Archive for March 4, 2021

As Biden weighs human rights and security in Mideast, some see peril for Israel

March 4, 2021

Pragmatism is ruling the day for now, but US allies in the region are nervous the new president could over-pressure regimes on need for reform, creating a wedge for Iran to exploit

By LAZAR BERMAN3 March 2021, 6:19 am  3

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of on his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011 . (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of on his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011 . (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

US President Joe Biden appeared set late last week to make good on his campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia into a “pariah,” sending a series of firm signals that Riyadh would be held accountable for human rights violations.

“The rules are changing,” Biden said in an interview Friday, teasing what he said would be an announcement of “significant changes” to the US approach to Riyadh in the coming days.

By Tuesday, those changes had added up to the release of a declassified intelligence report blaming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and sanctions on 76 individuals. He also pointedly held a conversation with the kingdom’s octogenarian King Salman, and not its powerful crown prince, to discuss ending the war in Yemen and committing the US “to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory… from Iranian-aligned groups.”

“Saudi Arabia is a hugely influential country in the Arab world and beyond,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday, explaining the not-quite-pariah approach. “What happens in Saudi Arabia will and has had profound implications well beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders.”

The new US approach to Saudi Arabia — human rights sanctions on one hand and security cooperation on the other — appears to be an indicator of how it will handle its relationship with other key US allies in the Middle East. In Egypt, the administration approved the sale of nearly $200 million worth of missiles and, days later, stressed its commitment to human rights there.US State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool)

“We will bring our values with us into every relationship that we have across the globe,” pledged Price. “That includes with our close security partners. That includes with Egypt.”

In Israel, some have feared that an attempt to use America’s significant clout to push authoritarian allies to improve their human rights records, while maintaining robust cooperation in facing the region’s complex challenges, could push away longstanding allies, as was seen during the Barack Obama administration. Jerusalem’s Arab security partners have problematic human rights records, and pressure from the Biden administration could hamper regional cooperation against Iran, and open the door for wider Russian influence.

But many experts also believe Biden is so far balancing pragmatism with progressivism, watering down any adverse impact his policies may have on Israel.

“Israel has to understand that there is a new US administration that isn’t Trump,” said Eldad Shavit, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “It has different aims, different priorities, and different policies.”

“It’s also not the same as Obama.”

Stability and security cooperation

Since the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt has been firmly in the pro-US camp. Bipartisan support for aid to Egypt has long been a fixture of US policy. Egypt receives more foreign aid from Washington than any country except Israel, and the bilateral military ties are deep and varied. For the US, Egypt — by far the most populous Arab country — is a source of stability in the Middle East, and it has grown increasingly important to Israel’s national security. It has maintained a peace treaty with Israel for four decades, and cooperates closely with Israel on counterterrorism matters. Cairo has proven itself an effective moderator between Israel and the Palestinians, especially Hamas, and is also a player in the effort to contain Iran.

During the Obama presidency, both sides took a long, critical look at the relationship. In January 2011, Egyptians took the streets to protest Hosni Mubarak, the pro-Western president who had ruled Egypt for 30 years. Obama eventually supported protesters’ demands for Mubarak’s removal. Officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia were stunned, seeing the threat as a betrayal of a loyal US ally.

The US administration ignored regional allies in legitimizing the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi a year later.

For Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood government greatly complicated its ability to contain and deter Hamas. Though it closed some tunnels and prioritized security in the Sinai, it also strengthened Hamas, relaxing border controls and granting the terror group greater regional legitimacy. Morsi was vocal in his criticism of Israel during 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.

When the military took over in 2013, Obama decided not to call the takeover a coup, and thus be required by US law to suspend aid. However, he did halt deliveries of jet fighters and attack helicopters, as well as $260 million in aid. Washington also canceled the biennial “Bright Star” maneuvers between the two countries.

