Since 2019, Israel and Iran have reportedly engaged in tit-for-tat attacks on each other’s cargo ships. The onset of the shadow war at sea is unclear, but the first well-publicized incident was the suspicious breakdown of an Iranian oil tanker in the Red Sea in May 2019.
Israel has sabotaged at least 10 ships—and potentially more than 20—carrying Iranian cargo or oil, The New York Times reported. The Iranian vessels were reportedly transporting fuel or weapons to Syria, where Iran has increased military and economic assistance to President Bashar al Assad since the civil war began in 2011. The tankers each carried up to $50 million worth of oil. In March 2021, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to strike Iran “in the entire region” when asked if he would retaliate for an attack against an Israeli ship, although Israel has not specifically claimed responsibility for any of the attacks.
Iran has reportedly targeted at least three Israeli ships. Israel has also accused Iran of attacking tankers owned by third countries, including Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Iran denied the allegations. “The Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman are Iran's immediate security areas. We will not allow them [Israelis] to spread panic,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said on March 1, 2021.
Israeli and Iranian tactics have been similar. Israel has allegedly deployed limpet mines that magnetically attach to ships, while Iran has reportedly used a combination of mines and missiles. Both countries appeared to calibrate their attacks to minimize the risk of killing the crew or sinking the ship. But the cycle—which played out in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea—threatened to escalate regional tensions.
The impact on Iran has been twofold. The attacks have disrupted Iran’s oil and cargo shipments to Syria, a critical ally, shipments of goods and military materiel to Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon. The following is a timeline of maritime attacks that reportedly involved Israel and Iran.
May 2 – An Iranian tanker, the Happiness I, broke down in the Red Sea. Iran said that the vessel, which was carrying more than one million barrels of oil, malfunctioned when water leaked into the engine room. None of the crew were injured. The tanker was forced to dock in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. No country claimed responsibility.
Oct. 11 – An Iranian tanker, the Sabiti, was reportedly hit by two missiles in the Red Sea. An Iranian lawmaker, Abolfazl Hassan Beigi, blamed Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia for the attack, which left two large holes in the ship’s hull above the waterline. The National Iranian Tanker Company said that some oil spilled into the water.
May 9 – A cyberattack hit computers that regulate maritime traffic at Shahid Rajaee port on Iran's southern coast in the Persian Gulf. The disruption created a traffic jam of ships that waited days to dock. Iran acknowledged that it had been hit by a foreign hack. Israel was reportedly behind the cyberattack, although it did not claim responsibility, according to The Washington Post.
Feb. 26 – The Israeli-owned Helios Ray cargo ship, which flies a Bahamian flag, was damaged by two limpet mines in the Gulf of Oman. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran for the attack but did not provide specifics. “Iran is the greatest enemy of Israel, I am determined to halt it. We are hitting it in the entire region,” he said on March 1. Tehran denied responsibility. Israel is “playing the victim to distract attention away from all its destabilizing acts and malign practices across the region,” Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council on March 9.
March 10 – An Iranian container ship, the Shahr-e Kord, was hit by an explosive object in international waters – about 50 miles off the Israeli coast and reportedly heading for the Syrian port of Latakia – in the eastern Mediterranean. It caused a small fire but no casualties. Iran blamed Israel for the attack because of the geographical location and the way the ship was targeted. The shipping company claimed that the Shahr-e Kord was bound for Europe.
March 25 – The LORI, an Israeli-owned cargo ship that flies a Liberian flag, was struck by a missile in the Arabian Sea. The damage was minimal, and the LORI continued to its final destination in India. A senior Israeli defense official claimed that the IRGC had fired the missile.
April 6 – An Iranian ship, the Saviz, was damaged by a mine planted on its hull in the Red Sea near Djibouti. The vessel had been floating off the coast of Yemen for several years. Iran claimed that the ship was involved in anti-piracy operation. But the Saviz was an armory ship used as a covert “forward base” by the Revolutionary Guards near the strategic Bab el Mandab straits, the U.S. Naval Institute reported in October 2020. Israel reportedly conducted the attack in retaliation for previous Iranian strikes, according to The New York Times.
April 13 – The Hyperion Ray, an Israeli-owned cargo ship that flew the Bahamian flag, was struck by a missile or an unmanned drone near the Fujairah port in the United Arab Emirates. There were no casualties, and the ship continued on its route. The ship was attacked two days after Israel allegedly sabotaged the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had vowed “revenge” on Israel.
July 3 – The CSAV Tyndall, a formerly Israeli-owned cargo ship that flew the Liberian flag, was struck by either a missile or an unmanned drone in the Indian Ocean while sailing from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to the United Arab Emirates. There were no casualties, but the ship suffered minor damage. Israeli security officials believed that Iran was responsible for the attack, Haaretz reported. The ship had previously been owned by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer but was sold months ago, the Times of Israel reported. The vessel's owner at the time of the attack was Polar 5 LTD, a London-based shipping company.
July 26 – The Revolutionary Guards researched how to hack water filtration and ballast systems to sink cargo ships, Sky News reported. "These pumps are used to bring water into the tanks through centrifuges and in order to operate correctly, the task must be completed with precision," one report read. "Any problems could result in the sinking of the ship." The documents "seem to indicate how cyber capabilities can be put to use in the maritime conflict between Israel and Iran," Haaretz reported.
July 29 – The Mercer Street—an oil tanker owned by a Japanese company that flew the Liberian flag but was managed by Zodiac Maritime, which is headed by an Israeli shipping magnate—was attacked off the coast of Oman. Israeli officials told The New York Times that multiple Iranian drones were involved in the attack. Two crew members, one British national and one Romanian national, were reportedly killed. “Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that are hurting us all,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted. On August 1, U.S., British and Israeli officials charged that Iran was behind the attack.
Iran denied involvement while Iranian state media reported that the attack on the tanker was in response to an alleged Israeli attack on al Dabaa airport in Syria. Al Alam News Network cited “informed sources in the region,” but did not specify who attacked the Mercer Street.
Aug. 6 – U.S. Central Command released the findings of its investigation into the Mercer Street drone attack and published photos of debris recovered from the tanker. Forensic analysis confirmed that the drone components were identical to Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and that it was loaded with explosives.
Aug. 25 – Israel claimed that the drone used to attack the Mercer Street was "launched from Iranian territory and approved by the Iranian leadership." Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz briefed foreign diplomats in Jerusalem on the drone attack, as well as Iran's doubling of military spending over the past five years.
Nov. 15 – An Iranian-made drone hit a tanker off the coast of Oman. The Pacific Zircon was managed by Eastern Pacific Shipping, a firm controlled by Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer. The company said that the tanker incurred minor damage but that none of the crew members were injured. A day later, the United States confirmed that the drone was an Iranian-made suicide drone. "This unmanned aerial vehicle attack against a civilian vessel in this critical maritime strait demonstrates, once again, the destabilizing nature of Iranian malign activity in the region” said General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command. An Israeli official said that a Shahed-136 drone, the same type used by Russia in Ukraine, was used in the attack. “We see this as an Iranian provocation in the Gulf – it’s not an attack against Israel – it’s the same thing they usually do in the Gulf, trying to disrupt stability and mainly influence World Cup events.”
A U.S. Navy lab in Bahrain has confirmed Iran’s connection to a Nov. 15 aerial drone attack on a Liberian-flagged commercial tanker transiting international waters in the #MiddleEast @US5thFleethttps://t.co/egcQX3AIGT pic.twitter.com/yOsSIQw3EO— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) November 22, 2022
Julia Broomer, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center, helped assemble this timeline.