(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Peter Apps
LONDON, Aug 5 (Reuters) - On April 24, a suspected unmanned drone struck an Iranian oil tanker off the Syrian port of Baniyas, reportedly killing at least three people and sparking a blaze that took firefighters several hours to extinguish. It was the latest sign of an escalating shadow war between Iran and its enemies, principally Israel but also the Gulf states, the United States and European allies.
This week, as hardliners cemented their power in Tehran, that conflict appears to have escalated, first with a suspected Iranian drone attack on a Israeli-operated, British-owned tanker in the Gulf on Saturday that killed two people, then the apparent temporary hijacking of an asphalt carrier on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz specifically accused Saeed Ara Jani, head of Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps UAV Command, of being behind the attack on the "Mercer Street" tanker this weekend that killed the Romanian captain as well as a British security guard.
They also made an even more headline-grabbing claim – that Iran might be as little as 10 weeks away from completing a nuclear weapon if it chose, accusing Tehran of comprehensively ignoring and evading a 2015 deal with the Obama administration to limit its nuclear programme that was thrown out by Donald Trump three years later.
Tehran’s nuclear programme has long been the centre of a largely secret conflict with Israel and sometimes the United States, including a reported cyber attack on April 10 that the New York Times said destroyed a power plant and centrifuges at Iran’s principal nuclear site at Natanz. Iran played down the significance of that attack, but accused Israel of conducting “nuclear terrorism” against it.
Israeli authorities largely declined comment on those reports, although U.S. officials said in April the United States was not involved in ongoing cyber attacks. Reported attacks on Iran’s nuclear programme go back as far as 2009, when the Stuxnet computer virus was said to have caused damage, something the United States and Israel pointedly refused to confirm or deny.
The Biden administration wishes to renew the deal, also signed by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – but negotiations have faltered, further blunted by the election of Ebrahim Raisi, seen as the most hardline anti-Western and Israeli Iranian president in recent years. That leaves Tehran pushing ahead with nuclear enrichment, regional tensions spiking higher and Iran facing protests, growing economic hardship and an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether Raisi can be persuaded to return to the negotiating table is unclear. He is backed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who has repeatedly stated that it should be impossible for the United States to walk away from any new nuclear deal in the same way that Trump did. Iran wants a pledge the United States will not introduce new sanctions, something the Biden administration is likely to struggle to get through Congress.
What is clear is that after several years of further nuclear enrichment, Iran is significantly closer to being able to build a nuclear bomb than it was in 2015, when the Obama administration estimated that it was still at least a year away.
Throughout the run-up to the 2015 nuclear deal, Israel and Iran played a deadly cat and mouse game, including alleged assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran, the suspected Iranian-backed bombing of Israeli diplomats in New Delhi and Bangkok in 2012 and a blast under an Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria that killed five Israelis and the driver.
ISRAELI DRONES SUSPECTED
The 2015 nuclear deal eased tensions somewhat, but they rose again following Trump’s 2018 withdrawal. The following year saw a number of suspected limpet mine attacks on tankers in the Gulf and Iranian-backed drone missile strikes by Houthi militants in Yemen against Saudi Arabia.
The last year has seen a significant escalation. As well as being suspected of conducting the drone strike against the Iranian tanker off Syria on April 24, Israel is also suspected of having used limpet mines on April 7 to strike an Iranian cargo vessel believed to be used as a floating base by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard for its operations in Yemen.
Some media estimates put the number of Israeli-backed attacks against Iranian vessels supplying Syria as high as 12. The Israeli government has long been extremely nervous of the transfer of sophisticated rocket technology from Iran to its proxies Hezbollah in Syria, and has been conducting its own air strikes within that country.
In the run-up to the 2015 deal, there were widespread fears that Israel might take matters into its own hands to strike Tehran’s nuclear programme, likely sparking savage retaliation from Iran against global shipping and energy supplies in the Gulf. The recent actions against shipping may be a reminder that this prospect remains.
Iran, for its part, now has its own increased ability to strike back from Syria using Hezbollah – although this would likely spark a wider regional war. For now, no one seems quite keen to go down that route – making more unorthodox attacks such as the drone strike on the tanker even more likely. Whether the conflict remains controlled at that level, however, remains a very different question. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)