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Out of the Shadows and into the Light: What are the implications of the M/T MERCER STREET incident?

The decades-long enmity between Israel and Iran is one of the defining features of Middle Eastern geopolitics, dating back to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Rather than total war, these two rivals have primarily engaged in ‘shadow’ or ‘limited’ conflicts, most recently within the maritime domain. Limited conflict exists where adversaries maintain hostilities but deliberately avoid overt war, and attacks are often conducted in a manner that is deniable by either state. This allows each state to control the narrative, particularly for domestic audiences, and places tacit limitations on adversarial responses by mirroring the form of attack used, in a like for like manner.

Iran’s actions, stem from both a societal culture that places an emphasis on the politics of strength and force over diplomacy and compromise. Iranian political culture is heavily influenced by post-revolutionary ideology and the role of the military in the affairs of state. Such a febrile culture of political and national anxiety is in part to blame for the way in which Iran seeks to position and conduct itself throughout the region. Iran continues to seek to dominate its regional rivals, rather than seek a position of cooperation and peaceful co-existence. Iran also remains responsible for actively fueling conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and Iraq via its sponsorship of regional proxies and affiliated militant groups. Iran has also sought to directly oppose regional foes such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and US deployed forces within the region, through the use of asymmetric attacks.

The maritime domain has long been a feature of limited conflict between Iran and the wider region. Until recently Iran has principally sought to use the maritime domain to supply arms and provide support to regional proxies it is allied with, whilst also directing attacks by these proxies against Iran’s perceived enemies. In 2021, however, Iran has shifted its focus of maritime activity towards vessels associated with Israeli commercial enterprise. Israel has however maintained its approach of intercepting vessels it suspects of having used to supply arms from Iran and it is only recently that Israel has engaged in partial reprisals towards Iran in a manner mirroring that to which it has suffered.

2021: The Escalating Conflict

In May and June 2019, tensions between Iran and the United States and its allies in the Middle Eastern Gulf (MEG) peaked with a series of indiscriminate maritime attacks in the Gulf of Oman, resulting in four commercial vessels being struck by limpet mines. This methodology is commensurate with suspected IRGC-perpetrated incidents. The use of limpet mines, containing limited explosive charges, placed tactically to avoid loss of life and ecological damage are indicative of limited action, designed to signal strength and defiance in the face of perceived US hostility. Further attacks followed, alongside the detention of the Iranian vessels GRACE 1 and the subsequent counter action by Iran in detaining the UK Flagged STENA IMPERO. These were set against the backdrop of the Trump administrations nullification of the JCPoA agreement. Unsure of US regional posture under a Trump administration, Iran sought to signal its capability and willingness to take aggressive measures if required.

The events of 2021, however, stand in stark contrast to those of 2019, both in their conduct and context. The actions by Iran this year have been highly targeted, with commercial vessels directly linked to the state of Israel as the target of choice. Whilst early attacks in 2021 saw the placement of mines along the vessel hull, in more recent attacks the location of the mines is becoming less considered, with explosions occurring in areas of the vessel often frequented by crew. This change in approach displays an increasing disregard for the previously ‘limited’ approach and suggests an increasing apathy to the potential innocent human cost therein. As with 2019, there is a political backdrop to the maritime incidents of 2021. Iran and Israel have undergone significant changes in leadership, with both leaders tied inextricably to the courses of action set by their predecessors. Despite this, Iran remains engaged with the US around a possible return to the conditions of the JCPoA.

At the time of writing, Iran has not claimed responsibility for the MT MERCER STREET incident. Unconfirmed Israeli reports suggest the targeting of the M/T MERCER STREET was possibly a retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on Dabaa airport in Syria. Irrespective of what Iran may claim to have provoked its actions, such protestations of justification are at best false and at worse a flagrant disregard for international law that safeguards the rights of civilians against the actions of states in conflict.

While almost all suggestions and circumstantial information point to Iranian involvement in the M/T MERCER STREET incident, it is imperative to stress the role of plausible deniability in these circumstances. A defining feature of the shadow war between Israel and Iran is that, so far, events have been deliberately orchestrated by both sides, in a manner that allows each state to cast a veil over the true identity of the actors involved. Decisive and irrefutable evidence is seldom available for the benefit of analysis when seeking to fully attribute responsibility. Accordingly, those that call for de-facto proof of Iranian involvement in a deliberately opaque conflict become unwittingly complicit in the notion that Iran is an innocent party. Indeed, such is the strength of circumstantial evidence and the prolific nature of Iranian activity to date combined with the historic disregard for international norms throughout the region, that the burden of proof lies firmly with Iran to prove innocence, rather than the international community to prove guilt.

Implications of the Shadow War for the Shipping Industry

While the M/T MERCER STREET incident has attracted widespread international coverage, it remains vital to examine the level of risk to commercial shipping in the correct context. The risk of wider commercial shipping being impacted directly remains low. A considerable volume of global maritime trade (c33,000 transits annually) transits the wider Gulf region daily, with very few incidents occurring. The risk of vessels unaffiliated with either Israel or Iran being targeted remains highly unlikely. However, recent events involving the misidentification of the CSAV TYNDALL and the targeting of the M/T MERCER STREET, which contained innocent civilians and crew members from states allied with Iran, indicates a deep-rooted recklessness and lack of basic intelligence collection capability at an institutional level within Iran. Targeting methodology to date suggests a preference by Iran for vessels owned by certain commercial entities connected to Israeli citizens. When combined with Iranian recklessness, this indicates that all vessels connected to Israel should be considered at a low but heightened risk.

Iran also continues to present a risk to wider commercial shipping in the Gulf through its sponsorship of regional proxies. This is most notable in Yemen, where Houthi rebels using Iranian resources have maintained a consistent intent to target vessels indiscriminately, in port and underway. Following the attack on the M/T MERCER STREET, the Saudi coalition in Yemen released a statement on 30 July 21 stating they had successfully destroyed a remote controlled waterborne improvised explosive device (RC-WBIED) at the port of Jizan.

The precise nature of risk, across the medium to long term will, however, be dictated by the way the international community responds to the M/T MERCER STREET incident in the short term.

At the time of writing, it remains clear that the broader global community is united in its condemnation of Iran. The UK government has stated that Iranian involvement is “highly likely”, constituting an 80-90% probability. Along with Israel it has condemned what it sees as the blatant and willful disregard for innocent civilian lives shown by Iran. A statement by the UK government stated that it is “working with its international partners on a concerted response to this unacceptable attack”. The Israeli Chief of the General Staff, Aviv Kohavi, has also spoken with his British counterpart, Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Sir Nick Carter, to discuss “common challenges” faced by both countries, however no specific mention of a response was given.

It is assessed as highly likely that both Israel and the UK will seek to further internationalise the response to the M/T MERCER STREET incident. Any response must be resolute and with the sole aim of forcing Iran to comply with international legal norms and protecting the safety of life at sea. A clandestine strike against an Iranian port, vessel or shore establishment may reduce Iranian capacity in the short to medium term but would likely only embolden Iran to continue its perceived path of ‘resistance’ in the longer term. Such a course of action would also further destabilise the region. For the UK and Israel there are wider regional narratives to contend with, however the need for commercial vessels to be able to operate freely without fear of becoming embroiled in this conflict between Iran and Israel must surely be the benchmark against which any response is set.
Source: Dryad Global (https://dryadglobal.com/)

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