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.
Natanz, a key facility in the Iranian nuclear program suffered a paralyzing blackout over the weekend. The power outage was caused by an apparent cyberattack which caused considerable damage to centrifuges located at the site. According to a source in the US intelligence community, the damage will set the entire nuclear program back by seven months at minimum. This includes uranium enrichment, which Iran has ramped up in the past eighteen months. This past weekend’s attack was not the first. Natanz has proven to be a primary target of Western and Israeli intelligence agencies over the past eleven years. The most well-known intelligence operation to involve Natanz was the 2010 the Stuxnet cyberattack that caused major delays to the nuclear program. In the summer of 2020, an explosion and fire occurred at the facility. Some sources have speculated that the cause was a cyberattack, although the Iranian government has never responded directly to the speculation.
With regards to the latest incident, Iran naturally suspects Israeli involvement. This morning Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laid the blame directly on Israel and vowed revenge. “The Zionists want to take revenge on the Iranian people for their success in lifting the oppressive sanctions, but we will not allow it and we will take revenge on the Zionists themselves.” The incident could have an adverse effect on the talks now taking place in Vienna to revive the JCPOA and bring the United States back on board.
This is the second suspected Israeli action against Iranian interests in a week. Last Tuesday, around the same time the JCPOA discussions were beginning in Vienna, the Saviz, an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, was damaged by an explosion and fire. This ship has long held a reputation for serving as a platform for the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) intelligence operations around the region. As with Natanz, Iran immediately placed blame for the attack on Israel and in all likelihood, they’re probably correct.
Israel’s shadow war against Iran is not a new topic. What is, however, is the tempo of operations. As it grew apparent that the Biden administration does not intend on adopting a firm position on Iran and its ambitions, Tel Aviv realized it had to keep the pressure on. The Israelis are going to do everything possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Even if some of the actions taken ruffle the feathers of its closest ally in the world.
This coming weekend is expected to see Iran scaling back a number of COVID-19 related restrictions. Even though the virus is still a major threat to Iranians, and a second wave is infections is feared, the health of an already ill economy is taking precedence over the health of the general population. At least for the moment. Before COVID-19 came to Iran, economic collapse had been the driving force behind much of the Iranian government’s policy decisions, and actions both at home and abroad. The nation’s economy was already in a desperate position because of US-imposed economic sanctions. The coming of COVID-19 to Iran, and the global pandemic it touched off have only exacerbated matters. Now, saving the economy is the priority and on Saturday businesses in Tehran will reopen.
Iran has been going back to work in other areas as well. On Wednesday, Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) boats harassed US Navy and US Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf. US officials claim the IRGC boats crossed the bows and sterns of US warships at dangerously high speeds and angles. Warnings broadcast on ship-to-ship radio, and via the ships’ horns were ignored for an hour. At that time, the Iranian boats departed the area. The incident came 24 hours after IRGC personnel boarded a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman and redirected it into Iranian territorial waters. It was released later that same day.
The incidents in the Persian Gulf likely mark the end of the lull brought on between the United States and Iran as the global pandemic has spread and affected both nations. Iran is also moving to influence international opinion on the US economic sanctions in place, claiming they are having a detrimental effect on Iran’s ability to fight the COVID-19 virus. This is generally an attempt by the Iranian government to blame the US for its inability to contain the outbreak of the virus. Iran has been one of the nations hardest-hit by COVID-19. For the regime it is important to lay the blame at the feet of the ‘Great Satan’ to demonstrate to its people that the government is not at fault.
In a previous article I spoke a bit about how preserving one’s honor, aka saving face, is so significant in Middle Eastern politics. Given all of the troubles already facing it, the Iranian government probably does not want to spark a major war right now. Yet it could not simply allow the Soleimani killing to go unpunished. Tehran had to find an action that would allow it to save face with its allies and Iranian-supported proxy forces around the world, and satisfying internal elements such as the IRGC without inviting major US military action. The missile attacks against Irbil and Al Asad yesterday give the appearance of a compromise. The number of ballistic missiles used was limited, and the target selection demonstrates Iran’s desire not to inflict US casualties. Damage was caused against facilities used by US forces in Iraq, hopefully satisfying the desire for revenge among IRGC officers and troops loyal to Soleimani.
On the heels of the missile attacks are rumors that the IRGC intelligence organization arrested upwards of 50 IRGC commanders who were the most fervent followers of Qasem Soleimani. If true, this demonstrates the regime’s desire to control escalation, and prevent Soleimani’s faction from making unauthorized attacks against US targets in the Persian Gulf region. It also highlights the Iranian government’s main priority at the present time: Survival.
Then there is the Ukrainian airliner crash on the outskirts of the airport in Tehran last night. That will be discussed later, though at the moment it would appear to be a tragic accident at the wrong time.
More updates will come later in the day as time allows.
Iran’s national oil company has claimed that one of itsoil tankers in the Red Sea has suffered an explosion, and damage. Initially, Iran claimed the cause of the explosion was a missile strike on the vessel but hours later official accounts had rolled back the missile claim. There has been no indication about whether an oil spill has occurred as a result of the damage, if the ship is on fire, or its overall condition. Late this afternoon, Iranian state television reported the ship is returning to Iran. The contradictory reports and lack of facts have only raised more questions about exactly what happened to the tanker, which. News of the explosion boosted oil prices by around 4%.
Iran is conducting an investigation into the incident. “The details of the attack and the instigators are under investigation and will be announced in due course,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said. Given that Iran has been blamed for the recent missile strike on Saudi oil facilities, I wouldn’t be shocked if Iran discovers it was Saudi Arabia that perpetrated the oil tanker attack in retaliation. I’ll be honest, that was the first thought to cross my mind after seeing the headline this morning.
It’s not as if Iran doesn’t have the men, and equipment to attack an oil tanker, theirs or otherwise. The world has seen Iran carry out attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf this year using limpet mines and explosives planted by IRGC troops, and operatives. The motive for conducting an attack against one of its own ships is certainly present and valid. Tehran would certainly hope an overt attack on an Iranian asset would shift some of the scrutiny away from Iran. You can never put anything past the Iranian government, especially now when it must seem to them as if the walls are closing in. Economic sanctions, US pressure, and Saudi Arabian suspicion are combining to have a decidedly negative effect on the leadership in Tehran.