Analysis: Iran escalates maritime conflict against Israel

Credit: Associated Press

On Thursday evening, Iran reportedly carried out a drone attack off the coast of Oman against the MT Mercer Street, an Israeli-operated oil vessel, resulting in the deaths of one Romanian and one British citizen.

“Two of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters, said the attack appeared to have been carried out by several unmanned Iranian drones that crashed into living quarters underneath the ship’s command center, or bridge,” a New York Times report stated.

The attack came less than a month after the targeting of the CSAV Tyndall by Iran, according to Israeli officials. Although in that case, the partial owner of the Tyndall – an Israeli businessman – sold his share of the company months before the attack occurred.

Iran’s previous attacks against Israeli-owned commercial vessels have been limited to disabling the ship’s operation. However, Friday’s attack was reportedly a deliberate attempt to cause casualties and escalate the tit-for-tat maritime conflict between the two countries.

Despite a denial by Iran, Israel, the United States and Britain have publicly blamed Iran for the attack.

Iran’s New Strategy

An Iranian news site, citing unidentified ‘well informed sources,’ claimed Iran’s attack was in response to an IDF airstrike near a military airport in Syria that resulted in the deaths of a Hezbollah and a Fatemiyoun commander on July 22. The al-Alam report has also been cited in numerous news articles as the reason for the attack, however, that is unlikely to be the case.

It’s improbable Iran would respond in this manner to the killing of members of militias they support in Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah has the capability to respond to Israeli military action without assistance from Iran and has demonstrated its ability to do so numerous times in the past. Additionally, it’s highly unlikely Iran would attack an Israeli target over the death of a Fatemiyoun commander.

The drone strike against the MT Mercer Street was more likely a response to Israel’s repeated attacks against Iran’s nuclear program, including the killing of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Iran has identified Israeli interests at sea to be the most vulnerable to an attack and has been exploiting them in an attempt to level the playing field against a powerful Israeli military.

The killing of the crew members represents a departure in Iranian strategy and creates a challenge for Israel on how to respond without triggering a broader conflict in the region. Additionally, the involvement of the United States, United Kingdom and Romania, may complicate this effort as the countries will have to agree on an appropriate response.

With previous Iranian attacks, Israel had the freedom to choose its response. However, with the Biden Administration’s involvement, it is unlikely Israel will have every option available.

Despite the challenges, it is important that Israel succeeds in sending a message that will create a deterrent effect in Tehran. A limited response will be viewed as weakness and will further embolden Iran to continue these types of attacks in the future.

Joe Truzman is a senior research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal focused primarily on Palestinian armed groups and non-state actors in the Middle East.

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