Days ago, an Iranian drone attack hit an Israeli-owned tanker near Oman, killing two (non-Israeli) crew members. This is merely the latest episode in a shadow war that has been taking place. Is there risk of this becoming a broader conflict, not confined to the shadows?
Yes. While Israel seems consumed by Covid resurges and its spectacularly rickety new government, hostile operations between the two nations have escalated. in the latest drone attack, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard did not even attempt to deny its responsibility.
Two experts at the University of Haifa -- one of them former head of the israel Atomic Energy Commission -- have warned that the visible conflict is only the tip of the iceberg.
What is visible is that in the last two years two senior Iranian officials, including a leading nuclear scientist, have been assassinated. In addition two mysterious explosions have taken place at the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz. On the naval front, Iranian tankers delivering oil to Syria have repeatedly been damaged.
In response, there have been four attacks in recent months on ships owned, or partly owned, by Israelis. Both nations have apparently launched serious cyberattacks as well, one of which seriously disrupted rail traffic in Iran.
The new hardline Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, is about to take power; will he feel impelled to escalate the hostilities? Has the Israeli government done a careful calculation of the costs and risks of operations that push the Iranian government to retaliate but do little or nothing to stop its march to nuclear weapons or its support of Hizballah forces on Israel's border?
In fact this shadow war may impel Iran to push harder on both fronts. And efforts to force Iran back into the nuclear deal, which effectively contained its nuclear program, are at a standstill. Since the Trump administration reneged on the deal, empowering Iran to ignore its limits and resume uranium enrichment, Israel's security has not improved.
To the contrary. Iran has activated more advanced centrifuges and has begun enriching uranium to the 60 percent level, as opposed to the 3.67 percent level allowed in the nuclear agreement (weapons-grade is 90 percent). Experts now estimate that the "break-out time" -- how long it would take Iran to make a bomb -- has shrunk from about a year to a few months.
The focus needs to remain on keeping Iran from getting the bomb, and restoration of the nuclear deal remains the best way to achieve this. All possible diplomatic, economic, and political pressure should be mobilized to this end. There will be time to utilize military measures if this fails, because at that point war -- real war, not shadow war -- becomes the only alternative.