Uncowed, new Egyptian leader Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi led a blistering and deadly crackdown on dissent, even against citizens of Western allies, and began reducing the country’s dependency on the US.People hold a picture of the late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi during a symbolic funeral ceremony on June 18, 2019 at Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. (AFP)

Sissi visited Russia in February 2014, and initiated a relationship that was not conditioned on Egypt’s domestic policies. Putin’s reciprocal visit in 2015 cemented a new strategic relationship. Russia committed to build a $28.75 billion nuclear plant in Egypt and a $7 billion industrial zone near the Suez Canal.

Cairo purchased billions of dollars worth of Russian arms, including the S-300V4 surface-to-air missile system, MiG-29M multirole fighter jets, combat helicopters, and French amphibious assault ships originally built for Russia. Moscow and Cairo also signed an agreement in November 2017 allowing for the use of each other’s airspace and military bases.

For Israel, Sissi’s takeover was a godsend for Israel, as he cracked down on Hamas, declaring it a terrorist group and destroying its vital tunnel network.

In Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration refrained from making major moves against Riyadh and initiated US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Iranian-linked Houthi rebels.

With Biden as vice president, the US offered the kingdom’s military not just logistical and intelligence support but also weapons worth over $115 billion, more than any other previous administration, according to 2016 data from the US-based Security Assistance Monitor.

Obama successor Donald Trump ramped up ties. On his first overseas visit as president in 2017 he chose to go to Riyadh, where Saudi rulers lavished him with gifts, a sword dance and a glowing orb. (Obama also visited Riyadh early in his presidency, though the visit was much more low-key.)

Trump called Saudi defense purchases good for US business, and maintained support of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite his engineering a veritable palace coup and overseeing a sweeping crackdown on dissent, with dozens of activists, journalists and clerics detained in recent years.US President Donald Trump holds a sword and dances with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace in Riyadh, May 20, 2017. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Despite US intelligence holding the crown prince responsible for the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi, the administration largely downplayed the incident and resisted pressure to retaliate.

In the final weeks of the Trump presidency, the US signed a $290 million deal to sell 3,000 precision bombs to the Saudis.

In Egypt as well, Trump’s administration prioritized regional security, though it did suspend military aid and reduce economic assistance in 2017, largely in response to Congressional pressure. Trump jokingly called his Egyptian counterpart “my favorite dictator” at the 2019 G7, but the quip describes accurately the US approach over the last four years as Trump went out of his way to publicly support Sissi.US President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up to members of the media as he greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi at the White House on April 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

For some, the lessons are clear. Pressuring regimes on human rights rather than prioritizing regional security will only push them away, with little to show for it.

“The minute there is outside pressure on authoritarian regimes of this type, it just opens the door for even more authoritarian figures to grab power,” argued Dan Schueftan, head of the international graduate program in national security at the University of Haifa. “There is no real option for democratic, liberal — or even much more moderate — regimes. If you pressure Egypt on human rights, you get the Muslim Brotherhood.Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, right, speaks with the head of Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center, Dan Schueftan, at a conference at the university on June 5, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“If you apply significant pressure on pro-American regimes on human rights, the ones who will use this are anti-American actors. For example, if you want democracy in Bahrain, you’ll get Iran.

“Sissi saved the Middle East from the irresponsible behavior of Obama,” Schueftan posited. “The entire Middle East would be different if the Muslim Brotherhood had remained in power.”

Striking a balance

Before he entered office, President-elect Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and slammed what he called Trump’s “dangerous blank check” to the kingdom.

Two weeks into his presidency, Biden announced an end to US support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, which he said has “created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”

But Biden made clear the United States was still supporting Saudi Arabia outside of the Yemen war, with State Department spokesman Ned Price characterizing the administration’s stance as a “return to standard procedures” in reviewing every arms deal.

Even with the recent sanctions of Saudi officials, there are limits on how far the Biden administration can press the Saudis. Washington needs to coordinate with Riyadh on the most pressing regional issues, including the Iranian nuclear program and the fight against Islamic State.Mohammed bin Salman, left, and murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Orwell Productions)

“Nobody expects Biden to travel first to Riyadh and perform a sword dance, but he needs Saudi for any regional buy-in of a new Iran deal, in counterterrorism support, Israel-Palestine, oil market stability,” Saudi author and analyst Ali Shihabii told AFP.

