Israel-Iran War of Words Escalates Following Latest Attack on an Oil Tanker

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Last week’s targeting of an Israeli-operated ship off the Gulf of Oman has reignited tensions between Israel and Iran. Such attacks have become too common to be ignored any longer. Both countries find themselves at a critical juncture, with Israel being led by a new and untested government and Iran by a new and more conservative president. Meanwhile, Israel’s US ally finds itself distracted by an increasingly aggressive China.

Baria Alamuddin is among those who have expressed concern about the “shadow war,” as she calls it in a recent Arab News op-ed–the Israeli-Iranian high-stakes conflict taking place on the high seas–fearing that it may plunge the two countries and ultimately the region into open war: “Iran has likewise been progressively boosting its capacities to menace shipping in the Gulf, the Straits of Hormuz, Bab El-Mandeb and even the eastern Mediterranean — routes crucial for energy security and the maintenance of the global economy.  A shadow war has been playing out that most of us are scarcely aware of, as Israel and Iran attack each other’s shipping. The only remarkable thing about the latest attack… was that two people were killed…. There have been over 150 such attacks on ships over the past three years, with Iran using drones, mines, bombs attached to ships’ hulls, rockets and explosives-laden boats…. It’s a miracle the sides haven’t already plunged the region into wholesale war.”

Israel Hayom’s Amnon Lord believes the timing of the latest Iranian attack on the oil tanker is no coincidence, suggesting that Israel’s adversaries in the region have been emboldened by Israel’s new and untested government: “With Israel asleep at the wheel, Iran has tied up all the loose ends in its ongoing campaign against the Jewish state…. There is no doubt the Israeli government’s perceived weakness has contributed to the enemy’s aggression. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had a strong deterrent effect on Iran and Hezbollah…. Our enemies know the Biden White House does not want to get bogged down in Middle East problems. They know Israel is once again contending with an administration that is less pro-Israel than its predecessor, and they figure they have nothing to lose.”

Naturally, the question of what the Israeli response should be has been considered at length by various commentators. Most are divided between the need for a forceful response against Iran and the need to avoid a full blown war. For example, Abdullah bin Bijad Al-Otaibi, in an op-ed published by Al Arabiya, observes, “The drums of war are ringing in the region. Iran is taking it too far with its hardline messages to the world, continuing its extremist sectarian ideology alongside its strategy of hegemony and influence. The Iranian developments are moving toward escalation with the countries of the region and the world…. It is not necessarily true that the gathering clouds in the region will lead to a full military war against the Iranian regime, but it should not be ruled out that painful military strikes can be launched against a regime that boasts excess power, ideological rigor, and militia influence, which will send it back in time more than it already is.

The Jerusalem Post’s Ruthie Blum recommends a decisive military response, even if that means Israel may have to do it alone without the support of its traditional allies: “During a briefing in Jerusalem on Wednesday with ambassadors of UN Security Council member states, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz stated unequivocally that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) air force was behind “dozens of terror attacks in the region employing UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and missiles.”…. The time has come to take advantage of the cracks in the regime’s armor. Khamenei, Raisi and Salami should be put on notice that it is not they, but rather their victims, who warrant bolstering. Since that’s not likely to happen in the immediate future, Israel will have to go it alone. Let’s hope that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is up to the task.”

Writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, Alex Fishman makes a similar argument about the necessity of a strong retaliatory response, while recognizing that Israel must also try to build up its alliances in anticipation of possible escalatory measures by Iran: “Jerusalem cannot afford to ignore Iran’s provocative attack on the Israeli-operated oil tanker off the coast of Oman on Friday. A lack of response by Israel would only ramp up Iranian aggression against it and other Middle Eastern governments – not to mention potentially diminishing Israel’s strategic standing in the region…. It is unclear whether Israel’s inevitable response to Friday’s attack will be part of an overall strategy to combat Iranian entrenchment… or an impulsive, knee-jerk reaction. But with Iran about to get a more extreme and conservative president who will surely want to prove himself, the country needs allies that today seem to be thin on the ground.”

Iranian leaders, for their part, have denied all responsibility for the attack, while threatening retaliatory strikes against any Israeli attack. According to a Tehran Times report, “Seyed Nezam Mousavi, the spokesman for the Majlis Presiding Board, has responded to recent military threats against Iran by some Zionist regime’s officials, saying, ‘Iran will give a definite answer to any wrongdoing of the Zionist regime’…. The people of Iran and the region have become accustomed to such threats by the Zionist regime, the MP added. The senior parliamentarian stated that the Zionist regime is today surrounded within occupied lands, adding that resistance groups in Palestine and Lebanon have easily emerged from the threats of this ‘hollow regime’.”

Yet, it is clear to anyone familiar with the unstable region that any kind of showdown between the two countries is likely to exacerbate the situation. As Jordan Times’ Osama Al Sharif cautions, even by its historic standards, the region is on the precipice of a systemic collapse: “The timing for this latest shadow naval war could not be worse for all parties concerned. The new Iranian leader will have his hands full trying to subdue popular anti-regime protests across the country that are getting out of control. Acute water shortage in a number of provinces has added to peoples’ anger over worsening living conditions. Israel is just recovering from an inconclusive war with Hamas in Gaza, and the new coalition government is walking on thin ice. For the US and the Europeans, the Middle East is today too volatile to handle. Lebanon is on the brink of collapse, the Yemen war rages on, Libya remains unstable, and now Tunis is going through a constitutional crisis.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top