When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and aggression in the Middle East on Tuesday afternoon, it sounded like his usual shpiel – so much so that he even said “I’m not just paying lip service.”
In that moment, it seemed that his key message, in remarks to a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, was about the indirect talks in Vienna between Iran and the US to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, facilitated by the parties to that deal.
“The danger that Iran will return – and this time with an international imprimatur – to a path that will allow it to develop a nuclear arsenal, is on our doorstep on this very day,” he said. “We cannot go back to the dangerous nuclear plan.”
Yet there was something else happening that day, far from Vienna, on the Red Sea, between the shores of Yemen and Djibouti. Limpet mines caused an explosion in the hull of the Saviz, a cargo ship used as a sea base by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. American officials said Jerusalem notified Washington of its responsibility for the attack, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported.
“We have to curb Iranian aggression in our region, and this threat is not a theoretical matter,” Netanyahu said, not long before it became clear how untheoretical the matter truly is.
The message of the Saviz explosion is what Netanyahu said hours earlier: “We will always know how to defend ourselves by ourselves from those who seek to kill us.”
The timing of the attack on the Saviz clearly is not coincidental. The ship had long been based in the Red Sea, in a position to gather intelligence and prepare for actions against Israel, Saudi Arabia and others.
That Israel apparently attached explosives to the ship on the day that US-Iran nuclear talks began was just another way to send the message that Israeli officials have been transmitting, privately and publicly, since US President Joe Biden was elected last year: Rushing into removing sanctions to get Iran back to the deal is not going to be enough take the Middle East off of the White House’s agenda so Biden can focus on domestic issues, as he understandably would like to do. A return to the JCPOA is not going to bring security and stability to the Middle East.
Israel’s biggest problem with the JCPOA is that it does not actually stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons; it just pushes off its capabilities to 2030.
But the Saviz explosion highlights another weakness of the JCPOA, which is that it does not counter the Islamic Republic’s aggression throughout the Middle East. In fact, it has been proven to have compounded the problem by bringing an influx of funds into Iran, which it then used to fund its proxies and its ballistic missile program.
Israel and Iran have been engaged in a low-grade conflict at sea for the past few years. Iran attacked a ship in the Arabian Sea belonging to Israeli businessman Udi Angel last month, and, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry, intentionally spilled oil near Israeli shores as it was smuggling barrels of crude to Syria. Israel has tried to stop Iran’s ongoing secret efforts to ship fuel to Syria repeatedly in recent years. A return to the JCPOA would do nothing to stop this and many other points of friction between Iran and its adversaries in the Middle East.
Iran and the Biden administration, however, have sent subtle messages of their own in their responses.
Iran does not usually acknowledge Israeli strikes immediately after they take place, yet the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency reported the explosion immediately – though it did not mention Israel. Iranian officials may take this unusual move to try to drive a wedge between Jerusalem and Washington.
The fact that Biden administration officials were so quick to anonymously point fingers at Israel is a return to an Obama-era tactic. Someone in Washington apparently views the attack as an attempt to undermine their diplomatic efforts – and said as much to The Wall Street Journal – and is trying to weaken its impact and warn Israel off continuing in that vein.
Israeli officials have watched with concern as Biden administration officials have moved away from initial signals that they would consult with allies in the region before entering talks with Iran. Instead, they seem to be sprinting toward engagement with Tehran and hinting at their readiness to rescind Trump-era sanctions, while minimizing the commitment to consult with allies in a real, in-depth dialogue.
Even last month’s “strategic dialogue” between National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and his American counterpart, Jake Sullivan, was more like playing catch-up on each side’s intelligence and position, rather than a discussion on what they’ll do moving forward, a senior Israeli official recently said.
Yet, while the media leak attributing the Saviz explosion to Israel evokes Obama-era tensions, early next week Israel and the US will likely have a chance for a more constructive dialogue on their responses to the Iranian threat. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin plans to visit soon and meet with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, an Israeli official confirmed on Wednesday.
The US-Israel defense relationship remains robust, and is often the channel through which the countries communicate most effectively, even when there are political tensions. As for Austin himself, the challenges of the Middle East are familiar to the former US Central Command chief.
The timing of Austin’s visit amid attacks on Israeli and Iranian ships and nuclear talks in Vienna is crucial. The fact that such a senior member of Biden’s cabinet is visiting Israel within his first 100 days in office indicates that communication between Washington and Jerusalem on this matter is still a priority.