Israel Has Been Launching Clandestine Attacks On Iranian Shipping: Report (Updated)

The alleged Israeli campaign against Iran’s commercial ships could be linked to previously unexplained incidents and possible Iranian retaliation.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Iran photo


A new report says that Israel has been conducting a clandestine campaign of attacks on Iranian ships carrying oil, as well as weaponry, to Syria for more than a year. If true, this would raise a host of new questions about other incidents, including an alleged attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship and an oil spill off the coast of Israel, both of which have been blamed on Iran. This also follows reports of an explosion or fire on board an Iranian container ship in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea yesterday, though the exact details about that incident, which remains unconfirmed, are murky.

The Wall Street Journal

dropped its exclusive story on these reported Israeli attacks on March 11, 2021. The outlet reached to Israeli and Iranian officials, none of whom would respond to the claims. The newspaper said that Israel's campaign against Iranian shipping began in late 2019 and has targeted at least 12 ships using "weaponry including water mines." 

A picture Iranian authorities released after an alleged attack, which Israel may have carried out, on the country's oil tanker Sabiti in the Red Sea in October 2019., National Iranian Oil Tanker Company

The ostensible goal of the reported Israeli campaign is to put economic pressure on Iran, which regularly sends oil to Syrian refineries in that country's coastal city of Baniyas. This serves the interests of these countries as Iranian oil exports and Syria's refineries are both the target of significant international sanctions, including from the United States and the European Union.

This also means that the attacks would have a secondary impact on Syria's economy. U.S. officials have also said that Iranian ships believed to be carrying weapons throughout the region have also been targeted, according to the Wall Street Journal. This would mean the attacks could also be intended to disrupt the flow of support from Tehran to various proxy groups across the Middle East.

No Iranian ships have been sunk in any of these attacks and there have been no reported casualties. However, sources within Iran's shipping industry said that at least two tankers have been forced to return to the country after sustaining significant damage, according to the Journal's report.

The story did not identify any of the ships that have suffered attacks directly, nor did it say where or when any such attacks had occurred. None of these incidents appear to have been publicly announced by Iranian authorities. "We are trying to keep a low profile," one Iranian shipping professional told the Journal. “It would look like a sign of weakness.”

The report did include pictures, seen earlier in this story, of the Sabiti an Iranian oil tanker that was rocked by two explosions while sailing in the Red Sea in October 2019. That incident, which resulted in a spill of approximately 100,000 barrels worth of oil, has remained largely unexplained since then.

At the time, Iranian officials said that the incident was an "attack" and Iranian state media outlets said the ship had been hit by a pair of missiles. Pictures that were subsequently released showed damage more consistent with limpet mines, which attach to the side of ships using powerful magnets, and can be placed by combat divers or personnel in small boats, which would be in line with this new report. This is a tactic, ironically, that Iran and its proxies have employed in their own attacks on tankers across the Middle East in recent years. 

Just today, still unconfirmed reports emerged about an incident of some kind that occurred onboard the Shahr E Kord, an Iranian-flagged container ship sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean on its way to Syria, on March 10. Pictures subsequently appeared on social media that could show an attack or an accident of some kind.

This particular ship suffered a cargo fire while sailing in the Red Sea in July 2019 and some observers have raised the possibility that the pictures may be from that incident, rather than from any new one. Maritime risk intelligence firm Ambrey did Tweet out that online ship tracking software showed that "the vessel did slow and deviate while underway," which suggests that something did indeed happen. The Wall Street Journal said that it could not determine immediately if this event was in any way related to the Israeli anti-shipping campaign detailed in its report.

There have also been questions raised about whether Wall Street Journal's report might implicate Israel in attacks Syrian officials alleged were carried out on pipelines linking offshore mooring points to refineries in Baniyas in June 2019. At that time, Syria's state-run SANA news agency had released pictures it said showed holes in these pipelines, which authorities said were caused by explosive charges.

