Having overextended its independent military capabilities in confronting Iran in its sphere of influence, Israel found itself in a vulnerable position. But while Israel might have erred in choosing the field of military engagement, Iran’s retaliatory moves offer a window of opportunity for an effective diplomatic campaign. They create a new catalyst for Israeli-regional-global cooperation against Iran to safeguard international shipping and freedom of navigation. They allow Israel to redefine the curbs on Iran’s regional activities as a global interest, and at the same time help build a long-term partnership with various regional states.
Iran’s attack on the Mercer Street tanker was another in a chain of maritime blows traded between Iran and Israel over the past two years, spanning from the Arab Gulf to the Red Sea and all the way to the Mediterranean. But while most of these attacks inflicted technical damage, the most recent one killed a British and a Romanian national. Deliberately or not, the attack signaled a significant escalation, not only in Israel’s view but also in the eyes of the world.
Iran tried to redefine the rules of the game in its campaign against Israel, retaliating against Israeli attacks in Syria and Iran by attacking Israeli-owned or operated shipping in the Gulf. But in so doing, the Iranians messed with the wrong issue at the wrong time.
Freedom of navigation is a rare principle of international consensus. Threats against global shipping lanes create surprising partnerships among rivals in the international arena.
A prominent example is a coalition formed to fight piracy off the Horn of Africa, unique cooperation among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council despite their ongoing international competition.
Protecting freedom of navigation is an accelerant for action by even the most cautious of international actors. In fact, the anti-piracy coalition led to the formation of the first naval task force in the history of the European Union. Freedom of shipping in the waters relevant to Israel – the Arab Gulf, Red Sea and the Mediterranean – serves as a geopolitical confluence of regional and international interests.
Events in the Gulf do not remain in the Gulf. Even when the focal point of risk lies in the Straits of Hormuz or Bab al-Mandab, its impact on global trade is felt in Shanghai, Hamburg, New Jersey and St. Petersburg.
The timing of Iran’s challenges to freedom of navigation is particularly sensitive due to the corona pandemic, given the drastic increase in demand for maritime transportation coupled with current limitations on seaport operations. These have resulted in heavy backlogs and a steep rise in international shipping costs.
The global system is increasingly dependent on maritime trade, but it also recognizes that its shipping lanes are increasingly vulnerable. This was demonstrated prominently in March, when a single vessel blocked the Suez Canal for six days prompting temporary shortages of goods and equipment around the world.
For the West, and first and foremost for the US, the importance of protecting freedom of navigation in the Gulf area exceeds the Middle Eastern context. It has repercussions on the principles that the US seeks to promote in other arenas, such as standing up to China in the South China Sea or to Russia in the Black Sea. This was one of the reasons for the speedy August 6 condemnation of the Mercer Street attack by the G7, which pointed the finger of blame squarely at Iran.
THE IRANIAN attack joins a series of previous threats to block shipping in the Straits of Hormuz, and the increase in Iran’s military operations in the Gulf. It underscores that Iran’s threat to global interests is not limited to nuclear proliferation, and illustrates how Iran’s regional conduct projects on the entire international system.
This approach was reflected clearly in the joint G7 statement, which linked the attack with the broader context of Iran’s regional activity in declaring: “Iran’s behavior, alongside its support for proxy forces and non-state armed actors, threatens international peace and security.”
The main diplomatic opportunity for Israel lies in the regional sphere, in strengthening ties with the Gulf and Red Sea states.
Much has been said about the difficulty of establishing Israeli-regional cooperation against Iran due to the different priorities of each state in the region vis-à-vis the Iranian threats. Bahrain is concerned about domestic subversion, the UAE about Iran’s development of drones and cruise missiles, Saudi Arabia about Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen, and Israel about Iran’s activity in Syriaand Lebanon.
Freedom of navigation constitutes a shared interest for all involved parties. The Gulf States are wholly dependent on unfettered shipping for trade, energy exports and communications with the international system. The challenges posed by previous Iranian attacks in the Straits of Hormuz led in 2019 to the establishment of the Bahrain-based International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), bringing together regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Western naval powers such as the US and the UK.
Leveraging freedom of navigation as an issue for regional cooperation presents Israel with a double opportunity, first as a diplomatic framework for bolstering the partnership with the normalization states, and second, for improving the handling of Iranian threats. A main challenge in moving on to the next phase of the Abraham Accords involves identifying potential long-term frameworks for cooperation. Diplomatic and operational coordination to ensure freedom of navigation provides a solid foundation for exactly this type of strategic long-term collaboration.
Bahrain’s deputy foreign minister mentioned this very potential for cooperation last week on his visit to Israel. When referring to the Iranian attack, he underscored the concern of states in the region over Iranian actions in the Gulf in the same breath with the importance of multilateral action.
Looking ahead, cooperation on this issue could help advance “creeping normalization,” providing a platform for joint action with other states that Israel aspires to include in the normalization camp. These include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, near whose shores the latest Iranian attack occurred.
What can and should Israel do in concrete terms? First, intensify the level of its engagement with the IMSC, formally or informally. This framework is a meeting point between global and Gulf actors, and is therefore of double importance for Israel. Increased engagement could serve as a basis for deepening cooperation with Bahrain, which views the grouping as an important organ for protecting shipping lanes.
Second, define freedom of navigation as a central issue in the array of issues for strategic dialogue with multilateral fora in the Red Sea: the Council of Arab and African States Bordering the Red Sea, and IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. The Red Sea is a leading arena for international cooperation on freedom of navigation, and Israel has an opportunity to learn, contribute and strengthen ties there on formal and informal levels.
Cooperation on freedom of navigation could also constitute a launchpad for future regional dialogue, including Israel, on forging a joint diplomatic front against Iran’s regional campaign.
The maritime escalation gives Israel a chance to reexamine its modus operandi vis-a-vis the Iranian threat. So far, most of the creativity in this campaign has been invested in clandestine military operations. It is time to invest a similar measure of creativity in building a diplomatic coalition against the Iranian threat. It is time to create a different balance between joint diplomatic action with multilateral frameworks and independent military action.
Skillful Israeli integration in the international and regional campaign to ensure freedom of navigation would not only help protect its interests, but also serve as a tool for intensifying multilateral partnership with the region and the global system. As in the case of the Abraham Accords, Iran’s offensive actions provide Israel with an opportunity to improve its regional integration. Israel should ride this wave.
**The article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 2 September 2021