A new report says that Israel has been conducting a clandestine campaign of attacks on Iranian ships carrying oil, as well as weaponry, to Syria for more than a year. If true, this would raise a host of new questions about other incidents, including an alleged attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship and an oil spill off the coast of Israel, both of which have been blamed on Iran. This also follows reports of an explosion or fire on board an Iranian container ship in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea yesterday, though the exact details about that incident, which remains unconfirmed, are murky.
The Wall Street Journal dropped its exclusive story on these reported Israeli attacks on March 11, 2021. The outlet reached to Israeli and Iranian officials, none of whom would respond to the claims. The newspaper said that Israel’s campaign against Iranian shipping began in late 2019 and has targeted at least 12 ships using “weaponry including water mines.”
The ostensible goal of the reported Israeli campaign is to put economic pressure on Iran, which regularly sends oil to Syrian refineries in that country’s coastal city of Baniyas. This serves the interests of these countries as Iranian oil exports and Syria’s refineries are both the target of significant international sanctions, including from the United States and the European Union.
This also means that the attacks would have a secondary impact on Syria’s economy. U.S. officials have also said that Iranian ships believed to be carrying weapons throughout the region have also been targeted, according to the Wall Street Journal. This would mean the attacks could also be intended to disrupt the flow of support from Tehran to various proxy groups across the Middle East.
No Iranian ships have been sunk in any of these attacks and there have been no reported casualties. However, sources within Iran’s shipping industry said that at least two tankers have been forced to return to the country after sustaining significant damage, according to the Journal‘s report.
The story did not identify any of the ships that have suffered attacks directly, nor did it say where or when any such attacks had occurred. None of these incidents appear to have been publicly announced by Iranian authorities. “We are trying to keep a low profile,” one Iranian shipping professional told the Journal. “It would look like a sign of weakness.”
The report did include pictures, seen earlier in this story, of the Sabiti an Iranian oil tanker that was rocked by two explosions while sailing in the Red Sea in October 2019. That incident, which resulted in a spill of approximately 100,000 barrels worth of oil, has remained largely unexplained since then.
New information indicates that Israel attacks Iranian #oil tankers, raising major red flags. In particular over environmental pollution caused in international waters. This includes the SABITI tanker, causing a 100k barrel large oil spill in 2019 1/x https://t.co/u5jplBg1QL pic.twitter.com/8KtrDYLEz6
— Wim Zwijnenburg (@wammezz) March 11, 2021
At the time, Iranian officials said that the incident was an “attack” and Iranian state media outlets said the ship had been hit by a pair of missiles. Pictures that were subsequently released showed damage more consistent with limpet mines, which attach to the side of ships using powerful magnets, and can be placed by combat divers or personnel in small boats, which would be in line with this new report. This is a tactic, ironically, that Iran and its proxies have employed in their own attacks on tankers across the Middle East in recent years.
Just today, still unconfirmed reports emerged about an incident of some kind that occurred onboard the Shahr E Kord, an Iranian-flagged container ship sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean on its way to Syria, on March 10. Pictures subsequently appeared on social media that could show an attack or an accident of some kind.
https://t.co/YOmIJy0FMK additional photos of the vessel show the green/yellow paint scheme shown in the unconfirmed photos in the previous tweet, so they appear to align with the vessel.
— Aurora Intel (@AuroraIntel) March 11, 2021
This particular ship suffered a cargo fire while sailing in the Red Sea in July 2019 and some observers have raised the possibility that the pictures may be from that incident, rather than from any new one. Maritime risk intelligence firm Ambrey did Tweet out that online ship tracking software showed that “the vessel did slow and deviate while underway,” which suggests that something did indeed happen. The Wall Street Journal said that it could not determine immediately if this event was in any way related to the Israeli anti-shipping campaign detailed in its report.
There have also been questions raised about whether Wall Street Journal‘s report might implicate Israel in attacks Syrian officials alleged were carried out on pipelines linking offshore mooring points to refineries in Baniyas in June 2019. At that time, Syria’s state-run SANA news agency had released pictures it said showed holes in these pipelines, which authorities said were caused by explosive charges.