Israeli Ofer Family Ships Frequented Iranian Ports. Now Iran's Attacking Them

Thursday night’s drone attack on the oil tanker in the Arabian Sea was the fifth such attack on a ship with Israeli links in the past year. The international outcry may curtail Tehran’s maritime actions, but Israel – and the Israeli billionaire Ofer family – also have lessons to learn

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FILE: The Mercer Street heads for port in the United Arab Emirates.
FILE: The Mercer Street heads for port in the United Arab Emirates.Credit: Karim Sahib/AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Last week’s attack on the oil tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman is a perfect example of “what goes around comes around.” The Liberian-flagged, Japanese-owned ship is operated by the British company Zodiac Maritime, one of whose owners is Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer. The attack was carried out by so-called suicide drones and two crew members were killed: the Romanian captain and the British chief security officer. This is the fifth time in the past year that commercial ships connected to Israeli businessmen have been attacked in the Arabian Sea: three to the Ofers and two to businessman Rami Ungar.

Up until a decade ago, commercial ships and oil tankers belonging to shipping companies owned by the Ofer family sailed undisturbed, unloaded and loaded cargo, and profited from trade with the ostracized Islamic republic of Iran. The tough sanctions – especially in the areas of oil and shipping – did not prevent the Israeli government and defense establishment from permitting this commerce. On the contrary: they had a clandestine interest in continuing to encourage them.

Attesting to the importance of those routes at the time is the fact that then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan came to the assistance of the Ofers when it was revealed in 2011 that the family was violating international sanctions. At the time, I asked Dagan if he didn’t think it serious that Israel was preaching to the world about the importance of the crippling sanctions as part of the battle against the nuclear program, but was itself in violation of them.

Dagan smiled and responded, “There are things that are best kept quiet. There’s no need to criticize the Ofer family.”

London-based Israeli billionaire businessman Eyal Ofer. He inherited his vast wealth.Credit: ofer_2222

It was the United States that expressed anger at this behavior at sea. In Washington, they had difficulty accepting Israel’s double standards and blacklisted the Ofer family’s shipping companies and tankers.

The family members got the hint, discontinued trade with Iran, and were removed from the blacklist. Israel also came to its senses and the Finance Ministry added amendments, to the effect that Iran is an enemy country and trade with it is banned.

Iran denies the accusations of the United States, Romania, Britain and other countries regarding its responsibility for the attack against the Mercer Street last Thursday evening. Nobody believes Iran. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi sent information to his counterparts in the U.S., U.K. and other countries, which clearly proved that the attack was carried out by drones belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Israeli commentators wrote, based on Military Intelligence briefings, that Iran acted in response to a bombing attributed to the Israel Air Force in the Al-Qusayr region on the Syrian-Lebanese border. It’s there that Iran smuggles crucial components for Hezbollah’s precision-missile initiative into Lebanon, as well as components related to aerial defense systems.

An Iranian news channel, Al-Alam, reported from an anonymous source that the attack was in response to the killing of two Hezbollah members in Al-Qusayr. In recent weeks, the air force allegedly carried out attacks elsewhere in Syria as well, according to international media reports.

If these reports are accurate, things have switched around in the patron-client relationship between Iran and Hezbollah. For years, attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets were carried out by Hezbollah, under the direction of the Quds Force and Iranian Intelligence Ministry. Now it seems that Iran is the operations contractor of the Shi’ite organization in the Arabian Sea. Al-Alam’s reliability is doubtful. It’s more likely that the reports were a part of Iranian, or even Israeli, psychological warfare.

At sea level

The reason for Iran’s swift denial of the Mercer Street attack is the tactical error that caused two crew members to be killed. In Tehran, they realize that Israel will exploit the incident to expand diplomatic pressure and to convene the UN Security Council. They may also fear a harsher reaction from Britain and the United States.

Israel itself will also have to respond, and we have to hope it will do so without leaving any footprints or bragging by its leaders and generals. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz would do well to put an end to the public discussion of threats that characterized Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure.

Whatever the case, it would be preferable if the response is not a maritime operation. The defense establishment and navy understand that Israel’s maritime activities in the past three years have exhausted themselves. Based on the precise intelligence provided by the Mossad and Military Intelligence’s 8200 Unit, the navy has hit about a dozen tankers that were transporting Iranian oil to market in Syria. The money was earmarked for financing Hezbollah and for continuing to arm it. Later, an Iranian intelligence ship was also damaged and another ship caught fire. These operations were also attributed to the Israeli navy.