In January, the Biden administration put a temporary hold on several major foreign arms sales initiated by Trump, including a deal to provide 50 F-35 advanced fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates that was fast-tracked by Washington after Abu Dhabi agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

US allies who are nervous about renewed pressure from the Biden administration are already taking actions designed to head off criticism.

In February, Saudi Arabia released Saudi-Americans Salah al-Haider and Bader al-Ibrahim, who had been held on terrorism-related charges since 2019. Women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who spent three years in detention and claimed she was tortured in the presence of one of bin Salman’s top aides, was also freed.

Egypt released Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein after he spent more than four years in prison without being formally charged.

The upcoming Palestinian elections, and Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential decree on freedom of expression in Palestinian-controlled areas, are also understood as gestures aimed at American goodwill.

“That’s part of the dance that’s going on here,” said David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Part of the reason the Biden administration won’t have to take drastic action is that many of those governments have already begun to adjust some of their policies in anticipation of possible issues.”David Pollock (Washington Institute for Near East Policy )

If Biden decides to really push its Arab allies on human rights, it could damage its relationship with the regional alliance countering Iran, which includes Israel, emboldening Tehran and bringing Russia into the picture.

“It is clear that the Iranians will have motivation for carrying out more provocative actions because they believe they can drive a wedge between Israel and the US,” said Schueftan. At the same time, he argued, “the more the Biden administration pushes pro-American regimes in the Middle East into a corner, the more they will connect to Israel, since Israel is the only thing they can count on.”

In January, the Walla news site cited senior Israeli defense officials saying Jerusalem particularly fears Biden will take action against Saudi Arabia over its war in Yemen. Israel is concerned American actions could strengthen the radical forces in Yemen and increase Iran’s stronghold on the war-stricken country, according to the report.Houthi fighters chant slogans as they take off to a battlefront following a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen, August 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

The Israeli officials reportedly planned to tell Biden that the region has undergone significant changes with Israel’s recent normalization deals with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, and that the Jewish state hopes Washington will prioritize that process over rights concerns.

The officials were also cited as saying that Israel has in recent weeks encouraged Cairo and Riyadh to take constructive steps on human rights to “improve the atmosphere” and get ready for dialogue with the Biden administration.

“We were very close to losing Egypt a few years ago,” one defense official told Walla. “Which is why our message to the Biden administration will be: ‘Go slowly, there have been dramatic changes, don’t come with preconceived stances and don’t hurt relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.”

But Israel’s ability to shape US policy on human rights is limited. “I don’t think the US listens to Israel on this topic,” Schueftan argued.

Biden has shown a desire to work with Israel, Shavit stressed, despite the delay in calling Netanyahu. “During this month, there were multiple meetings at the working level.”

‘He knows the Middle East’

The question that US allies in the region — both autocratic regimes and Israel — are trying to answer is the extent to which human rights concerns will actually drive US policy under Biden.

Human rights will certainly be one element of policy, said the INSS’s Shavit. “The question is to what extent this element will influence policy.”

“I think that as opposed to the Obama administration, where human rights were a very influential element, Biden is a veteran politician, he knows the Middle East, he has a very realistic, practical approach. He will take into account his understanding of what the reality in the Middle East is,” he said.

At the same time, said Shavit, the Biden administration has not finished putting together its “broad approach, both on goals and priorities in the Middle East.”

Pollock also envisions a careful, balanced approach from Biden. “So far the administration is maintaining much of the relationship with Sissi in Egypt or the Saudis or the Emiratis — or Turkey for that matter — that are not exactly paragons of human rights and democracy.”

“To the extent that they have so far pulled back from such a close relationship, retrenched, it’s mostly rhetorical and symbolic,” he added.

The Biden administration approach is focused more on protecting entrenched democracy, including in the realms of cybersecurity and elections protection, than it is on promoting democracy abroad.US President Joe Biden speaks at a FEMA COVID-19 mass vaccination site at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“If you read carefully what they’re saying,” Pollock pointed out, “their interest and concern and intent is to protect and defend American and European democracy against threats from other countries, as opposed to promoting democracy and human rights in other non-democratic countries.”

