Was the attack on the Israeli cargo ship successful?

Some link this incident to the unsuccessful attempts by Iran and its proxies to avenge the death of senior Iranian figures, such as top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

A missile is launched during the annual military drill, dubbed “Zolphaghar 99”, in the Gulf of Oman with the participation of Navy, Air and Ground forces, Iran on September 9, 2020 (photo credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
A missile is launched during the annual military drill, dubbed “Zolphaghar 99”, in the Gulf of Oman with the participation of Navy, Air and Ground forces, Iran on September 9, 2020
(photo credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
At a quick glance, the attack on the Israeli-owned cargo ship near Oman doesn’t look like a major Iranian success.
According to reports, the ship – owned by Israeli businessman Rami Ungar and carrying automobiles from Saudi Arabia to Singapore – was hit in its bow by a missile or underwater mine causing damage, but not severe. The attackers did not manage to sink it, and none of the crew members on deck was injured.
Some link this incident to the unsuccessful attempts by Iran and its proxies to avenge the death of senior Iranian figures, such as top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was gunned down in November outside of Tehran. Iran, which blamed Israel for the assassination, is suspected of being behind an explosion near the Israel Embassy in New Delhi last month in which no one was injured.
Experts deem Iran’s ability to operate outside its borders as limited, and on the decline. An example was its response to the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani last year. Nothing major happened outside of Iran except for a rocket attack against the US Embassy in Iraq, but also there, no major success was evident.
However, some see last Thursday’s sea offensive as an attack that was exact and precise.
Despite the cargo vessel departing from a country that Israelis can’t even enter, and that no major damage was caused, former defense officials say the Iranians knew exactly what they are doing, as well as what they were trying to achieve.
“This is a clear Iranian signal,” said a former senior defense official experienced in combating Iran as well as its at-sea capabilities.
“The Iranians knew exactly who they are hitting, and if they wanted to sink the ship they could have done that,” he said. The method would have been by aiming the explosion at the rear of the ship, where the engines are located.
The ship was hit not far from the Iranian coastline, near the Gulf of Oman, which is traversed daily by hundreds of ships.
Experts said that it was possible that the ship was hit by an anti-tank missile, launched from a nearby boat sailing not far from the ship.
The source added that Iranians understand the consequences of drowning a commercial ship. The idea of sailing freely across the globe for commercial purposes is highly valued among Western countries, and Iran knows that such a move would not come without a price.
“The Iranians understand the delicacy of the matter,” he said. “What they carried out was a clever tactical attack that they could do without getting into trouble, and without strategic consequences.”
But what were they trying to signal? For now, there are more questions than answers.
The attack came after weeks of heightened tension between Israel and Iran, particularly in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. In late December and January, there were media reports that an Israeli submarine had been spotted crossing the Suez Canal.
In another report from early January, the IDF was said to have deployed Iron Dome batteries near Eilat, to prepare for a possible Iranian attack on the southern city.
Will Israel respond to Thursday’s attack, and if so, how? 
That is also unclear. On the one hand, no one was hurt, the ship was flying a Bahamas flag, and even though it was owned by an Israeli businessman, it really had nothing to do with Israel.
On the other hand, if Iran knew what it was targeting as Israeli defense officials have hinted, a response will likely be necessary. If the attack goes unanswered, Iran will learn a dangerous lesson: that it can get away with attacking Israeli-owned vessels without paying a price.
With a response or without, Iran is escalating the existing naval shadow war with Israel.