Out of the Shadows and Into the Light
Background context to the Iran-Israel Shadow War
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METIS INSIGHTS: Out of the Shadows and Into the Light
What are the implications of the M/T MERCER STREET incident?
On July 29th, the Panama-flagged oil tanker M/T MERCER STREET was attacked off the coast of Oman, resulting in the deaths of two onboard personnel: a Romanian national, understood to be the vessel master, and a British national, understood to be a member of an embarked security team.
Attacks such as this have become an all too familiar feature throughout the first half of 2021, with Iran and Israel seemingly engaged in tit-for-tat strikes against vessels associated with each state. Such activity has come to be known commonly as the ‘shadow war’, principally on account of the non-attributable action taken by both sides. To date this activity has represented a form of limited conflict in which both sides are able to engage in non-attributable strikes, allowing for a degree of plausible deniability. Dryad Global's analytical team share their analysis.
On July 29th, the Panama-flagged oil tanker M/T MERCER STREET was attacked off the coast of Oman, resulting in the deaths of two onboard personnel: a Romanian national, understood to be the vessel master, and a British national, understood to be a member of an embarked security team. Attacks such as this have become an all too familiar feature throughout the first half of 2021, with Iran and Israel seemingly engaged in tit-for-tat strikes against vessels associated with each state. Such activity has come to be known commonly as the ‘shadow war’, principally on account of the non-attributable action taken by both sides. To date this activity has represented a form of limited conflict in which both sides are able to engage in non-attributable strikes, allowing for a degree of plausible deniability.
The paradigm of limited conflict has been fundamentally altered by the loss of life on the M/T MERCER STREET. By all accounts the conflict can no longer be termed limited or indeed shadow. The loss of life, of two innocent civilians, unconnected to the affairs of either state has propelled the Israel-Iran conflict out of the shadows and into the light of international scrutiny.
Background context to the Iran-Israel Shadow War
The decades-long enmity between Israel and Iran is one of the defining features of Middle Eastern geopolitics, dating back to the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Iran’s actions, stem from both a societal culture that places an emphasis on the politics of strength and force over diplomacy and compromise. Iranian political culture is heavily influenced by post-revolutionary ideology and the role of the military in the affairs of state. Such a febrile culture of political and national anxiety is in part to blame for the way in which Iran seeks to position and conduct itself throughout the region. Iran continues to seek to dominate its regional rivals, rather than seek a position of cooperation and peaceful co-existence. Iran also remains responsible for actively fueling conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and Iraq via its sponsorship of regional proxies and affiliated militant groups. Iran has also sought to directly oppose regional foes such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and US deployed forces within the region, through the use of asymmetric attacks.
The maritime domain has long been a feature of limited conflict between Iran and the wider region. Until recently Iran has principally sought to use the maritime domain to supply arms and provide support to regional proxies it is allied with, whilst also directing attacks by these proxies against Iran’s perceived enemies. In 2021, however, Iran has shifted its focus of maritime activity towards vessels associated with Israeli commercial enterprise. Israel has however maintained its approach of intercepting vessels it suspects of having used to supply arms from Iran and it is only recently that Israel has engaged in partial reprisals towards Iran in a manner mirroring that to which it has suffered.
2021: The Escalating Conflict
In May and June 2019, tensions between Iran and the United States and its allies in the Middle Eastern Gulf (MEG) peaked with a series of indiscriminate maritime attacks in the Gulf of Oman, resulting in four commercial vessels being struck by limpet mines. This methodology is commensurate with suspected IRGC-perpetrated incidents. The use of limpet mines, containing limited explosive charges, placed tactically to avoid loss of life and ecological damage are indicative of limited action, designed to signal strength and defiance in the face of perceived US hostility. Further attacks followed, alongside the detention of the Iranian vessels GRACE 1 and the subsequent counter action by Iran in detaining the UK Flagged STENA IMPERO. These were set against the backdrop of the Trump administrations nullification of the JCPoA agreement. Unsure of US regional posture under a Trump administration, Iran sought to signal its capability and willingness to take aggressive measures if required.
The events of 2021, however, stand in stark contrast to those of 2019, both in their conduct and context. The actions by Iran this year have been highly targeted, with commercial vessels directly linked to the state of Israel as the target of choice. Whilst early attacks in 2021 saw the placement of mines along the vessel hull, in more recent attacks the location of the mines is becoming less considered, with explosions occurring in areas of the vessel often frequented by crew. This change in approach displays an increasing disregard for the previously ‘limited’ approach and suggests an increasing apathy to the potential innocent human cost therein. As with 2019, there is a political backdrop to the maritime incidents of 2021. Iran and Israel have undergone significant changes in leadership, with both leaders tied inextricably to the courses of action set by their predecessors. Despite this, Iran remains engaged with the US around a possible return to the conditions of the JCPoA.
