Israel has been waging a covert war against Iranian shipping for months now, conducting more than a dozen attacks on Iranian vessels over the course of the past few years. The attacks appear to be targeted against vessels delivering oil to Syria in violation of US and international sanctions. During this time, there have been similarly mysterious attacks against Israeli-owned shipping. While Iran has officially denied any role in such attacks, it is believed that they are part of a program of retaliation against Israel for its attacks on Iranian shipping.
The most recent incident of suspected Iranian retaliation took place on July 31 against the Mercer Street, an Israeli-owned, Liberian-flagged oil tanker transiting the Gulf of Oman. The drone attack, which killed two crewmembers, was immediately condemned by the US, UK, and Israel. While no physical evidence has been presented to sustain the allegation, the US Navy has claimed that the attack was conducted by Iran using a so-called ‘suicide-drone’ that was deliberately flown into the vessel.
The Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pulled no punches in casting the blame on Iran. “I declare unequivocally: Iran is the one that carried out the attack on the ship,” he said, adding that Israel had its “own way to relay the message to Iran.” Tehran immediately responded by threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz to all shipping should it be attacked.
The Israeli muscle-flexing comes at a time when CIA Director William Burns is in Israel for meetings with his Mossad counterpart, David Barnea. Iran is expected to top the agenda, but not in the way Israel would like. Rather than pushing for greater confrontation and containment, Burns is expected to try to sell the Iranians on the merits of a new approach by the Biden administration to breathe life into stalled negotiations concerning the US re-entry into the Iran nuclear deal.
Burns’ meeting comes on the heels of statements by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz labeling Iran as a threat to Israel, the Middle East, and the entire world. “Iran seeks to pose a multi-front challenge to Israel, as such is building up its forces in Lebanon and Gaza, deploying militias in Syria and Iraq and maintaining its supporters in Yemen,” he told the Israeli YNet. “Iran is a global and regional problem and an Israeli challenge” that Gantz said Israel was ready to go to war to deal with.
As if to drive home Gantz’s point, the very first meetings between Iran’s newly sworn in President Ebrahim Raisi were with representatives from both Hamas and Hezbollah, a clear signal what the foreign policy priorities were for the incoming administration.
But the biggest shock to Gantz and Bennett apparently came when Hezbollah responded to an Israeli air attack on targets inside southern Lebanon. Israel had been trading artillery fire with unidentified militants in southern Lebanon who had fired three rockets into northern Israel (Gantz stated that he believed the rockets were fired by an unidentified Palestinian group.)
While Hezbollah had denied it had anything to do with these attacks, the Israeli airstrikes appeared to target known Hezbollah military sites in southern Lebanon. Such strikes had long been seen as a red line by Hezbollah, and Israel’s resumption of this tactic drew an unexpected response in the form of a dozen unguided artillery rockets fired into northern Israel which Hezbollah not only took responsibility for, but also used as a point of emphasis that any future Israeli airstrike would be met in kind.
Indeed, in a speech marking the 15th anniversary of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Lebanon’s Hezbollah Movement, declared that Hezbollah’s “victory” in that conflict, which saw thousands of Hezbollah rockets strike Israel over the course of the 33-day conflict, had created a de facto “2006 deterrence” which compelled Israel to cease its aerial bombardment of Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon. Nasrallah declared that the aim of Hezbollah’s retaliatory attacks was to reimpose the 15-year status quo, warning that any future airstrike by Israel in any area in Lebanon would be met with the appropriate response.
Israel appeared to get the message, limiting its response to an artillery barrage deliberately targeting an empty field (the Hezbollah rockets had likewise been deliberately targeted at empty terrain inside Israel, the goal being to send a message, not inflict casualties.) An Israeli military spokesperson told reporters that Israel has “no intention of going to war,” noting that Hezbollah had intentionally fired the rockets at open areas. In an interesting play on words, the Israeli spokesperson declared that “The incident shows Hezbollah is deterred, as it fired at open areas.”
What the spokesperson didn’t say, but which was obvious to all, was that, using this same formulation, it was Israel that was deterred, since the artillery shells it fired into Lebanon were likewise fired into empty fields.
While Israel and Hezbollah were exchanging artillery and rocket fire, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Hossein Salami, met in Tehran with Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassem. Salami stated that the Hezbollah rocket attack was a clear message to PM Bennett: “Israel does not set the agenda in the region.” The fact that an Iranian general, and not a Hezbollah official, spoke about a Hezbollah military action was a clear sign to the Israelis that Iran and Hezbollah were interlinked, and that an attack against one would be considered an attack against both.
Israel has been laboring for some time under the fantasy that it could somehow trigger a larger war between the US and Iran which would shut down Iran’s nuclear program once and for all, while also starving Hezbollah of the funding provided by Iran that underwrites much of that organization’s activities. By involving the US, Israel hoped that US military power would help blunt any Iranian retaliation targeting Israel, and whatever Iranian missiles that were able to be fired would be intercepted by Israel’s air defense systems.
The wild card in this calculation has been Hezbollah, which since 2006 has acquired an arsenal of precision guided rockets and missiles which would devastate Israel economically, militarily, and politically. Israel currently has no response to this Hezbollah arsenal, despite having waged an open war on Iranian support to Hezbollah in Syria and on the open seas. Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on northern Israel did far more than reestablish the principles of the “2006 deterrence”; it put a marker down that this deterrence extended to any regional conflict involving Iran.
For the moment, the situation appears to be calm on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Hezbollah’s deterrence may serve to prevent a broader regional conflict. But nothing, it seems, can stop the ongoing war in the shadows between Israel and Iran over the future of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
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