A Day of Setbacks At Sea And On Land For Iran

For Iran, Wednesday was a day marked by consequential and very public setbacks both at sea and on land.

In the Gulf of Oman, the Khark (multiple spellings of this particular vessel are common: Kharg, Kharq)  an Iranian AOR (fleet-type replenishment oiler) experienced a major fire and sank. The incident occurred while the vessel, Iran’s largest, was taking part in exercises near the Strait of Hormuz. The fire broke out at 0225 hours local time on 2 June and spread quickly. As the situation worsened. Khark’s crew was evacuated from the ship with nearby vessels and Iranian military helicopters lending assistance. Khark sank at 0800 hours, six hours after the initial fire broke out. There are no reports of deaths, but two dozen crewmen suffered varying degrees of minor injuries according to Iranian media outlets.

As if this weren’t bad enough, later in the day a major oil refinery located just south of Tehran experienced a near-catastrophic fire. The blaze at the Tondgooyan Petrochemical Company’s refinery began Wednesday evening (local time) and has finally been extinguished following an intense effort by firefighters. A large plume of black smoke was visible over the Iranian capital city for much of the day. Iranian government officials have said the cause of the fire was a leak in two waste tanks at the facility that affected a nearby gas pipeline. There have been no reports of deaths or major damage beyond the refinery grounds.

Investigations are underway to determine the cause of both fires. Industrial accidents are common, especially in Iran where maintenance and repair efforts are irregular and marred by corruption. As far as Khark goes, the Iranian maritime force has been dealing with a series of fires and accidents in recent years which have had a significant effect on the nation’s maritime footprint. Despite the loss of Khark, two Iranian vessels are continuing their trek from home waters towards Venezuela. That will be discussed more later today or tomorrow.

As for the causes of Khark’s loss and the Tondgooyan refinery blaze, if they were not failures of equipment or something similar, then it’s safe to assume the Mossad had a very good Wednesday.

Israel-Gaza Update 19 May, 2023: Biden’s Call for De-Escalation Fails To Move Israel

US President Joe Biden’s call for ‘significant de-escalation’ of the fighting between Gaza and Israel apparently fell upon deaf ears. The content and tone of the message was intended to project the image of a confident US president able to bring Israel in line with his wishes. Unfortunately for Biden, his attempt at tough-love diplomacy fell hopelessly short for two reasons.

The first reason is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no friend of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. Specifically, it has been the recent US diplomatic attempts to reenter the JCOPA on favorable terms that has gotten under Israel’s skin. This stance is not expected to change given that Iran is suspected of playing the role of instigator behind the scenes of the fighting. The other reason has to do with the purpose behind Biden’s call. At home he is facing significant pressure from a progressive arm of his own party, which is more sympathetic with the Palestinian cause. By calling Israel on the carpet and adopting a strong tone, Biden is hoping to put a damper on domestic criticism of how his administration is handling the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.  

It’s all a moot point now, however. Israel rejected the call immediately. Netanyahu said earlier today that he is “determined to continue” operations against Hamas on the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. The Israeli prime minister was diplomatic in his official reply, saying he “greatly appreciates the support of the American president.” However, he made it clear Israel will  “return the calm and security to you, citizens of Israel.”

Israel’s rejection of Biden’s call opens the door for Washington to explore indirect diplomacy with European and other world powers to bring about a ceasefire and eventual end to the fighting. The US needs to keep in mind that the fighting will come to a stop at some point while its relationship with Israel will continue indefinitely. Therefore, the Biden administration should consider its next move carefully and make certain it does not take any action that Israel won’t be able to forgive. The White House also has to keep in mind that America’s allies around the world are watching closely. A failure to fully support Israel, a close US ally, could cause nations like Taiwan, Japan, and Poland to reevaluate Washington’s promises to come to their aid in times of trouble.