“I think they’re going to focus on practical… human right issues, secondly on service issues to the people, governance, anti-corruption, delivery of essential basic services to the people in a fair and equitable way, and not so much on really touchy questions of having free elections or anything like that.”

Biden appointments at the senior and middle levels also don’t indicate an overwhelming focus on human rights or democracy promotion. Figures who pushed a human rights agenda under Obama, like former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former UN ambassador Samantha Power, have been given domestic affairs or international development roles.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Susan Rice, United States National Security Adviser, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2014. (Matty Stern/US Embassy TLV/Flash90)

Moreover, said Shavit, early Biden administration pressure on Saudi Arabia over the Yemen conflict is more than a human rights issue. The president sees the war as a costly, ill-advised misadventure that is destabilizing for the kingdom and for the broader region.

Even reviewing the weapons deal with the UAE isn’t necessarily a human rights initiative. “It’s a routine checking of the box,” said Pollock. “In any case, it’s not connected to UAE human rights,  it’s connected to regional strategy, arms race, and technological issues.”

What’s more, the Biden administration has indicated that the Middle East is not a focus of its foreign policy agenda, as the US turns to the great power competition against Russia in Europe and China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Said Pollock: “I’m pleasantly surprised by the way in which they seem to have a realistic understanding of where this issue fits into their overall interests and into the world.”

AP and AFP contributed to this report.

Blaming Iran, environment minister calls oil spill ‘environmental terrorism’

March 4, 2021

Gila Gamliel says Libyan ‘pirate ship’ that sailed from Iran is responsible for huge leak that polluted coastline, but claim reportedly disputed by Israel’s security establishment

By TOI STAFF3 March 2021, 8:56 pm  3

Soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill which drenched most of the Israeli coastline, February 22, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)`

Soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill which drenched most of the Israeli coastline, February 22, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)`

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel on Wednesday blamed a Libyan “pirate ship” that sailed from Iran for a massive oil spill that has polluted most of Israel’s Mediterranean beaches.

Gamliel called the oil leak, which has been described as Israel’s worst ecological disaster in decades, an act of “environmental terrorism.” She suggested the spill was orchestrated by Iran.

“Iran is initiating terrorism not only with nuclear weapons and efforts to entrench itself on our borders. Iran is initiating terrorism by harming the environment,” Gamliel wrote on Twitter.

She added: “Our fight against pollution and harming the environment is a cross-border fight.”

Pieces of tar washed up onto the beach at the Gador Nature Reserve in northern Israel on March 1, 2021. (Yossi Aharoni)

Gamliel didn’t name the Libyan firm that owns the ship or provide any further details on Iran’s alleged role in the spill. Speaking at a press conference, she vowed to file a lawsuit over the leak.

“We will sue for compensation in the name of all the citizens of Israel for damage to health, nature, flora and fauna,” she said.

Gila Gamliel speaks at a conference in Kedem, in the West Bank, on September 5, 2019 (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

The minister’s accusation was disputed by senior security officials, however, with Channel 13 news reporting that Israel’s defense establishment “does not share this assessment.” The network said it was “striking” that neither the Mossad intelligence agency nor other defense bodies were involved in formulating Gamliel’s conclusion.

An unnamed senior security official told the Kan public broadcaster that Iran does not appear to be directly involved.

The head of the naval unit in Gamliel’s ministry also appeared to cast some doubt on her claim the leak was intentional.

“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 said at the press conference.

Israeli soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill that hit most of the Israeli coastline. February 22, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Libyan-owned ship, named as the Emerald, was smuggling crude oil from Iran to Syria at the time of the spill, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry, which said the vessel was flying a Panamanian flag.

“Between February 1-2 [the ship] polluted Israel’s economic waters while moving with its [automatic tracking] devices turned off, and when it reached Syria again turned on the devices. Between February 3-14, it unloaded the crude oil it was carrying to other ships in area of Syria,” a ministry statement said.

The ship returned to Iran and is currently anchored there, the ministry said.

Gamliel said earlier Wednesday that Israel had identified the ship, but didn’t give further details.