Images that Syrian officials claims showed the aftermath of attacks on pipelines linking refineries in Baniyas to offshore mooring points., SANA News Agency

If the Wall Street Journal's reporting is accurate, this also brings up the possibility that a pair of recent maritime incidents, which Israel has blamed on Iran, could possibly have been in direct retaliation for the attacks on Iranian ships.

Sometime between Feb. 1 and 2, 2021, an oil spill occurred that resulted in balls of tar washing up along approximately 90 percent of Israel's 118-mile-long Mediterranean coastline. This the worst environmental disaster in the country in many years and "there are fears it will take months, or even years, to clean up the tar," according to a report from the BBC.

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Some Israeli officials have since blamed the oil tanker Emerald, which is flagged in the Marshall Islands and was previously owned by Libya's state-run General National Maritime Transport Company, but may now be linked to Iran, for the spill. In addition, "we think the leak that affected us was not during the transfer of oil from Emerald to smaller ships, but either a deliberate leak – that is to say terror – or an accident," Rani Amir, the Director-General of Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry said at a press conference earlier this month. It is worth noting that the Israeli media outlets, citing unnamed intelligence and defense officials, subsequently reported that it was unlikely that this was a deliberate act of environmental terrorism, whether or not Emerald was the source.

Separately, on Feb. 25, 2021, the Israeli-owned, by Bahamian-flagged cargo ship Helios Ray, sailing in the Gulf of Oman at the time, suffered what Israeli authorities have since alleged was an attack carried out by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iranian authorities have responded by accusing Israel of carrying out a false flag attack on the ship in order to smear Iran.

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Besides that, while Israel's clandestine anti-Iranian shipping attacks may still be unconfirmed, the Wall Street Journal's story would be broadly in line with other reported Israeli operations targeting Iran and its proxies across the Middle East in recent years. This includes largely unacknowledged airstrikes against Iranian-backed groups in Syria and Iraq, as well as explosions and fires at various sites in Iran, including at a key facility supporting the country's controversial nuclear program. Israel is also widely believed to have been responsible for the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in a brazen attack last year on the car he was riding in, which may have involved the use of a gun mounted on a remotely-operated turret concealed inside another vehicle.

The Wall Street Journal's report also comes as U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration are seeking rapprochement with Iran and are looking to negotiate America's return to a controversial multi-national deal with Tehran over its nuclear program. Then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from this agreement in 2018. Iranian authorities have steadily violated more and more of the terms of the deal themselves since then in order to put pressure on the remaining parties, especially U.S. allies France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his administration, as well as a number of U.S. legislators, are opposed to this diplomatic engagement with Iranian officials, as well as any discussion of relaxing American sanctions on the regime in Iran. The Biden administration has made clear that it will not offer sanctions relief to get Iran back into compliance with the deal or as a precondition to negotiations about America's return to the agreement.

The public disclosure of this reported Israeli campaign against Iran's oil tankers and other commercial ships could put a certain new pressure on Israel, which will now be faced with the likelihood of new, potentially more overt responses from Iran and its regional proxies. These could certainly translate into more obvious retaliatory attacks, which could beget further tit-for-tat Israeli reactions.

At the same time, this report, if true, would certainly underscore Israel's willingness to take matters into its own hands to stymie Iran from carrying out various levels of malign activity, or simply cut it off from critical funding streams, if it feels that to be necessary to protect its national security.

UPDATE 3/12/21:

Iran's state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL) Group, the operator of the container ship Shahr E Kord, has now publicly claimed that the incident onboard the vessel earlier this week was a "terrorist" attack, but has not provided hard evidence to substantiate this allegation. As such, it remains unclear if the incident, which appears to have involved an explosion and subsequent fire inside one of the containers on the ship, is actually related to Israel's clandestine campaign against Iranian shipping. Regardless, IRISL said that the damage was minimal and that the ship was continuing on to its final destination.

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