On Friday, two Iranian suicide drones crashed into an empty oil tanker off the coast of Oman, killing the captain of the ship, a Romanian citizen, and a British crew member.
The ship was Japanese-owned and Liberian-flagged, but it was under management by a company called Zodiac Maritime, based in London, which is part of the Ofer Global Group, whose principal owner is Eyal Ofer, an Israeli billionaire who lives in Monaco.
Not precisely an Israeli target, but close enough for the Iranians, who promptly denied having anything to do with the incident. Israel’s PM Naftali Bennett responded that he had proof that Iran was responsible. There will be a diplomatic response, of course. Nobody is allowed to shoot at commercial ships and kill crew members, even if there is some Israeli connection. Piracy is still piracy. Romania and the UK are expected to protest over the death of their nationals.
To be fair, Israel has been responsible for cases in which Iranian ships that were illegally transporting weapons or oil to Syria were damaged by sabotage or mines. As far as I know, nobody has been hurt in these incidents. The Iranian attack is a significant violent escalation.
In addition to the diplomatic response, which is unlikely to have serious consequences for Iran, there will have to be a more direct – and truly painful – one.
Until now the conflict on the seas between Israel and Iran has been carried out under a cloak of plausible deniability. But now the Iranian denial is not plausible. Everybody knows they did it, and indeed it was done in such a way – the drones were launched by the air force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from Iranian territory – that it would be impossible for anyone to believe otherwise. It was done this way on purpose, to send a message. It is no longer a secret war.
Israel’s struggle with Iran has a physical and cognitive aspect. Every skirmish has components in these two realms. Israel often wins a battle in the physical realm while losing it in the cognitive one. In some cases, it is because the enemy simply distorts the facts, as happened in 2002 when the media (encouraged by the Palestinians) invented a massacre in Jenin that never occurred. But sometimes it happens because Israel tries too hard to satisfy the exaggerated demands placed upon her, as when naval commandos carrying paintball guns landed on the deck of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was trying to break the blockade of Gaza. In this case, the commandos suffered casualties – and also killed nine people on the ship – because they did not use sufficient force. The image of our fighters with toy weapons may have done as much damage as the stories of their brutality, when they were forced to use their real sidearms in order to escape the ship with their lives.
The best response to the latest Iranian provocation is one that sends two messages: the practical one, aimed at their military planners, that says that keeping this up will be more expensive for Iran than for us; and the cognitive one, aimed at the Iranian regime, but no less at the rest of the world, broadcasting that we have enormous power and are not afraid to use it. While it was a secret war, only the practical message had to be considered. But now that it has moved to the public sphere, then the cognitive message is as important or more so.
So what should we do? I’ll leave that up to Israel’s military planners, but as a naval warfare buff, I would personally like to see our submarines torpedo an Iranian ship or two.