Her accusation comes after the Jewish state accused Iran of a recent attack late last month on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman, further raising tensions between the countries. Iran has denied any role in the explosion that hit the MV Helios Ray, leaving two holes in its side but causing no casualties.

Reports of the pollution first emerged when a dead 17-meter (56-foot) baby fin whale washed up on Israel’s southern coast last month, along with other wildlife.

Some experts have called the spill the worst environmental disaster to hit the country’s beaches in decades.

Israelis clean tar off the Bat Yam beach following an offshore oil spill that drenched most of the Israeli coastline, March 2, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gamliel’s comments came days after her ministry absolved a Greek tanker oil tanker of responsibility for the oil leak. The ministry said over the weekend that while it had initially identified around 10 potentially responsible ships, further investigations had swelled this to dozens of possibilities.

A massive cleanup operation was launched following the spill, with thousands of Israelis volunteering to help clean up the shoreline, alongside workers of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and even IDF soldiers.

The Environmental Protection Ministry reported Tuesday that it had already removed some 120 tons of sand, refuse and other material contaminated with tar from the northern coastal beaches of Jisr az-Zarqa, Herzliya and Atlit and from Palmachim in central Israel. It said preparations were underway to pick the waste up from other beaches, including in Haifa, Rishon Lezion, Netanya, Tel Aviv and Nahariya.

Last week, as the cleanup gathered pace, the Health Ministry ordered a precautionary ban on the sale of fish and other seafood from the Mediterranean.

AFP contributed to this report.

Israel urges UN Security Council to censure Iran for blast on Israeli-owned ship

March 4, 2021

Jerusalem’s envoy to world body Gilad Erdan accuses Tehran of carrying out attack in Gulf of Oman, says IRGC attached an explosive device to the vessel

By TOI STAFF3 March 2021, 12:23 am  0

The Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai's Mina Rashid (Port Rashid) cruise terminal, February 28, 2021. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

The Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai’s Mina Rashid (Port Rashid) cruise terminal, February 28, 2021. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations on Tuesday asked the Security Council to condemn Iran for an explosion that damaged an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week.

In letters sent to US Secretary General Antonio Guterres and US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is currently serving as the rotating president of the Security Council, Gilad Erdan alleged the February 25 attack was carried out by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“The IRGC attached an explosive device to the vessel that caused severe damage forcing the ship to return to the port of Dubai to ensure the safety of the crew,” Erdan wrote.

Erdan, who is also Israel’s ambassador to the United States, noted the IRGC’s seizure of a South Korean tanker in January and a series of attacks in May 2019 on ships near the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah, which have been attributed to Iran.

“These and other repeated Iranian and Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks at sea not only jeopardize the safety and security of international shipping… but also constitute blatant and repeated violations of the United Nations Charter and of Security Council Resolutions,” he said.

The Israeli diplomat urged the Security Council to condemn Iran for violating the UN Charter and to “hold the Iranian regime responsible for this attack and for destabilizing the region.” He also stressed Israel will take “all necessary measures” to protect its citizens and sovereignty.

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan speaks at the UN in New York. (Shahar Azran/Israeli Mission to the UN)

The letter from Erdan came after Defense Minister Benny Gantz appeared to link the explosion on the MV Helios Ray and Iran’s alleged involvement to Western efforts to revive nuclear talks with Tehran.

“In recent days we saw efforts by Iran to act to improve its bargaining position in negotiations on the nuclear deal,” Gantz said Tuesday while touring a military base in southern Israel.

He added: “We’ll continue to act against any threat, together with our new and old partners, led by the United States, so Iran won’t develop nuclear capability.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was “clear” Iran was behind the explosion. Asked by Kan News whether Israel would respond to the attack on the ship, Netanyahu said Iran “is Israel’s biggest enemy and we are striking them across the region.”

The prime minister added that Israel has told the United States that Jerusalem will not allow Tehran to have nuclear weapons, no matter what the terms are of any potential multinational deal on the nation’s nuclear program.

