JERUSALEM — The sun was rising on the Mediterranean one recent morning when the crew of an Iranian cargo ship heard an explosion. The ship, the Shahr e Kord, was about 50 miles off the coast of Israel, and from the bridge they saw a plume of smoke rising from one of the hundreds of containers stacked on deck.
The state-run Iranian shipping company said the vessel had been heading to Spain and called the explosion a “terrorist act.”
But the attack on the Shahr e Kord this month was just one of the latest salvos in a long-running covert conflict between Israel and Iran. An Israeli official said the attack was retaliation for an Iranian assault on an Israeli cargo ship last month.
Since 2019, Israel has been attacking ships carrying Iranian oil and weapons through the eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas, opening a new maritime front in a regional shadow war that had previously played out by land and in the air.
Iranian efforts to circumvent American sanctions on its oil industry.
But the conflict’s expansion risks the escalation of what has been a relatively limited tit-for-tat, and it further complicates efforts by the Biden administration to persuade Iran to reintroduce limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
“This is a full-fledged cold war that risks turning hot with a single mistake,” said Ali Vaez, Iran program director at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. “We’re still in an escalatory spiral that risks getting out of control.”
Since 2019, Israeli commandos have attacked at least 10 ships carrying Iranian cargo, according to an American official and a former senior Israeli official. The real number of targeted ships may be higher than 20, according to an Iranian Oil Ministry official, an adviser to the ministry and an oil trader.
first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Most of the ships were carrying fuel from Iran to its ally Syria, and two carried military equipment, according to an American official and two senior Israeli officials. An American official and an Israeli official said the Shahr e Kord was carrying military equipment toward Syria.
The Israeli government declined to comment.
has accelerated in recent years. Iran has been arming and financing militias throughout the region, notably in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political movement that is a longtime enemy of Israel.
Israel has tried to counter Iran’s power play by launching regular airstrikes on Iranian shipments by land and air of arms and other cargo to Syria and Lebanon. Those attacks have made those routes riskier and shifted at least some of the weapons transit, and the conflict, to the sea, analysts said.
Israel has also sought to undermine Iran’s nuclear program through assassinations and sabotage on Iranian soil, and both sides are accused of cyberattacks, including a failed Iranian attack on an Israeli municipal water system last April and a retaliatory Israeli strike on a major Iranian port.
Iran’s Quds force was blamed for a bomb that exploded near Israel’s embassy in New Delhi in January. And 15 militants linked to Iran were arrested last month in Ethiopia for plotting to attack Israeli, American and Emirati targets.
The sum is an undeclared conflict that neither side wants to escalate into frontal combat.
a major Iranian nuclear site in July and the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist last November. Israel has not publicly acknowledged either operation.
The Israeli offensive against Iranian shipping has two goals, analysts and officials said. The first is to prevent Tehran from sending equipment to Lebanon to help Hezbollah build a precision missile program, which Israel considers a strategic threat.
The second is to dry up an important source of oil revenue for Tehran, building on the pressure American sanctions have inflicted. After the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s fuel industry in late 2018, the Iranian government became more reliant on clandestine shipping.
Sima Shine, a former head of research at Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
The attacks typically feature limpet mines and sometimes torpedoes, the American official said. They generally target the ships’ engines or propellers, one Israeli official said. And they are intended to cripple but not sink the ships, the American and Israeli officials said.
a recent oil spill that left tons of tar on the beaches of Israel and Lebanon.
Within Israel, there is concern among maritime experts that the cost of a sea war may exceed its benefit.
While the Israeli Navy can make its presence felt in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, it is less effective in waters closer to Iran. And that could make Israeli-owned ships more vulnerable to Iranian attacks as they pass Iran’s western shores on their way to ports in the Gulf, said Shaul Chorev, a retired Israeli admiral who now heads the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa.
“Israeli strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and related waterways will undoubtedly grow,” he wrote in a statement, “and the Israeli Navy does not have the capabilities to protect these interests.”
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, Farnaz Fassihi from New York, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
SEOUL — North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Thursday, in its first significant provocation against the United States under President Biden, United States and Japanese officials said.
South Korea confirmed North Korea had launched two unidentified projectiles, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan was the first regional leader to identify them as “ballistic missiles.” A senior United States official also confirmed that the projectiles were ballistic missiles.
“It threatens the peace and security of Japan and the region, and is a violation of United Nations resolutions,” the Japanese leader said on Twitter, referring to the United Nations Security Council’s ban on the North’s developing and testing ballistic missile technologies. “I strongly protest and strongly condemn it.”
The missiles dropped into waters between North Korea and Japan and outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Mr. Suga said. The Japanese military said that the missiles flew 280 miles, reaching a height of 62 miles.
past four U.S. presidents. Each approached the country with different incentives and sanctions, but all failed to persuade it to stop building nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.
fired missiles over Japan and threatened to launch an “enveloping” strike near the U.S. territory of Guam.
After the country launched its first intercontinental ballistic missiles later that year, former President Donald J. Trump hoped direct talks with Mr. Kim would persuade the impoverished and isolated country to end its program.
Despite three face-to-face meetings, the leaders were unable to reach an agreement, depriving Mr. Trump of what he had hoped would be a crowning foreign policy achievement. Instead, the failed summits gave Mr. Kim more time to further develop his weapons, experts say.
Analysts are closely watching Washington to see if Mr. Biden’s approach to North Korea will follow that of former President Barack Obama, rather than the more direct engagement of Mr. Trump.
The Biden administration has been studying how to deal with North Korea, which Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has called “a hard problem.” When Mr. Blinken was in Seoul last week, he said the Biden administration planned to complete a North Korea policy review in the coming weeks in close coordination with South Korea and Japan. He said the review included both “pressure options and potential for future diplomacy.”
During the first months of his presidency, Mr. Obama was also greeted by a North Korean provocation when the country detonated a nuclear bomb. Rather than negotiate, Mr. Obama opted for a policy of “strategic patience,” which meant gradually escalating sanctions. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Blinken said the Biden administration would “review the entire approach and policy toward North Korea, because this is a hard problem.”
In the weekend test, missiles were launched from a site near Nampo, a port southwest of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, said Ha Tae-keung, a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed by intelligence officials on Wednesday.
it unveiled a new, untested intercontinental ballistic missile that looked bigger and more powerful than the intercontinental ballistic missile it tested in late 2017 before Mr. Kim started diplomacy with Mr. Trump.
In a party meeting in January, Mr. Kim vowed to further advance his country’s nuclear capabilities, declaring that it would build new solid-fuel I.C.B.M.s and make its nuclear warheads lighter and more precise.
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.