Israel and Iran’s ‘Shadow War’

An ongoing shadow war at sea between Israel and Iran recently escalated when the Islamic Republic attacked an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman. Three unmanned “kamikaze” drones launched from Iranian territory slammed into the ship operated by an Israeli company. Two crew members, the Romanian captain and a British security guard were killed, which drew international condemnation and threats of retaliation from Israel.

The incident was the most serious yet in a years-long, undeclared, covert war in which Israel and Iran have attacked each other on land, by air, and at sea. The string of low-intensity skirmishes accelerated in 2018 after then U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers in 2015. That agreement required Iran to limit its enrichment of uranium—a chemical element used in nuclear weapons—in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. After the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran responded by enriching uranium beyond the permitted limits.

Since then, Israel’s covert efforts have focused on disrupting Iran’s nuclear program and stopping Iranian weapons from reaching militants in Lebanon and Gaza. Defense analyst Yaakov Lappin explained, “In this low-profile conflict, Israel’s objective appears to be aimed at disrupting destabilizing maritime Iranian activity—primarily the illicit transfer of Iranian oil to Syria—as part of a wider Hezbollah terror financing scheme, and the likely transfer of Iranian weapons via ships to the Assad regime and to Hezbollah.”

Iran has responded to the Israeli attacks by using drones, mines, and missiles to sabotage merchant vessels with ties to Israel. Over the past two years, at least a dozen ships have been struck in tit-for-tat attacks in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Indian Ocean.

Middle East analyst Daniel Avis noted that the attacks between Israel and Iran have been carefully calculated to avoid escalation: “For the most part, both seek to avoid conspicuous, direct clashes, which would risk escalation to all-out war, preferring instead to act with plausible deniability. Israel’s objectives include thwarting Iran’s nuclear program and containing its wider influence in the region. Recent shadow attacks by Iran are widely seen as brinkmanship aimed at improving its leverage in talks to revive the 2015 accord.”

According to security analyst Frank Gardner, neither side can afford to look weak; but both are “carefully calibrating” their actions so as not to trigger an all-out war. “On the nuclear side, it is clear that Israeli intelligence has been able to penetrate Iranian security to an astounding degree, deploying both human agents on the ground and cyber weapons to overcome Iranian countermeasures,” he wrote. “On the maritime shipping side, Israel is at something of a geographical disadvantage. It has good access to the Red Sea through its own naval port at Eilat but further afield Iran has the upper hand, thanks to its long Gulf coastline and Houthi proxies in Yemen.”

Geopolitical analyst John Raine says Israel’s superior intelligence capabilities are limiting Iran’s ability to retaliate: “Frustratingly for Iran, its best partner for striking Israel is Hezbollah but that would be an escalatory move which could embroil Hezbollah in the war Iran wants to avoid. The Iranians usually have the asymmetric advantage but with Israel they are being outboxed. The Israelis have both a longer reach, faster footwork and when they decide to strike bluntly, as they have been doing in Syria, they hit harder.”

Iran expert Farzin Nadimi warned that the escalating clashes pose a substantial risk of miscalculation and escalation: “Neither is likely to settle for anything less than maritime superiority. The pace of their attacks has already increased and can be expected to accelerate further, while also expanding to a larger geographical area and potentially employing additional systems and tactics.”

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