Maritime wars: Why the Mercer Street attack could mark a shift in Iran's strategy

The Israeli-linked Japanese-owned tanker MT Mercer Street is seen off the port of the Gulf Emirate of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates on 3 August 2021. [Getty]
7 min read
10 August, 2021

The Israeli-linked Mercer Street tanker was attacked by a drone off Omani waters on 29 July killing two people, including a British security guard and the ship’s Romanian captain.

The UK, US, and Israel blamed Iran for the incident and announced a joint "decisive response" to Iran. As accusations against Tehran escalated, Iranian officials denied involvement.

Following a military threat from Benny Gantz, Israel's defence minister, to prepare for a military strike on Iran, Iranian officials stressed that they would "respond promptly and strongly to any possible adventure”.

'Shadow war'

Suspected Iran-Israel naval attacks have escalated since 2019. In the last two years, at least 14 Iranian merchant ships and oil tankers en route to Syria, including the Sabiti tanker on 11 October 2019 and the Shahr-E-Kord container ship on 11 March 2021, have been reportedly targeted by Israel in the Red Sea and Mediterranean waters, respectively.

"The Israeli-linked Mercer Street tanker was attacked by a drone off Omani waters on 29 July, killing two people"

The attacks were largely aimed at preventing the shipment of Iranian oil and weapons to Syria and Yemen and were in full compliance with former US president Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" policy.

Iran has also allegedly attacked Israeli ships five times in the past six months in response to Israeli military strikes on Iranian ships. Iran reportedly attacked the Israeli merchant ship Helios Ray on 26 February 2021 and the Lori on 25 March.

Suspicion fell on Israel after the Iranian ship Saviz was attacked on 6 April, in what appeared to be retaliation for the attack on the Lori ship. The Saviz was an Iranian logistics ship in the Red Sea, but the Israelis described it as a reconnaissance ship.

Although simmering for years, the most recent naval attack appears to be an escalation that could have regional ramifications.

Oil Tanker mine [Getty]
A picture from Iranian News Agency ISNA on 13 June 2019 shows fire and smoke billowing from a Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker said to have been attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Oman. [Getty]

A change in politics

The so-called ‘shadow war’ between Iran and Israel has been playing out at sea in recent years, with attacks on tankers and merchant ships.

Iran has repeatedly accused Israel of attacking Iranian bases in Syria and sabotaging and bombing Iran's nuclear facilities, but these tensions have generally become less of an international problem than the recent attack on the Israeli-linked Mercer Street vessel.

The incident, viewed by some as a response to a recent Israeli attack on Al-Dabaa airport in the Al-Qusayr region in Syria, marks a shift in Iran's strategy from a ‘conditional peace’ position to one of a ‘decisive response’, a new direction Iran appears to have chosen due to international developments.  

Conditional peace was a policy adopted under former president Hassan Rouhani. It was interpreted as de-escalation with the West, provided that equal de-escalation was in turn observed.

Rouhani, considered a moderate president, reached the first agreement between the West and Iran in 2003 as the country's chief nuclear negotiator, voluntarily suspending uranium enrichment.

After taking office in 2013, Rouhani said resolving disputes with the United States and the West was one of his most important objectives, and he was the first and only Iranian president to speak to his American counterpart by telephone.

His efforts and those of Western-oriented foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, led to the advancement of Iran’s nuclear deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015.

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From the time the JCPOA was signed until Trump's unilateral withdrawal in 2018, Rouhani's relationship with the US was de-escalating. Tehran and Washington implicitly cooperated in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and the Iranian nuclear deal reduced the possibility of a regional conflict in the Middle East.

But with Trump's departure from the JCPOA Rouhani lost control of the process, and Iranian extremists blamed him for the failure of the nuclear deal, with a power shift to hardliners and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

After Trump's withdrawal, the IRGC intervened more in Iran's foreign policy, but under the Rouhani administration these tensions in the region did not cross what were considered international red lines.

