Tensions Continue To Rise Between Israel And Iran

Tensions between Iran and Israel continue to rise in the aftermath of last week’s drone attack on the oil tanker MV Mercer Street in the Gulf of Oman. Israel, as well as the United States and other Western nations blamed Iran for the attack. Yesterday, the attempted hijacking of another merchant ship in the same area has been linked to Iranian-supported forces in the region. Iran has denied claims made about its alleged involvement in both incidents. Then this morning, on the heels of that latest maritime incident, rockets were launched against Israel from targets in southern Lebanon, prompting counter-battery fire by Israeli artillery in response. By the afternoon, the situation appears to have quieted down, with the commander of UN Interim Force in Lebanon urging both parties to exercise restraint and avoid escalating on the first anniversary of the Beirut Port Explosion.

The Israeli government, however, has not been shy about laying the blame on Iran for recent the recent escalation in tensions around the region. At present, Israel is attempting to rally international action on Iran in response to last week’s attack on the Mercer Street. “We are working to rally the world, but at the same time we also know to act alone,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has stated. The meaning behind the last part of his statement serves as a warning to Iran and the world as well. If the international community is reluctant to take effective action against Iran, Israel act unilaterally.

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.

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.   

Natanz And Israel’s Shadow War Against Iran

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.