The attack on the MV Mercer Street oil tanker escalated tensions in the Gulf against the backdrop of President Ebrahim Raisi taking over the presidency in Tehran. The July 29 drone strike on the oil tanker off the coast of Oman killed a British security guard and the ship’s Romanian captain. The fragments of the explosive-laden alien object collected from the tanker strengthened the belief that it was an Iranian drone. The UNSC condemned the attack while the United States, the UK and the G-7 squarely pointed the finger of blame at Iran for targeting civilian maritime traffic. Tehran vehemently denied any link to the attack.
Britain’s top military commander General Nick Carter called for retaliation to restore a regime of deterrence and avoid the risk of greater “miscalculation” by Iran. General Carter said, “What we need to be doing, fundamentally, is calling out Iran for its very reckless behavior.”
The Japanese-owned vessel – on lease to UK-based Zodiac Maritime, one of the business interests of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer – was en route to Fujairah, UAE, from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Tel Aviv has gone as far as naming Saeed Ara Jani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) drone unit, for delivering the strike. If the debris of the kamikaze or one-way drone can be any guide, it was an Iranian Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The fact that the Israeli-run ship was hit 400 kilometers from the Iranian coast raises the question of the drone’s control capability for precise targeting. The Iranians have repeatedly claimed that their drones have satellite communication, and if this claim is to be taken seriously, then it means that the IRGC has found a way to circumvent the military sanctions via using a foreign satellite and acquiring commercial bandwidth. The other possibility is that the IRGC transferred UAV controls to another relay station either on a small dinghy deep in the sea or on a remote hilltop in Oman.
Iran’s rage over the fruitless Vienna nuclear talks and Israeli attacks on its vessels ferrying weapons to Syria and Lebanon has led to the death of innocent people on the one hand and the introduction of suicide drones alongside limpet mines targeting commercial ships on the other hand.
Though Israel and Iran have engaged in tit-for-tat all-round attacks for about a decade, eight such incidents at sea were recorded during the past seven months of 2021. Israel refuses to confirm or deny its involvement while Iran predominantly hides behind the notion of plausible deniability despite proof pointing towards its involvement.
So far, Israel’s and Iran’s shadow maritime skirmishes have been measured and secretive. With the loss of life and the introduction of hybrid airpower into the conflict, Tel Aviv is likely to retaliate in kind but by inflicting greater losses on Iranian vessels. Tel Aviv may possibly attempt to sink a vessel carrying Iranian weapons or critical supplies to Syria in the eastern Mediterranean, however, any such retaliatory attack in the Gulf would serve Tehran’s aim to impede maritime traffic in Gulf waterways.
In light of the Biden government’s desire to continue the nuclear talks to revive the JCPOA, the US talk of retaliation may not go beyond looking the other way if or when Tel Aviv targets Iranian vessels. It is quite unlikely that Britain will stand true to its word. London shied away frominvoking the snapback clause against Tehran over its JCPOA violations, largely due to a significant pro-Iran lobby in the British Parliament.
The Raisi government has repeatedly denied Tehran’s role in the July 29 attack, but its overall tone remains hostile in regard to various issues. It remains to be seen if similar sabotage attempts from Tehran continue or cease in the coming weeks. As Israel’s campaign against Iranian arms caches in Syria and Iraq continues, Hezbollah is likely to flex its muscles to avenge any losses. Since Tel Aviv has, over the years, developed the capability to fight on multiple fronts, tensions around its immediate border cannot divert its attention from Iran’s activities in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea. While remaining cautious and vigilant at sea, Israel is most likely to choose a suitable Iranian target in the eastern Mediterranean. A hard-headed approach could possibly be to covertly attack Iran’s drone and missile bases within Iranian territories. The cat-and-mouse game is nowhere near its end.