"There were similar activities undertaken during the Trump era - with the targeting of shipping and resource infrastructure through plausibly deniable means to maintain a wider sense of tension in an effort to drive political negotiations," Dr Ben Rich, Deputy Head of the School of Media, Creative Arts & Social Inquiry at Curtin University told The New Arab.

"The White House will seek to bring more countries behind a unified campaign that puts more multilateral pressure on Iran as the talks in Austria's capital have been stalled since last month"

Some analysts believe the Rouhani administration tried to refrain from any serious actions, such as the Mercer Street vessel incident, despite neutralising threats to incite the US to participate in nuclear talks.

"Iran does not want to engage with Israel directly," Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, Convenor of the Middle East Studies Forum at Deakin University, told The New Arab. "If Iran is responsible for the attack on the Israeli-run ship, it is very likely to be an error of judgment on the part of local commanders, not a deliberate decision in Tehran," he added.

In the final years of the Rouhani administration - despite his insistence on continuing negotiations and de-escalation with the West - the situation developed in such a way that Iran's strategic patience ran out and the regime's policy changed from conditional peace to a ‘decisive response’.

This includes retaliatory actions and the end of appeasement concerning Iran's perceived regional and international threats.

Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran's 11th parliamentary elections, the election of hardline representatives, and the passage of the ‘Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions’ - which prompted the government to halt the implementation of IAEA's Additional Protocol and to increase the enrichment level to 20 per cent and above – all contributed to the regime moving towards a decisive response policy.

Iran nuclear [Getty]
Israel has been accused of multiple attacks on facilities linked to Iran's nuclear program. [Getty]

In short, the Iranian regime and its supreme leader believed that de-escalation with the West had not worked. "Future generations should use this experience. It was made clear during this government that trusting the West does not work," Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told outgoing President Hassan Rouhani and members of his cabinet.

The attack on the Mercer Street vessel - if Iran is proven to be involved - is a message to Israel that targeting Iran's interests and pro-Iranian groups in the region will not go unanswered, and that Iran is not afraid to escalate tensions in the undeclared ‘shadow war’.

It is also a clear message to US President Joe Biden to return to the nuclear negotiating table sooner rather than later.

Possible responses to Iran

Given that the United States is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, it is unlikely that the US and UK will take any military action.

Biden has no plans to clash with Iran after the latest attacks on the Ain al-Assad base in Iraq, largely because no Americans were killed in the attack and further tensions would create more maritime insecurity in the Persian Gulf.

The US response to the Mercer Street incident, while giving the green light to Israel, is to gain the support of the international community to protect the Freedom of Navigation.

“The White House will seek to bring more countries behind a unified campaign that puts more multilateral pressure on Iran as the talks in Austria's capital have been stalled since last month," Giorgio Cafiero, analyst, CEO, and founder of Gulf State Analytics told The New Arab.

"Economic measures could include sanctions targeting Iran's drone program. This was a package the United States was already eyeing even before the latest escalation. It may very well be fast-tracked to account for this latest activity"

In addition, the attack on the Mercer Street vessel with drones shows the high capability of the Iranian military in using and building UAVs, so it is likely that Biden will impose sanctions on Iran to target their production.

"Economic measures could include sanctions targeting Iran’s drone program. This was a package the United States was already eyeing even before the latest escalation. It may very well be fast-tracked to account for this latest activity," Jason M. Brodsky, senior Middle East analyst at Iran International, told The New Arab.  

Although Israel may retaliate against Iranian ships or infrastructure, any oil tanker warfare is to Tel Aviv's detriment as more than 62 per cent of goods are imported into the country by sea.

In addition, Israel lacks special and complex naval fortifications in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. The Iranian navy, however, has invested in this field for years.

"By targeting Israeli linked vessels in the Gulf of Oman, where there is no Israeli naval presence, Iran can expose a vulnerability and get the headlines without direct fear of retaliation," Simon Henderson, a director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently said.

Dr Mohammad Salami holds a PhD in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. 

Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami