Questions are swirling about whether an Israeli-owned cargo ship used to transport vehicles was damaged overnight Thursday by an active attack by Iran and if it will lead to a deterioration between Jerusalem and Tehran.
The cause of the mysterious explosion in the Gulf of Oman is still unclear, but both defense Minister Benny Gantz and a US defense official who spoke to Reuters seemed to point the finger at the Islamic Republic.
If it was Iran, what would the message be and its implications?
First, the idea of Iran attacking ships allied with the US, from England to the UAE, is nothing new.
Since 2019, Tehran had escalated its attacks on US-allied ships passing through the Persian Gulf area.
What would be new would be a successful attack on an Israeli ship.
Intelligence officials have said that Iran has tried numerous ways to attack Israel physically or with cyber capabilities, as well as Jews worldwide.
It has just been that to date, most have been thwarted.
Many attributed a terror attack in India in January to a proxy group trying to harm Jews on behalf of Iran.
Might the attack on this Israeli ship be a new soft underbelly that the ayatollahs think they have found for roughing up Israel?
There is still an open account with the Jewish state, since Tehran blames Jerusalem for blowing up its Natanz advance centrifuge nuclear facility in July 2020 and killing its military nuclear chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a few months later in November.
Alternatively, Iran has started a series of low-grade military exchanges with the US through its proxies.
On February 15, rockets struck Erbil’s international airport and in residential parts of the Iraqi city, killing a contractor and wounding several US personnel and Iraqi civilians.
This was considered to be an escalation by Iranian proxy groups, though these groups have a long, recent record of firing mortars and rockets on the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the US embassy is located.
In response, the US over the weekend hit a compound near the Syrian-Iraqi border used by two Iranian-affiliated Iraqi militias, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid Al-Shuhada, with seven 500-pound bombs.
From the timing, it seems that the attack on the Israeli ship might have taken place first, but the events were so close together that it demonstrates how quickly all the sides are currently making military moves.
The big games are about how the US-Iran nuclear standoff will resolve and to what extent the ayatollahs will be able to continue destabilizing multiple states throughout the Middle East.
Striking an Israeli ship would be both payback for the past actions Iran attributes to Israel as well as a message to both Jerusalem and Washington that the Islamic Republic will impose unpredictable costs going forward if it does not get its way.
As the IDF and the Mossad are both led by officials who believe strongly in using force to help influence Iranian behavior, it would not be surprising if Israel now responds either militarily or with a significant cyberattack.
All of this could lead to deterioration and even a broader conflict.
On the other hand, neither Israel nor Iran want all out war at this juncture – and both do not want to be blamed by the Biden administration for openly sabotaging its efforts to cool the conflict down.
In that sense, the most likely scenario is that this event will be just another in a line of many as the sides dance near the verge of a cliff, but work hard not to topple over.