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 carrying Iranian cargo or oil and potentially more than 20, 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.
Julia Broomer, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center, helped assemble this timeline.