At the time of writing, Iran has categorically denied responsibility for the MT MERCER STREET incident calling for the UK et al to provide evidence. Unconfirmed Israeli reports suggest the targeting of the M/T MERCER STREET was possibly a retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on Dabaa airport in Syria. Irrespective of what Iran may claim to have provoked its actions, such protestations of justification are at best false and at worse a flagrant disregard for international law that safeguards the rights of civilians against the actions of states in conflict.
While almost all suggestions and circumstantial information point to Iranian involvement in the M/T MERCER STREET incident, it is imperative to stress the role of plausible deniability in these circumstances. A defining feature of the shadow war between Israel and Iran is that, so far, events have been deliberately orchestrated by both sides, in a manner that allows each state to cast a veil over the true identity of the actors involved. Decisive and irrefutable evidence is seldom available for the benefit of analysis when seeking to fully attribute responsibility. Accordingly, those that call for de-facto proof of Iranian involvement in a deliberately opaque conflict become unwittingly complicit in the notion that Iran is an innocent party. Indeed, such is the strength of circumstantial evidence and the prolific nature of Iranian activity to date combined with the historic disregard for international norms throughout the region, that the burden of proof lies firmly with Iran to prove innocence, rather than the international community to prove guilt.
Implications of the Shadow War for the Shipping Industry
While the M/T MERCER STREET incident has attracted widespread international coverage, it remains vital to examine the level of risk to commercial shipping in the correct context. The risk of wider commercial shipping being impacted directly remains low. A considerable volume of global maritime trade (c33,000 transits annually) transits the wider Gulf region daily, with very few incidents occurring. The risk of vessels unaffiliated with either Israel or Iran being targeted remains highly unlikely. However, recent events involving the misidentification of the CSAV TYNDALL and the targeting of the M/T MERCER STREET, which contained innocent civilians and crew members from states allied with Iran, indicates a deep-rooted recklessness and lack of basic intelligence collection capability at an institutional level within Iran. Targeting methodology to date suggests a preference by Iran for vessels owned by certain commercial entities connected to Israeli citizens. When combined with Iranian recklessness, this indicates that all vessels connected to Israel should be considered at a low but heightened risk.
Iran also continues to present a risk to wider commercial shipping in the Gulf through its sponsorship of regional proxies. This is most notable in Yemen, where Houthi rebels using Iranian resources have maintained a consistent intent to target vessels indiscriminately, in port and underway. Following the attack on the M/T MERCER STREET, the Saudi coalition in Yemen released a statement on 30 July 21 stating they had successfully destroyed a remote controlled waterborne improvised explosive device (RC-WBIED) at the port of Jizan.
The precise nature of risk, across the medium to long term will, however, be dictated by the way the international community responds to the M/T MERCER STREET incident in the short term.
At the time of writing, it remains clear that the broader global community is united in its condemnation of Iran. The UK government has stated that Iranian involvement is “highly likely”, constituting an 80-90% probability. Along with Israel it has condemned what it sees as the blatant and willful disregard for innocent civilian lives shown by Iran. A statement by the UK government stated that it is “working with its international partners on a concerted response to this unacceptable attack”. The Israeli Chief of the General Staff, Aviv Kohavi, has also spoken with his British counterpart, Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Sir Nick Carter, to discuss “common challenges” faced by both countries, however no specific mention of a response was given. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in a Knesset debate in the presence of Naftali Bennett stated that the attack on the M/T MERCER STREET should be seen as an escalation, and “action must now be taken against Iran. Under the hangman Raisi, who will take office this week, she will be more dangerous to the world than she has been so far.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was “confident that Iran conducted this attack,” and said that an “appropriate response” was forthcoming.
It is assessed as highly likely that both Israel and the UK will seek to further internationalise the response to the M/T MERCER STREET incident. This however is expected to be at a multilateral rather than institutional level with any collectivised UN security council response remaining highly unlikely. In the first instance, any response must be resolute and with the sole aim of forcing Iran to comply with international legal norms and protecting the safety of life at sea. A kinetic strike against an Iranian port, vessel or shore establishment may reduce Iranian capacity in the short to medium term but well-established trends strongly indicate that this would likely only embolden Iran to continue its perceived path of ‘resistance’ in the longer term. Such a course of action would further need to be balanced with the broader theme of regional security and the risks of precipitating wider conflict that risks embroiling civilian vessels. As such it is assessed as likely that the tri-state coalition of the US, UK and Israel will seek to shift the focus of conflict away from the maritime domain. Within this, the potential for conducting a wide ranging and sophisticated Cyber-attack is assessed as high. For the UK, US and Israel there are wider regional narratives to contend with alongside the ongoing attempts to get Iran to return to the conditions of the JCPoA. The need for commercial vessels to be able to operate freely throughout the region without risk to civilian lives however must surely be the benchmark against which any initial response it set.
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