Naval war between Iran and Israel in the Mediterranean spreads


Earlier this month, an Iranian tweet and an Israeli tweet created a storm in the already murky waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

June 26, Iranian embassy in Lebanon wrote a loosely worded tweet with a photo of an Iranian ship and said Iran does not need US approval to send fuel to Lebanon. The tweet implied that the ship was carrying fuel and was heading for Lebanon. Fearing US sanctions, the Lebanese Energy Ministry was quick to deny that it had ever asked to import Iranian fuel, but not before speculation mounted that an Iranian tanker was on its way to the port of Beirut.

Earlier this month, an Iranian tweet and an Israeli tweet created a storm in the already murky waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

June 26, Iranian embassy in Lebanon wrote a loosely worded tweet with a photo of an Iranian ship and said Iran does not need US approval to send fuel to Lebanon. The tweet implied that the ship was carrying fuel and was heading for Lebanon. Fearing US sanctions, the Lebanese Energy Ministry was quick to deny that it had ever asked to import Iranian fuel, but not before speculation mounted that an Iranian tanker was on its way to the port of Beirut.

Then, on July 6, IntelliNews, a blog on Israeli defense and intelligence affairs, tweeted that Iran had sent Arman 114, an Iranian-flagged vessel carrying Iranian crude, to Lebanon. “Hezbollah is carrying out a logistical operation to smuggle Iranian fuel into Lebanon,” the tweet read. Days earlier, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah had pledged to import fuel from his boss Iran to emerge as the savior of a country reeling from a devastating shortage of essentials.

Taken together, the tweets seemed to suggest the expansion of a war between Israel and Iran that has so far mostly taken place in the shadows. For years Iran and Israel have engaged in direct attacks against each other’s ships in and beyond the Mediterranean. The conflict has mainly focused on Iranian tankers bound for Syria in need of oil. Now it appears the fight is spreading to involve a Lebanon that increasingly appears to be on the brink of economic collapse.

The Arman 114 finally dropped anchor at the port of Baniyas in Syria on June 13. TankerTrackers, an online service that tracks and reports crude oil shipments, said it was tracking the Arman 114 with two other ships carrying Iranian crude and confirmed Baniyas, not Beirut, turned out to be their final destination. . “The latest satellite images confirm that the three Iranian oil tankers went to Baniyas, Syria, as planned,” TankerTrackers tweeted. But the Iranian embassy tweet appeared to be just a posture. It appears that the embassy used a photo of a ship and that in reality there was none on the way to Lebanon.

Immediate fears of an escalation between Israel and Iran have been ruled out, but Israel’s strategy to target Iranian tankers is still very active. Iran’s resolve to respond in kind and attack Israel’s trade ships or those of America’s allies in the Gulf has not wavered either.

Arman 114’s good run illustrated the ease with which Iran defied US sanctions. He also showed that despite the knowledge of the United States and Israel of the movement of specific Iranian oil tankers violating sanctions, neither country can stop all of these transactions. The United States is bound by international law and, like Israel, must fear Iranian retaliation. Iran controls the Strait of Hormuz, a 21-mile-wide strategic waterway through which 20 percent of the world’s oil supply passes.

Farzin Nadimi, an associate researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and expert on security and defense affairs in Iran and the Persian Gulf region, said that technically a ship in international waters cannot be stopped unless it does not violate international maritime law or unless the flag state allows it. “If it is known to carry contraband such as drugs or weapons of mass destruction, there are US laws that allow stopping and searching on the high seas, or in certain circumstances, such action. may even be justified under universal jurisdiction, ”Nadimi said. “The US Congress can also pass a law, or the President can issue an executive order sanctioning individual tankers and asking other countries to stop them as soon as they enter their territorial waters, or expose themselves to harm. Sanctions.”

Nadimi added that Iran has one of the largest tanker fleets and has a lot of experience in concealing the movement of its oil cargoes. Iran regularly changes the flags of its ships, renames tankers and disables their automatic identification systems to avoid being tracked. Additionally, according to a US Treasury report, Iran has deployed a series of shell companies with the help of Hezbollah to be able to sell its oil despite the sanctions.

“Even when we could follow the movements of the Iranian oil tankers, the US government lacked the will to stop them, not only because of the constraints of international law, but also because the US was simply worried about retaliation from Iran. in the Persian Gulf, ”Nadimi said. mentionned. “Iran has proven that it can do nasty things,” he added, alluding to alleged Iranian attacks on Saudi, Emirati and other ships. Iran even seized a British flagged tanker, the Stena impero, in July 2019, in retaliation for Gibraltar’s seizure of an Iranian tanker bound for Syria, the Grace 1, two weeks earlier.

Experts say that while US sanctions have been successful in blocking the flow of money through banking channels, they have done little to stop Iran from selling crude at discounted spot prices. Energy analysts have seen a steady increase in Iranian oil exports since the end of last year. According to United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group and critic of the 2015 nuclear deal, Syria received the second highest number of barrels of oil from Iran since December 2020; several times more have been exported to China.

Under recently ousted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel was accused of attacking a dozen Iranian ships, mostly those carrying fuel to Syria and some supplying arms to Iranian proxies, but none headed to China. In April of this year, Israel attacked an Iranian ship called MV Saviz which was anchored in the Red Sea and believed to be a floating arsenal for the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. From an Israeli perspective, it was an Iranian naval outpost in the Red Sea that endangered the safe navigation of Israeli cargo.

New Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had even more hawkish views than his predecessor and reportedly suggested that Israel should attack Iran whenever its proxies – Hezbollah or Hamas – detonate anything inside from Israel. Less than a month after coming to power, Iran accused Israel of targeting a nuclear facility in Karaj that would produce centrifuges to replace those damaged in Israel’s previous covert attacks on the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran.

Many Israeli analysts believe that Israel’s covert attacks inside Iran and overt airstrikes in Syria on Iranian arms depots serve Israel’s strategic interests better than naval attacks. The growing consensus among experts seems to be that Bennett should only take calculated risks in the maritime realm while continuing the land, air and cybersecurity sabotage of Iran’s nuclear apparatus. They don’t know, however, whether Bennett, who is eager to appear even more ruthless to Iran than Netanyahu, would listen.

Eran Lerman, former deputy national security adviser for the Israeli prime minister’s office, said Bennett’s policy would differ from Netanyahu’s only in his relationship with Biden – with whom he would aim to keep differences behind closed doors instead of making a public spectacle of them, while maintaining a firm stance against Iran. “His intention would not be to undermine the Biden administration but to retain Israel’s right to act freely,” Lerman said.

Others have said Israel must avoid getting drawn into a dangerous naval conflict. Shaul Chorev, a retired Israeli rear admiral who heads the Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy Research at the University of Haifa and previously headed the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, advises caution. “Attacking Iranian tankers does not discourage Iran from enriching uranium or funding Hezbollah and other proxies,” Chorev said. “A naval conflict also comes at a high cost to us, especially in areas of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea which are beyond the reach of the Israeli Navy and its ability to protect Israeli ships sailing in this region. “

Meanwhile, the Lebanese people continue to struggle with the fuel shortage. If the naval war between Israel and Iran spreads, this struggle will last a little longer.



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