On July 19th, an unmanned drone crashed into the MV Mercer Street tanker off the coast of Oman. Two people were killed: a British national and a Romanian. The ship was owned by Zodiac Maritime, an international management company headquartered in London and run by Eyal Ofer, an Israeli shipping magnate. After the attack, the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and the USS Mitscher destroyer escorted the ship to port. According to reports, crew members also witnessed an unsuccessful drone attack on their vessel earlier that day.
Iran has a history of developing its drone program that could potentially lead to attacks such as those seen recently. On Sunday, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett formally accused Iran of the drone attack on Mercer Street. He claimed that “the thuggish behavior of Iran is dangerous not only to Israel but also to the global interest in freedom of shipping and international trade.” He also stated during his press conference that Israel “know[s] how to send a message to Iran in [its] own way.” Later, both US and UK officials determinately accused Iran of the drone attack and vowed to work with Israel to respond appropriately.
On the same day, Iran rejected Israel’s accusations. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson further went on to say that this wasn’t the first time Israel has accused Iran of similar attacks. “Wherever [Israel] has gone, it has brought with it insecurity, terror, and violence. Those responsible [for this attack] are the ones that allowed the Israeli regime to set foot in this region,” he claimed. He added that Iran would defend its national security when necessary.
This action requires international scrutiny since it killed innocent sailors and endangered regional stability. Iran and Israel’s brinksmanship also deserves condemnation because it only escalates tensions in an already strained region. These tensions could jeopardize the United States’ talks with Iran over reinstating the Iran nuclear deal. US indictment of Iran could stall talks even further, but the Biden Administration and the incoming President Ebrahim Raisi are committed to reinstating the deal. A greater threat to these talks is potential Israeli retaliation. If Israel chooses to escalate tensions by attacking Iran, the US might choose to defend Israel. In a worst-case scenario, this could be enough to destabilize and end talks with Iran permanently.
This attack on an Israeli-operated ship illuminates a larger “shadow war” between Israel and Iran. Over the last few years, both countries have engaged in multiple tit-for-tat, escalating attacks on each other. Long opposed to the nuclear deal, Israel believes Iran is attempting to make a nuclear weapon, so it has unilaterally attacked Iran to try and thwart Iran’s nuclear efforts. Israel has hacked into Iran’s centrifuges, allegedly assassinated key Iranian nuclear scientists, and potentially knocked out power at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. Moreover, this “shadow war” has spilled into maritime attacks. Both states have purportedly attacked each other’s vessels to derail their military operations in the Middle East. In Syria, Iran has moved its military presence within miles of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in support of the al-Assad regime. In response, Israel conducted multiple air attacks on Iran’s missile bases and supply lines within Syria. Such brinkmanship reveals both nations’ attempts to maintain an image of strength while avoiding escalation into direct war.
In the near future, these attacks will likely elicit a response from Israel. Since this “shadow war” extends onto multiple fronts, Israel could choose to attack Iran’s ships, nuclear program, or military presence in Syria. Moreover, the new Israeli prime minister’s comments demonstrate that he will continue former Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hawkish stance on Iran. If the United States and the United Kingdom must defend Israel in the Middle East, Western relations with Iran could be strained. Moreover, these developments could sour long-term Western-Iranian relations, since incoming President Raisi, a notable hardliner, will soon take office. In the long run, these escalating tensions could harm the West’s olive branch to Iran: the Iran nuclear deal. The OWP will continue to monitor the situation closely.