Iran was blamed for attacking oil tankers in 2019 as tensions between Iran, Israel and Washington increased. Relations between Iran and Israel have become worse since then. Photo: AFP/IRIB TV

While Tuesday’s indecisive Israeli general election makes the shape of the country’s future government far from clear, one thing does remain certain: regardless of who eventually takes office, Israel’s “semi-covert” conflict with Iran will continue.

“When it comes to Iran,” Dr Raz Zimmt, Iran expert with the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, told Asia Times, “there is no real difference between the main parties in Israel.”

Conducted at sea, from the air, on land and in cyberspace, the two countries’ unofficial confrontation has been underway since the Iranian revolution of 1979 – and beyond.

Yet, it has also been spiking recently – and with potentially alarming consequences.

On March 16, Israel launched an air attack on Iranian targets in neighboring Syria, striking a newly-arrived Iranian weapons shipment near Damascus, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

This was the eighth such attack logged by the Syrians since January.

In early March, too, Tehran accused the Israelis of trying to sink an Iranian cargo ship, the Shahr-e-Kord, in the Mediterranean, after Israel claimed Iran attacked an Israeli-owned tanker in the Gulf of Oman.

The Israelis have also accused Iran of “environmental terrorism,” following an oil spill off Israel’s coast in late February, while a recent Wall Street Journal investigation claims Israel has attacked at least a dozen Iranian tankers over the past two years.

“The maritime attacks are the latest phase in this cold war that risks turning hot,” Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, told Asia Times.

This lethal and yet largely unacknowledged struggle is also now taking place against a changed international and regional backdrop – potentially creating a range of new risks.

With US President Joe Biden announcing his ambition to rejoin and revive the international nuclear deal with Iran – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a heightened Iranian-Israeli conflict could now scupper chances of progress towards denuclearization.

At the same time, Israeli successes in this officially-unacknowledged struggle – such as the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist in Tehran last November – are also breading a strong Iranian desire for revenge.

“They are itching for the kind of retaliatory response that would restore deterrence,” says Vaez. “In that, there is plenty of risk for miscalculation that could result in a perilous escalation.” 

A tailpiece of a rocket, belonging to an Israeli fighter jet, which was shot down as it was carrying out airstrikes in Syria, is seen in Kaukaba village of the Hasbaya District of southern Lebanon’s Nabatieh Governorate on February 10, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ali Abdo/Anadolu Agency

Multiple fronts

For some years now, Israel has been confronting Iran in neighboring Syria and Lebanon.

In the former country, Tehran has sent troops and supplies to support the Bashar Al-Assad regime. In the latter, it supports its close ally, the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which itself fights alongside Iranian and regime forces in Syria.

Israel sees all this as a major threat and for some time, it has been conducting periodic air attacks against Iranian and Hezbollah deployments in support of Assad.

The deadliest of these occurred back in January, when Israeli airstrikes killed 57 regime and Iranian soldiers in eastern Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Vulnerability to these airstrikes has now likely pushed Iran to change the ways it sends support to its allies.

“My sense is that the risk of land convoys being attacked by air has caused Iran to adapt its strategy to send more aid by sea,” Zimmt says.

At the same time, Iran has also been trying to circumvent US sanctions, which have choked-off exports of Iran’s biggest currency earner, oil.

Efforts to circumvent this blockade and smuggle oil by sea have therefore also been a major Iranian effort in recent times, with Syria an important route for such shipments.

Iranian shipping has thus been paying the price – with Iran’s attacks on Israeli ships a likely retaliation.

New US President Joe Biden has signaled he intends to improve relations with Iran. Image: Twitter

Wider issues

Nowadays, too, there has been a major shift in US policy on the region.

Biden’s overtures towards Iran over the JCPOA and withdrawal of support for Iran’s main regional opponent, Saudi Arabia, in its war on Iran’s allies in Yemen, the Houthis, have alarmed Israeli policymakers.

They may also have encouraged the Iranian leadership to escalate its activities in support of regional allies.

“The Iranians may sense they are less vulnerable to US retaliation than they were under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump,” says Zimmt.

Meanwhile, diplomacy over reviving the JCPOA is already “facing formidable political obstacles,” Vaez adds, with early optimism that the Biden presidency would make the moves needed to bring Iran to the negotiating table now rapidly fading.

“Despite its statements, the Biden administration has done nothing, practically,” Zimmt says. “Meanwhile, Iran’s position remains that it won’t talk with the US unless Washington does something practically.”

In the meantime, the semi-covert Israeli-Iranian confrontation continues – with each attack now posing a heightened risk of escalation, further complicating any progress with efforts to revive the JCPOA.

“Any incident that results in loss of life or an environmental catastrophe could derail this fragile nuclear diplomacy,” Vaez says.

Further complicating efforts is Iran’s domestic political agenda, with Iranian general elections due in June.

In these, more hard-line Iranian politicians can capitalize on the fact that “Iranian distrust for the US is so high,” says Zimmt, “particularly after Trump.”

The former US president pulled the US out of the JCPOA after his predecessor, Barak Obama, had signed it. Trump then imposed “maximum pressure” on Iran with a powerful array of sanctions.

A hard-line victory in June would make a return to the JCPOA even more difficult, with Iran likely to accelerate its nuclear program as a consequence.

That, in turn, will not go unnoticed in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: AFP

There, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party are now battling to stay in office after Tuesday’s indecisive elections.

While all the Israeli parties likely to take a seat in a future government have the same basic outlook towards Iran, “there is a big difference between a situation where Netanyahu is prime minister with a full, right-wing government, or one where there is an interim government, or one without Netanyahu,” Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent with Walla News in Tel Aviv, told Asia Times. 

In particular, if Netanyahu continues, “it will be a classic line of being very, very hard on Iran,” Ravid says, while other options might mean a softer, different style, even if the basic substance remains the same. 

In any case, “if the US and Iran can’t find a way to negotiate,” says Zimmt, “the chances of a breakthrough on a nuclear deal will decline and this might force Israel to consider other options – ultimately military ones.”

An increasing spiral of escalation then threatens – and while the “rules of the game” have so far been clear in this long-standing conflict between Israel and Iran, “the risk of miscalculation,” says Vaez, “be it in Syria or Iraq or on the open seas, is quite high.”

Much is at stake then, in the continuing semi-covert conflict between two of the Middle East’s most powerful nations.