August 10, 2021

IntelBrief: Iran Escalates Attacks on Shipping

(AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Bottom Line up Front

  • Iran is maintaining pressure on the United States and its regional allies by resuming attacks on shipping vessels in the Persian Gulf. 
  • The U.S., UK, and European allies will tread carefully in responding to the attacks to avoid derailing ongoing talks to restore the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal. 
  • The consolidation of power by Iranian hardliners increases the likelihood that Tehran will escalate conflict in the event of a military response by the United States or any of its allies.
  • Israel officials have cited the tanker attacks as justification for the potential use of unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear program and other assets.

A new round of Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf began on July 29 when armed drones attacked an Israel-managed tanker off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members, a Briton and a Romanian. The Mercer Street tanker was traveling from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. It’s likely that Iran’s assault on the ship was linked to the vessel’s management by Zodiac Maritime, a company owned by Israeli tycoon, Eyal Ofer, a member of the family that founded a vast shipping and industrial empire. Iran and the Ofer family have a complex history—the Ofer Brothers Group was briefly sanctioned by the Obama administration in 2011 for allegedly selling Iran a tanker ship for about $9 million. The attack was widely viewed as Iranian retaliation for Israel’s recent actions against Iranian nuclear facilities and scientists inside Iran. Iran responded to the Mercer Street operation with an attempted hijacking of a UAE-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman on August 3. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos who reportedly boarded the vessel left the ship after United States and Omani ships responded to the incident. Those ships were part of a U.S.-led Gulf maritime security mission that was established in response to a prior round of Iranian assaults in 2019.  

Following closed door United Nations Security Council consultations called to discuss maritime security, United Kingdom Ambassador Barbara Woodward told reporters, "That evidence is clear-cut. The UK knows that Iran was responsible for this attack. We know it was deliberate and targeted." Furthermore, she elaborated, "We know that Iran was responsible for this attack. And the evidence, we are confident—based on our assessment of the debris that was recovered from the MV Mercer Street—that the system used in the attack was an Iranian Shahed-136 UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), and these are manufactured only in Iran."

The new tanker attacks also suggest that Iran’s leadership wants to increase its leverage in the ongoing multilateral talks on a mutual return to full compliance with the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal. The shipping attacks, coupled with recent Iran-allied rocket strikes on Israel and on U.S. forces in Iraq, demonstrate Iran’s ability to threaten regional peace and security unless its demands for sanctions relief are met. Iran’s leadership calculates that not only will their actions in the Gulf and broader region advance Iran’s objectives, but that such actions will not receive a forceful response from the Biden administration, the UK, or European allies. On August 6, the U.S. and several other world powers (Group of Seven, G7) formally condemned the Mercer Street assault as a “clear violation of international law” by Iran but did not impose any new sanctions or authorize other steps against Tehran. The United States and other powers prefer to try to calm regional tensions by restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement, rather than risk provoking Tehran further with punitive action. Additionally, the political shift within Iran indicates that Iran’s assertive actions against the U.S. and its allies might escalate if there is a kinetic response to Iran’s actions. The August 5 inauguration of Ibrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president represents a consolidation of power by Iran’s hardliners after the eight-year presidency of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani. Iranian hardliners have never shied away from retaliation and aggressive action against adversaries, even when doing so might complicate Iranian diplomacy. 

Israel, by contrast, does not see diplomacy as the optimal method for responding to Tehran’s challenges, particularly its nuclear program. Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has adopted the same policy as his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, in asserting that Israel might act unilaterally against Iran in response to threats such as the Mercer Street. The Mercer Street attack, the latest incident in a “shadow war” between Israel and Iran, enabled Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz to again characterize Iran as “a global and regional problem and an Israeli challenge." On August 5, Gantz replied “Yes” to a question by the Israeli news site Ynet News on whether the Israeli Defense Forces were ready to take military action against Iran. Israel’s willingness to ability to escalate its operations against Iran, coupled with Tehran’s intent to continue to respond in kind, is almost certain to complicate efforts by the Biden administration to calm regional tensions through diplomacy with Iran.