Tug boats are moored next to Israeli-linked tanker MT Mercer Street, off the Fujayrah port in the United Arab Emirates, yesterday.Credit: KARIM SAHIB - AFP

As long as Israel’s activities were carried out in secret and didn’t spill over into the media, Tehran swallowed its pride and ignored them. But when the leaks began a few months ago, first in the international media and then in a briefing to journalists by Israel naval commander Maj. Gen. Eli Sharvit – Iran lost its ability to demonstrate restraint. The attacks it carried out against ships that are fully or partly owned or managed by Israelis are a result of that.

According to foreign reports, the ships belonging to the Ofers and Ungar assist Israeli intelligence. It is important to note that Israel has no advantage in the battle with Iran in the maritime arena. Our navy is relatively small and is stretched to the limit with its missions in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Because 95 percent of Israeli commerce is conducted by sea, the IDF and the political leadership realize that it’s preferable to stop these clashes.

We can assume that Iran would prefer to lower its profile and discontinue maritime attacks for now. However, it won’t desist from trying to achieve its strategic mega-goal: regional hegemony, advancing its nuclear program and safeguarding its Shi’ite militia proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and, of course, Lebanon.

Tehran has also identified a new window of opportunity composed of three highly significant developments: the rise of Chinese power and its increasing closeness to Iran by means of 25-year cooperation agreements; Russia’s double game in Syria; and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and renewed Taliban control of much of the country.

Sami Ofer, left, and brother Yuli Ofer, the late founders of the family business empire.Credit: Moti Kimchi

These are trends that make Iran feel it is capable of challenging the United States, bringing its battles out into the open, toughening its stance on the nuclear agreement and taking greater risks than in the past.

And there is one more important reason: About 18 months ago, after the United States assassinated Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with major intelligence involvement attributed to Israel, there was talk that the new Quds Force commander, Gen. Esmail Ghaani, would have trouble filling his shoes.

This assessment was confirmed, but the reality provided a surprising twist: a new military figure is now gaining prominence in Iran – Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force. Under his command, the all-terrain-vehicle and drone units were developed and upgraded, and the air force has become the leading power in Iran’s special operations. These units operate in Yemen and Iraq: They are the ones that attacked the Aramco oil installations in Saudi Arabia, and they are also present in Syria and helping Hezbollah to build ATVs and drones.

Close, but far

Israel’s major problem was and still is the nuclear program. The withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA and the tough unilateral sanctions imposed by then-President Donald Trump failed to deter Iran. On the contrary, the defiant policy adopted by Iran during Trump’s tenure is continuing during the term of President Joe Biden. This is reflected in the talks for the resumption of the nuclear treaty that are taking place in Vienna.

And Israel really does have cause for concern: Iran is improving its nuclear know-how. It has faster and more advanced centrifuges. It is enriching a larger quantity of uranium – and to the highest level in its history (60 percent). If it wishes to increase it to weapon-grade level, it knows how to do so and could do so quickly. The decision by Netanyahu and then-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to push the United States into withdrawing from the nuclear deal has turned out to be a mistake. Iran is now closer than ever to the nuclear threshold.

Israeli billionaire shipping mogul Rami Ungar.Credit: Moti Kimchi

Close, but also still far. On the way to becoming a nuclear power, Iran must upgrade its engineering capabilities even further, build an explosive mechanism and learn how to miniaturize the bomb and assemble it on a missile or aircraft. Iran’s military nuclear program was active until 2003, but it was closed after the invasion of Iraq and amid fears that then-U.S. President George W. Bush would order an attack against Iran as well. The Iranian archive that was stolen by the Mossad about three years ago also confirms that the military program was discontinued in 2003.

Those are the facts, even if here and there Iran tried to violate its obligations and to deceive the international community.

All the talk about Iran’s intention of becoming a “nuclear threshold state” also fails to contribute to understanding its actions. It is not clear how a “threshold state” is defined, but what can be understood is that Iran is walking on the brink. It is doubtful whether it really wants to cross it.

Israel must engage in levelheaded, quiet activity – without blabbing – in total coordination with the United States and the European powers. It must support a return to the nuclear deal of July 2015, despite the fact that it is far from being satisfactory, and to continue to secretly develop its intelligence capabilities in a manner that will enable it not only to know Iran’s capabilities and intentions, but also to provide tools for disruption and prevention if there is need for them.

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