments. Defense Minister Benny Gantz – whether he was a full partner to the formulation of this offensive policy or was only briefed when he assumed the defense portfolio a year ago – only referred to the reports in general terms this week. The defense establishment “is currently deploying for a continuation of the possible confrontations that Iran is posing to us, whether directly or indirectly via its proxies in the Middle East,” he said without elaborating.

The likelihood is that the maritime campaign grew from the bottom up. As generally happens with such things, the navy undoubtedly spotted a challenge (Iranian economic aid to Hezbollah) and demonstrated the capacity to disrupt it (undercover activity by the Shayetet 13 naval commando unit).

Operational rules were maintained – refraining from inflicting fatalities or causing environmental damage and with a minimal “acoustic signature” – until the leaks began. Based on the leaked data, there is no doubt that the Iranians sustained significant damage, both in lost revenues – several billion dollars that didn’t reach their final destination, Hezbollah – as well as the degree of Iranian vulnerability that was exposed.

As usual, the question is the extent to which this continuous, successful operation serves the final goal of harming Iran’s capabilities and standing, and what risk it entails for Israel. The two Iranian counterattacks were largely symbolic, causing little damage and striking vessels that are only indirectly linked to Israel. But the potential for future damage is far greater, because almost all of Israel’s trade is by sea and involves lengthy routes that are very difficult to protect effectively.

The continuation of the naval attack policy is a contentious issue in the defense establishment and within the Israel Defense Force General Staff itself. Some senior figures believe that the benefits that can be derived from such a naval campaign are limited, that the pretension behind it is excessive and the risk involved is too great.

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