A photo showing some of the damage caused to an Israeli-owned ship by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on February 26, 2021. (Photo via Aurora Intel/Twitter)

Iran responded to Netanyahu’s statement, saying it “strongly rejects” the accusation that it was behind the attack. In a press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Netanyahu was “suffering from an obsession with Iran” and described his charges as “fear-mongering.”

Netanyahu’s comments were made in an interview pre-recorded on Sunday, before Syrian state media reported that air defense systems were activated around Damascus due to an Israeli attack that unsourced Hebrew-language reports said was a response to the blast on the ship, targeting Iranian sites.

The MV Helios Ray, a vehicle carrier, was traveling from the Saudi port of Dammam to Singapore when the blast occurred last Thursday. The crew was unharmed in the blast, but the vessel sustained two holes on its port side and two on its starboard side just above the waterline, according to American defense officials.

The incident came amid rising tension between the US and Iran over the unraveling 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has sought to pressure US President Joe Biden’s administration to bring back the sanctions relief it received under the accord with world powers, which former president Donald Trump abandoned.

On Sunday Iran rejected an offer from European states to hold informal talks with the US. Washington had accepted the offer.

Erdan also said Tuesday that he had held his first call with the new US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Erdan said in a tweet that the two had discussed “combatting climate change, racism and domestic violence, as well as working to expand the regional peace deals.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

With ‘gray zone’ attack on cargo ship, Iran-Israel tensions enter murky waters

March 4, 2021

An alleged limpet mine explosion on the MV Helios Ray fits Tehran’s modus operandi, and may prove a challenge for Jerusalem to defend against

By LAZAR BERMANToday, 6:38 am  0

This picture taken on February 28, 2021 shows a view of the Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai's Mina Rashid (Port Rashid) cruise terminal. (Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

This picture taken on February 28, 2021 shows a view of the Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai’s Mina Rashid (Port Rashid) cruise terminal. (Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

The alleged Iranian attack on an Israeli-owned vessel over the weekend might seem like the stuff of spy movies, but it fits in entirely with Iran’s modus operandi and national interests.

On Friday, a blast struck the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged cargo ship, in the Gulf of Oman.

The explosion reportedly punched two holes in the vessel’s port side and two on its starboard side, just above the waterline.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Israel’s regional foe Iran of attacking the ship. Iran swiftly denied the charge, but experts say the attack bears hallmarks of previous attacks ascribed to Tehran.The Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai’s Mina Rashid (Port Rashid) cruise terminal, February 28, 2021. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

“It kind of walks like a duck and quacks like a duck,” said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“They were successful, at least tactically, with their limpet mine operations in May and June 2019. So the modus operandi they are comfortable with is in their backyard now, and the Israelis find it very difficult to defend all their maritime traffic around the world,” he said.

The operation seems to have been carefully planned, and mirrored a series of attacks on tankers in 2019 and an Iranian campaign against shipping vessels four decades ago. It caused some physical damage to the ship, but did not cause any deaths or sink the vessel, avoiding unwanted escalation.

Tehran is desperate to respond to a series of military setbacks. Senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was traveling on a highway outside the capital in November 2020 when he was killed by what was reported as a remote-controlled machine gun. The assassination came after months of mysterious explosions in Iran, including a blast and fire that crippled an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which is widely believed to have been an act of sabotage allegedly carried out by Israel.Military personnel stand near the flag-draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an assassinated top nuclear scientist, during his funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

In addition, Iran remains under crippling US sanctions that it is desperate to find a way out of.

While Syria is consumed by a decade-long civil war, Iran has been trying to open a new front on Israel’s border. It has sent allied forces to the Syrian Golan Heights to set up infrastructure for carrying out attacks on Israeli targets. Iran has also been working to arm its Hezbollah proxy terrorist group with precision rocket capabilities, shipping weapons through Syria to Lebanon.

However, Israel has displayed competence in sniffing out Iranian actions and a firm willingness to disrupt them using military force. A January 2015 strike on a convoy near Quneitra killed an Iranian general and senior Hezbollah commanders, including the son of Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah commander killed in Damascus in 2008. Israel’s air force has launched hundreds, even thousands, of strikes against Iran and its proxies in Syria and Iraq since 2011.

