Are Israel and Iran secretly at war?

Iran vowed to retaliate for a recent attack on an Iranian ship, attributed to Israel. We unpack the escalating tensions between Israel and Iran and the Biden administration’s efforts to return to the Iran nuclear deal.

A power failure reportedly caused significant damage to Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility earlier this week; unnamed intelligence officials told US and Israeli media that the incident could set back nuclear production at Natanz by at least nine months. Several Israeli news outlets reported that the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, was involved in the attack.

The strike on the Iranian nuclear facility comes amid a series of reported attacks by Israel and Iran on each other’s ships over recent months. Last week, an Iranian military ship that had been anchored for years in the Red Sea was damaged in an explosion on the vessel. An American official told The New York Times that Israel had carried out the attack. A spokesman for the Iranian military vowed to retaliate upon completion of an investigation into the source of the explosion. Israeli officials declined to comment on the matter.

The Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, tweeted a photo of an allegedly flooded room on the ship caused by the attack. Although Iranian officials identified the damaged ship as a commercial vessel, it is most likely a covert military ship operated by the Revolutionary Guards Corps, according to the U.S. Naval Institute.

For its part, Iran reportedly attacked two different Israeli ships in the Gulf of Oman, in February and March 2021. No injuries or significant damage were reported in any of the incidents.

Iran last week also announced that it had begun testing on advanced nuclear centrifuges that enrich uranium more quickly than the current centrifuges being used. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani unveiled the new centrifuges in a ceremony broadcast on state-run television as part of Iran’s 15th annual “Nuclear Technology Day.” [The centrifuge in question has the ability to separate uranium isotopes more quickly, which means (when operational) Iran will be able to enrich uranium at a faster pace and in theory build a nuclear weapon faster.]

Iran openly calls for Israel’s destruction: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly referred to Israel as “a cancerous tumor” to be destroyed. Earlier this year, Iranian lawmakers introduced a bill that would obligate the Iranian government to initiate steps for “the elimination of Israel by March 2040.”

Israel also carried out airstrikes in Syria last week, killing three Iran-backed fighters. With these recent escalations in the Israel-Iran conflict, we wanted to investigate the situation between the two countries. Are Israel and Iran secretly or even openly at war?

Why Israel and Iran are battling at sea

According to reporting by The Jerusalem Post, “The Red Sea area has become a primary venue for confrontation between Jerusalem and Tehran over the past three years, and its main objective, on the Israeli side, is to damage the shipment of oil that is meant to fund arms transferred to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in the region.” Amos Harel, Haaretz military correspondent and defense analyst, reported that Israel succeeded in destroying billions of dollars worth of Iranian economic aid intended for Hezbollah, through the attacks.

However, Harel added that the attack on the Saviz ship is different from ones Israel has carried out in the past: while previous attacks targeted Iranian ships smuggling oil and weapons, this one was directed at “a floating military base” belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It also “inflicted direct damage on the Revolutionary Guards” and “a blow to the group’s prestige.”

According to The New York Times, the confrontations between Israel and Iran at sea are “a new maritime front in a regional shadow war that had previously played out by land and in the air.” Iran provides financial and military support to Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which are all designated as terror organizations by the United States, Israel, and Canada. All are longtime enemies of Israel and call for the Jewish state’s destruction.

The Jewish News Syndicate reported that “Israel’s alleged covert campaign at sea is part of a much larger campaign, dubbed by the defense establishment as the ‘campaign between the wars,’ designed to prevent the radical Iranian axis from building up its military and terrorist power in the region, but to do so without crossing the threshold of regional war.”

The Biden administration’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal

The latest attack on the Iranian ship came as Iran and major world powers began talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The U.S. left the deal in May 2018 under former President Donald Trump and subsequently imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran; President Joe Biden supports rejoining the deal if Iran returns to strict compliance.

The Iran deal was widely unpopular in Israel, and the country, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has strongly opposed the U.S. rejoining it. Last week, in a speech to his Likud party colleagues after being asked to form the next government, Netanyahu said: “We must not go back to the dangerous nuclear deal with Iran, because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the state of Israel and a great threat to the security of the entire world.”

A senior U.S. official said that current, indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran could be at an “impasse” over Iran’s demands that the U.S. drop all sanctions: “If Iran sticks to the position that every sanction that has been imposed since 2017 has to be lifted or there will be no deal, then we are heading towards an impasse,” the official told reporters on a conference call.

A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. is prepared to lift “sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA,” but did not give specifics on which sanctions might be lifted. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted: “All Trump sanctions were anti-JCPOA & must be removed.”

Another sticking point in the negotiations is the order of compliance: While Tehran demands that the U.S. make the first move by lifting sanctions, Washington insists that Iran return to compliance first.

Are Israel and Iran secretly at war?

Amos Harel of Haaretz argued that although the situation is not currently a war, it could escalate toward one. “The current situation between the sides can be considered a naval campaign — but not a war,” he wrote. “The two Iranian counterattacks were largely symbolic, causing little damage… But the potential for future damage is far greater.”

Harel explained that the attacks on the ships could have implications beyond just a naval skirmish. “Iran has an abundance of other options in acting against Israel, ranging from ballistic missile attacks and the use of drones… to rocket fire from a relatively short range, originating from the Syrian border.”

Meanwhile, commenting on the recent attacks on Iranian and Israeli ships, Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, told The New York Times: “This is a full-fledged cold war that risks turning hot with a single mistake… We’re still in an escalatory spiral that risks getting out of control.”