ANALYSIS - The Iranian-Israeli Cold War in the Gulf

While Iran cannot afford a military conflict with Israel, especially given its new Gulf allies, Israel does not want another conflict given the existing ones on its border

Deniz Citak   | 31.08.2021
ANALYSIS - The Iranian-Israeli Cold War in the Gulf

Deniz Citak is a Los Angeles-based freelance analyst who focuses on Turkey, the Gulf, and Iran. He is pursuing a PhD in modern Middle East history at UCLA and also holds degrees from the London School of Economics and the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.


Three weeks ago, Mercer Street, a merchant tanker with ties to an Israeli billionaire sustained an explosive attack by Kamikaze drones while sailing in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Masirah, in Oman. The vessel was flying a Liberian flag and suffered the loss of two crew members, one British and one Romanian.

No state, militia, group, or otherwise has claimed the attack. The Israeli government, however, has accused Iran, a claim supported by US and British officials but rejected by Iranian and Russian officials.

Tensions between Iran and Israel have seen an uptick in recent months. Days after the attack, Israel conducted cross-border airstrikes in Lebanon for the first time in seven years since the war with Hezbollah, a militant group supported by Tehran. This year, attacks on vessels in the Persian Gulf region have resulted in the explosion of Iran’s largest navy ship and a former Israeli-owned vessel traveling from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Mercer Street, however, is the first vessel to have lost crewmembers in an attack.

This year, both Iran and Israel have seen the rise of new governments which have to prove themselves to their domestic skeptics. Neither side wants a war, but the result of internal political pressure is harsh statements and provocations without public claims of responsibility.

In Israel, after a parliamentary crisis, a diverse coalition of eight parties spanning the left, far right, and, for the first time in Knesset history, an Islamist party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel reached an agreement to form a government ending Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party’s rule. The coalition government led by ultranationalist Naftali Bennett, of the right-wing Yamina party, and Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party must prove—mainly to Netanyahu supporters—that it is strong enough to maintain Israeli security. At the top of the agenda is appearing strong in the face of a more aggressive Iran, which means politically isolating it from the US and Europe and improving Israeli presence in the Persian Gulf.

In Iran, Ebrahim Raeisi’s victory in a highly contested election in June marked the end of the era of reformists, led by former President Hassan Rouhani and former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and the return of hardliners. Raeisi is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is believed to have hand-picked Raeisi due to their like-minded political views. Where the reformists focused enormous efforts on diplomacy and engagement with Europe and the US, Raeisi will be more focused on Iran’s regional foreign policy, which now includes dealing with a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Domestically, Raeisi’s most pressing issue is solving the Iranian economy. Plagued by crippling sanctions and a devastating situation during the coronavirus pandemic, the Iranian economy is in shambles. In order to improve the economy, Raeisi must get sanctions removed, which will require astute management of foreign affairs and the nuclear issue.

From the beginning of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations, Israel expressed its opposition to a nuclear agreement with Tehran. Israel has long seen derailing Iran’s nuclear program as imperative for its own security and has carried out numerous operations aimed at exposing what it sees as Iran’s disingenuous claims that its nuclear program is not focused on weapon production. Additionally, Israel felt snubbed that the Western bloc, Russia, and China seemed to ignore Israel’s concerns — a complaint echoed by Gulf Arab states, some of which normalized ties with Israel last year.

The US’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 changed the behavior of both Iran and Israel. Tel Aviv began to make its presence inside Iran known through a series of operations targeting Iran’s nuclear program. Though the Israeli government neither confirms nor denies involvement, intelligence officers maintain that the Mossad was behind a fire and two blasts at the Natanz centrifuge assembly facility and the killing of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist and general in the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Iran considered the US’s move to be a breach of the deal and responded by also reneging on its promises within the deal. In 2019, Iran increased the size of its low-enriched uranium stockpile and increased the concentration level of uranium that it was holding. Following the killing of general Qasem Soleimani at the beginning of 2020, Iranian officials announced that they would stop limiting uranium enrichment. In the last few years, Iran has seen two top officials assassinated, nuclear facilities attacked, and now its vessels are targets in the Persian Gulf. A nuclear deal would be very helpful, but as Raeisi has stated, Iran will not concede its foreign policy.

Looking forward, the future of the deal will be the most important factor in whether Iran and Israel will continue intensifying attacks and escalating tensions. Both the Bennet-Lapid and Raeisi governments need to appear assertive and resolute, but at the same time, neither government wants an all-out war. While Iran cannot afford a military conflict with Israel, especially given its new Gulf allies, Israel does not want another conflict given the existing ones on its border. A full-fledged war is unlikely, but as Israeli interests in the area around Iran grow, the cold war will likely get even colder.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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