“This fits in with Iran being frustrated in its efforts to get at Israel from Syria, where Israel dominates, now acting in their own backyard against Israel because, first of all, it’s a proven modus operandi,” said Eisenstadt.The Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned oil tanker Kokuka Courageous that the US Navy says was damaged by a limpet mine, is anchored off Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, during a trip organized by the Navy for journalists, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. The limpet mines used to attack the oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz bore “a striking resemblance” to similar mines displayed by Iran, a U.S. Navy explosives expert said Wednesday. Iran has denied being involved. (AP Photo/Fay Abuelgasim)

The damage suffered by the Helios Ray is consistent with an attack using a limpet mine, easily attained explosive devices affixed magnetically to ships by combat divers or combat engineers on small boats. They are placed just above or below the waterline, and are meant to knock ships out of action temporarily, not to sink them.

Limpet mines were seemingly used in a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman in mid-2019. On May 12, 2019, four ships in the Port of Fujairah were sabotaged by attackers using the mines. A month later, a Japanese and a Norwegian oil tanker were both attacked with suspected limpet mines. The US and others blamed the attacks on Iran, which denied any involvement.

“The problem with the limpet mine is that almost anyone can acquire and use one,” said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If you fire an anti-ship missile, you can detect exactly who fired it and the exact platform that fired it.”

Limpet mines, however, are not clearly traceable.

An attack that makes attribution difficult “creates ambiguity that serves Iran’s interests,” said Cordesman. “If you can use gray zone operations to achieve your objectives without escalating to more serious conflict, these kinds of operations offer you advantages and a level of security that higher intensity combat doesn’t. And Iran has practiced a very wide range of attacks.”

“Gray zone operations” are coercive, ambiguous actions taken by actors trying to upend the regional order while staying below the threshold that would justify a military response by stronger parties. NATO militaries have increasingly recognized them as a challenge.

Experts believe the gray zone approach is a central component of Iran’s national security strategy. Deniable attacks on civilian shipping fit into Iran’s broader, asymmetric naval strategy.An oil tanker on fire in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019 near the strategic Strait of Hormuz where two ships were reportedly attacked. (AP Photo/ISNA)

Iran has targeted civilian shipping since the early years of the Islamic Republic. Its location on the Strait of Hormuz gives it a measure of control over one of the world’s most important shipping chokepoints. Only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, with shipping lanes only two miles wide, the Strait of Hormuz sees the equivalent of nearly a quarter of the world’s daily petroleum liquids consumption sail through its waters every day.

By flexing its ability to wreak havoc in the vital sea lane, Tehran is able to threaten the flow of oil from major producers like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq.

During the brutal Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iran targeted oil tankers and platforms throughout the Persian Gulf in an attempt to damage Iraq’s economy, in what would come to be known as the Tanker War. It was a desperate move, a sign that Iran realized it could not defeat Iraq on the battlefield.The Singapore registered tanker “Norman Atlantic” sits ablaze in the Straits of Hormuz on Dec. 6, 1987, after being attacked by an Iranian gunboat. (AP)

In 1987, the US decided to reflag tankers from other countries as American and escort them through the threatened region. Iran used a range of weapons against the ships, including advanced missiles and moored contact mines. The low-boil conflict between Iran and the US saw Iranian ships sunk and the US accidentally down an Iranian civilian jet.

Iran learned from the experience that it cannot stand toe to toe — or hull to hull in this case — with the US in a conventional naval conflict. It instead developed a range of capabilities for asymmetrical naval warfare.

“It doesn’t just focus on one kind of attack,” Cordesman stressed. “It practices low- level attacks… It escalates to land-based anti-ship missiles. It conducts a mixture of attacks on shipping from platforms like drones, they use or at least encourage groups like the Houthis to use land-based missile attacks in sequence, or simultaneously with naval attacks. So this is not some kind of simplistic model. Effectively you’re talking about a country that knows how to play three-dimensional chess.”

Tehran has targeted oil tankers in the ensuing years and regularly threatens to shut down the Strait of Hormuz in response to Western pressure.

