NO: DELENG / 2017 / 70663
official media partner of national maritime foundation
O-7 CDR (Retd.) Dr.Eyal Pinko (PhD) Maritime Cyber and Security Senior Consultant.
By Sea and Coast | 04/05/2021

Is the secret battle between Israel and Iran moved to the maritimearena? CDR (ret.) Dr. Eyal Pinko

Iranian merchant ships explode in the Mediterranean sea; mysterious naval commando activity to stoppirate oil shipments; Israeli merchant ships absorb missile fire near Oman's shores. Has the Israeli secret campaign to block the Iranian nuclear program also reached the maritimearena?

In 2002, the late Prime Minister Arik Sharon ordered the then-new head of the Mossad, Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan, to act against the Iranian nuclear program. Sharon's instructions have not been made public. However, since then, the State of Israel has been conducting a multi-dimensional and integrative campaign to block and delay the Iranian nuclear program.

The Israeli plan included international diplomatic efforts directing countries and international organizations (such as NATO and the EU) and military efforts, including building capabilities to defend the Israeli home front and developing military combat capabilities to attack Iran.

But the centralpart of the Israeli plan to stop the Iranian nuclear program relied on a well-planned campaign, which included extensive covert efforts and operations.

These covert campaigns include:

  • Economic warfare efforts to shut down Iranian bank accounts and prevent money transfers
  • Assignation of more than a dozen Iranian nuclear and ballisticmissiles scientists
  • A blow-up of nuclear facilities in Iran
  • Special intelligence-gathering operations (such as the theft of binders and disks well-known operation in 2018)
  • Cyberattacks on infrastructure facilities, in which among them the most familiar, were Stuxnet (20), Doku (2011), and Flaim (2012).

With the economic sanctions imposed on it and the economic warfare, Iran's economy began to deteriorate, reaching a slump in 2020 with Iran's efforts to cope with the spreading COVID-19 virus.

Moreover, during 2020 many of Iran's senior officials died from the COVID-19 virus. Two other leaders were assassinated: General Qassam Suleimani, the Quds Elite force leader, killed in late 2019 by the US forces in Iraq. And Dr. Fahrizadeh, one of the nuclear program founders killed in Tehran by an assassination team in operation attributed to Israel.

Iran has begun to develop in these years, and especially after 2018, a bypassing economy. The bypassing economic efforts will enable Iran to get foreign currency income to alleviate rising inflation and the increasingly difficult economic situation.

Iran's efforts to advance its bypassing economy included taking control with Hezbollah of South America's opium fields and turning to be drug lords in this region. Along with that, Iran set up cyber teams to carry out ransomware attacks as sources of income. Also, it leased its computing power and energy to China to produce virtual coins (crypto mining). The other acts of the Iranian bypassing economy were to sell weapons and ammunition.

But, the key component of Iran's economy was oil. Before 2018 Iran exported an average of 2.5 million oil barrels a day. In 2018, Iran lost its income source from oil following the sanctions imposed on it by US President Donald Trump.

Iran, like Iran, has found ways to enforce sanctions and has begun using its large tanker fleet (about 42 tankers) for pirated oil transfers.

Every day, the Iranian tankers went to sea with an oil cargo using a flag of convenience of another country hoisted on their mast. In the middle of the sea, the Iranian tankers disconnected their identification device, the AIS (Automatic Identification System), in which the International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires to operate for sailing safety and sailed without identification. At a predetermined place in the sea, the Iranian ships met other ships, and through pipes, the oil was transferred between the ships.

In this way, Iran sells over 300,000 oil barrels per day to countries such as Venezuela, North Korea, China, and Syria. While this is only a small percentage of its potential ability to sell oil, these pirated oil sales provide revenue for Iran, which for it is like breathable air.

On the night between February 1 and 2, 2021, a crude oil tanker, known as Emerald,  Iranian-owned, carrying the Panama convenient flag, sailed in Israel's exclusive economic waters on its way to Syria. Before the oil tanker entered the Israeli economic waters, it turned off its AIS device.

Then, when it reached the Syrian border area, the tanker activated the device again. As it is off the coast of Israel, it is suspected that large amounts of oil were spilled from the Iranian tanker, which created sea pollution along the Israeli coastal strip of about 170 km.

During the two weeks following the incident, oil spread from the sea to the Israeli coast. There were officials and others in Israel who hurried to declare that this was ecological terrorism directed by Iran against Israel.

This event has opened the door to a broader series of events, which takes us on a new journey in a campaign against the Iranian bypassing economy, which Israel may run.

On February 26, it was reported that the Israeli cargo ship MV HELIOS, which carries the comfort flag of the Bahamas and is owned by an Israeli businessman, was hit by a missile or other armament near Oman's shores. The ship was on its way to Singapore from Saudi Arabia and was carrying vehicles on board.

The area where the Israeli ship was hit isdisaster-stricken. During 2019 several Saudi and Dutch-owned oil tankers were hit in this area in a series of attacks that seem to be naval commando attacks. One such attack was even identified by a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft, while a commando force, apparently Iranian, acted to attach leech mines to one of the ships.

The response was not long in coming. About a month and a half after the echoes of the Emerald event and the attacked Israeli ship in the Oman area disappeared, reports suggested that Israel had attacked an Iranian-owned merchant ship named Shahr-e Kord on ​​the morning of March 11 near the Banias port in Syria.

From the photos published in the various media channels, it appears that an explosion occurred in some containers on board the ship. Israel did not respond to these allegations.

Despite the Israeli silence, US government officials, who announced shortly after the attack on the Iranian ship attributed to Israel, that since 2019, Israel's naval commando forces have attacked about 12 Iranian oil tankers operating in the Mediterranean sea for illegal oil transfers for the Syrian regime.

The Iranians apparently decided not to pass over the Israeli confession in silence. On March 26, an Israeli-owned merchant ship, the Lori, was attacked while sailing off Oman's coast.

The Israeli ship's photographs indicate that the shipwas hit by an anti-ship missile, which hit its hull or several containers. The missile's type and model and who launched it are unknown. The ship, without significant damages, continued on its way to its destination port in India.

From the series of recent events and the US public announcement, it appears that Israel has decided to act to stop Iran's bypassing economic efforts, whether under the US auspices or independently.

In this context, Israel acts, according to these reports, to prevent the oil transferby  Iranian tankers in the Mediterranean and makes it difficult for Iran to transfer the banned oil to Syria.

These Israeli actions create economic levers on Iran and political levers, which may affect Biden's administration in its decisions to continue or lift sanctions. These actionsare undermining Iran's credibility with the US administration.

As evidenced by the two attacks on Israeli-owned ships, Iran has not remained silent in the face of Israeli covert operations. Iran is acting to respond and deter, in its comfort zone at the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, as it has done in the past.

The covert maritime actions create deterrence on both sides, in Israel and Iran, and raise concerns about Israeli vessels operating in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf, where the Iranian naval forces operate regularly.

Until Biden's position on sanctions on Iran and its nuclear program becomes clear, and as long as Iran operate to create a bypassing economy through pirated oil transfers, it would be better for Israeli merchant ships, even if they operate with other convenience flags, to exercise caution on Iran's control routes.

In doing so, it would be advisable to operate and equip the Israeli merchant vessels with more significant physical security measures and missile defense systems, even if their price is high and will significantly increase sea transport prices.

#Sea and coast