Iran And The Israeli-Gaza Hostilities

What role is Iran playing in all of this? That’s the single most significant question to emerge from the growing unrest and violence in Israel and Gaza so far. Islamic Jihad is a well-known Iranian proxy, while Hamas is a lapdog of Tehran. Those realities alone make Iranian complicity in the current unrest a very strong probability at least. Last week, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Major General Hossein Salami warned of Israel’s vulnerability to a large-scale tactical operation owing to its small size. The high tempo of rocket fire coming from Gaza, coupled with Salami’s comments, certainly gives the impression that the operation was inspired by Iran. The fact that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are being targeted by rockets for the first time is simply more evidence of Iranian involvement in one form or another.

Considering the shadow war that has been taking place between Iran and Israel lately, its likely that events in Israel represent a new phase of this conflict. Tehran is sending a message that Israel can be severely wounded by massed rocket fire and its internal divisions. Right now, Israel is contending with a political crisis as a fifth round of elections looms. Netanyahu’s government has been temporarily relegated to a caretaker status, making the timing of the rocket attacks, as well as the Al-Asqa mosque tensions and subsequent clashes suspect.

Israeli forces and Gaza-based militants have been exchanging attacks for days. Since the beginning of the week, Israel has struck hundreds of targets described as Hamas and Islamic Jihad weaponry and infrastructure. These strikes have killed over thirty militants, of which a dozen were senior leaders according to the IDF. With the violence now spilling over into Israeli cities as civil unrest, the question now appears to be whether or not Israel will escalate the conflict and begin a ground operation into Gaza, an option it avoided in 2014 and ever since.

Jerusalem In Flames

On Tuesday, Israel increased the tempo of offensive operations against Hamas targets on the Gaza Strip. In response, heavy militant rocket fire was directed against parts of Israel for much of the day. This has been the heaviest fighting between Israel and Hamas since 2014 and shows no signs of letting up in the near future. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to expand the offensive in the face of the militant rocket attacks.

This round of Israel-Hamas hostilities has escalated rapidly. Jerusalem was the flashpoint this time, with religious tensions serving as the fuse. Confrontations broke out last weekend at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Through four days, Israeli police fired tear gas rubber bullets at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs at the police. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque. On Monday evening, Hamas started firing rockets from Gaza. From that point forward, escalation was swift and inevitable.

Diplomats moved on the crisis immediately. Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations are working to bring about a cease-fire. All three act as mediators between Israel and Hamas. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres demanded end to the violence. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to the Israeli foreign minister to condemn the Hamas attacks and “reiterate the important message of de-escalation,” the State Department said. The interesting exclusion in Blinken’s message is any form of support by the Biden administration. So far, it appears that the White House wants the US to be seen as a potential peacemaker or mediator and not an ally of Israel.

Syrian Surface To Air Missile Lands Near Secretive Israeli Nuclear Reactor

An errant Syrian surface-to-air missile caused alarm inside of Israel last night when it missed its intended target (an Israeli warplane apparently) and continued flying south into Israel and approached Dimona, the location of Israel’s nuclear reactor. The missile, an SA-5 Gammon did not damage the reactor and exploded 30 km away. Israeli air and anti-missile defenses attempted to engage the missile but were unsuccessful. Air raid sirens were heard across southern Israel. Shortly after the missile landed, Israel launched attacks against the SA-5 sites around Damascus. Syria’s state news agency claimed Syrian air defense forces intercepted Israeli rockets over the suburbs of Damascus “and downed most of them.” The incident has sparked the most significant round of violence between Israel and Syria in years. The initial Israeli air attacks, which triggered the SA-5 launch, were targeting Iranian assets which could be used for a potential attack against Israel.

The incident comes at a point of considerable tension between Israel and Iran, who are in the midst of a tit-for-tat shadow war. As negotiations aimed at bringing the United States back on board the JCPOA continue, there is concern that last night’s event will have an adverse effect on that effort. Most likely it will not. Sources close to those negotiations claim the US and Iran are nearing a diplomatic breakthrough.

As for the matter of the SA-5, there was initial concern that Iran had played a hand in it somehow. More than likely this isn’t the case. The missile is a long-range SAM, perfectly capable of reaching the area around Dimona from southern Syria. Israel does take the possibility of Iranian action against its reactor seriously though. It has recently bolstered the air defenses around Dimona to better protect the area from an Iranian drone or missile attack.