The IRGC seized a British tanker in July 2019 after surrounding it with attack boats and rappelling onto its deck. The ship’s seizure was widely seen as a tit-for-tat move after authorities in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar detained an Iranian tanker on suspicion it was shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.A picture taken on July 21, 2019, shows Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero as it’s anchored off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. (Hasan Shirvani / MIZAN NEWS AGENCY / AFP)

In January, IRGC naval forces seized a South Korean oil tanker and held its crew for a month, allegedly over environmental violations. The incident was described by experts as a pressure tactic meant to induce Seoul to release billions of dollars of Iranian assets it holds as the result of US sanctions.

However, Iran’s attacks on and seizures of oil tankers belonging to Japan, South Korea and the UK infuriated important international players.

“A lot of countries still depend on oil, especially in Asia, and no one likes when ships start getting mined,” Eisenstadt pointed out. “That’s when they realized that it kind of backfired on them. They didn’t get the response from the US in terms of easing or lifting sanctions. And it put them in a bad place with regard to important countries that still depend on oil.”

The Helios Ray attack, by contrast, was not on an oil tanker from a potentially friendly country, but rather on an Israeli shipping vessel, and may have been intended to send a message to Israel and the world.

“The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps tries to undermine stability in the region,” said Erfan Fard, who researches counter-terrorism in the Middle East. “It wants to the show that it is the hegemon and there cannot be stability without it.”

It is also a signal to Israel that Iran wants it out of its backyard, said Fard.This image released Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, by the Iranian Army shows a helicopter hovering over the Iranian-made Makran logistics vessel during a naval drill. (Iranian Army via AP)

Iran has invested heavily in pursuing hegemony over the sea in its neighborhood. It has short, medium and long-range coastal anti-ship missiles, including the domestically produced Khalij Fars missile. Tehran has bought and produced submarines armed with long-range torpedoes. On the surface, the regular navy has a relatively robust fleet armed with anti-ship missiles. Its IRGC counterpart has invested in suicide speedboats and fast-attack craft to overwhelm enemy warships with swarm tactics. It can also target ships with UAVs, special forces raids and proxy forces throughout the region.

These elements are on display in Iran’s naval exercises. “Some involve amphibious elements, commando raids, strikes on islands, or platforms like drones,” said Cordesman. “Some involve the use of swarming tactics, others involve the use of remote-controlled surface vessels armed with explosives.”

Fishing for a solution

A centerpiece of Israel’s normalization with the Gulf states was increased trade, especially with the global shipping hub of Dubai. Given Tehran’s predilection for deniable attacks on civilian targets, its experience in carrying out such operations, and the capabilities it has developed to do so, Israel will need to find a way to protect its shipping interests.

One option may be a strategy of deterrence by hitting back. Israel and Iran have been involved in a low-level tit-for-tat war for years, with cyberattacks on infrastructure and other soft targets. On Wednesday, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel blamed Iran for an oil spill that has dirtied Israel’s coasts, possibly previewing a new maritime front being opened between the countries.

Israel could send its own message by targeting an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, such as the Saviz, called a “mothership” by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Though it is officially a civilian cargo ship, since 2017 the Saudis have alleged the Saviz served as a maritime base and weapons transshipment point for the IRGC.

Putting Israeli forces on ships plying the Persian Gulf may seem like an option, but Jerusalem may have a hard time projecting power so far from home.

Israel could put its own forces on civilian ships, but they could be overwhelmed by Iranian troops operating close to their home bases. “Right now you have crews that are not Israeli. Do you really want to put Israelis on board and then have the potential of having prisoners in Iran’s hands?” asked Eisenstadt.

In December, reports surfaced that Israel had sent a submarine through the Suez Canal and toward the Persian Gulf, in a message to Iran. But it makes no sense for Israel to try to project military power into the Persian Gulf, Cordesman pointed out.

Rather, he suggested a joint effort not unlike a short-lived 2019 plan for a US-led naval coalition to protect the shipping lanes.

“There are several options Israel has,” he said. “One is seeking assistance from the United States, seeking some kind of broader guarantees that could involve not only the US but some of the Arab Gulf states to secure its shipping.”