Iran Has Another Trick Up Its Sleeve Apart from Missiles and Drones

Iran Has Another Trick Up Its Sleeve Apart from Missiles and Drones - Merchant Navy Info - NEWS

Two days ago, the container ship MSC Aries was hijacked in the Strait of Hormuz by Iranian forces and brought to anchor off the coast of Iran. Lost in the noise of the missile and drone attacks twenty-four hours later, this incident remains worthy of a closer look for two reasons.

First, suppose the Iranians are challenging freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz as part of their wider campaign against Israel (and allies). In that case, this means another task for the already stretched NATO and allied navies, currently engaged in a struggle to keep the Bab-el-Mandeb strait open for shipping at the southern end of the Red Sea.

Second, it could mean counterattacks by Israel on Iranian shipping, which might, in turn, mean further escalation.

Iran History of Disrupting Strait of Hormuz Shipping

On the first point, Iran causing some disruption to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz is nothing new. They have conducted dozens of boardings like this over the years and used mines. This dates back to the 1980s and beyond. It’s what they do. But even so, the latest attack is significant for several reasons. Since the Houthis started attacking shipping in the Southern Red Sea back in October 2023, the number of incidents in the Strait of Hormuz has reduced. This suggests that most of the Iranians’ effort was going into helping their militia pawns in Yemen.

Damien Symon’s excellent summary of incidents shows that there were two long-range drone attacks in the Gulf of Oman in November and December last year. Then a boarding attempt of the MV Nikolas in January this year, and that’s it. So the question now is whether or not this new incident was a one-off attack in response to the Israeli strike on the Iranian “consulate” in Syria. Also, a concerted campaign was started to disrupt shipping in the Strait. 

MSC Aries Targeted for Israeli Ties, Raising Concerns of Iran Strategy Shift

They will have seen how effective the Houthi campaign has been. How fear of escalation has prompted a primarily defensive response. Also, their key assets include the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower and ships like RFA Cardigan Bay. They move to the Red Sea in response to it. They will have seen how the US-flagged Maersk Yorktown merchant ship was escorted by US destroyers recently. A shift in tactic away from providing missile pickets almost certainly indicates stretched US Navy resources. They will also see a degree of discord between the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian. The EU-led Aspides will imagine how much worse they can make this for relatively little effort. 

MSC Aries was targeted due to its relationship with Gortal Shipping, Zodiac Maritime, and ultimately Eyal Ofer, an Israeli billionaire now resident in Monaco. The ship had left Saudi Arabia, stopped at Abu Dhabi, and went dark on its transponder while sailing from there. It was outbound for India as she was boarded. The majority of the crew was Indian (17), Filipino (4), Pakistani (2), and Estonian (1).

Incidentally, the MV Galaxy Leader and her crew were hijacked last November by Houthi gunmen. Who also embarked by helicopter, was also linked to an Israeli businessman and remains at anchor off the coast of Yemen with little consensus on what to do about her. In the meantime, unbelievably, she has become a tourist attraction. There were discussions when she was captured. All about the counter-boarding measures hard-learned during the peak piracy era off the Horn of Africa having been forgotten. If the videos of the MSC Aries capture are contemporary, then that crew also neglected to prepare for this threat.

Israel’s Potential Response to Iran

The second point in all of this is the opportunity this has given Israel to add ‘attack shipping’ to their list of military activities. All in the name of either retaliatory action or self-defence. If they want to answer the (defeated) missile and drone barrage of Saturday night without escalating. Then, a look at how effectively the Houthis have managed ‘maritime warfare without excessive escalation’ over the last few months could be of interest. 

Maintaining freedom of navigation at sea remains vital to world trade and prosperity. Doing so is in NATO and allied navies’ DNA. Challenging it is in Iranian DNA. Events in the Bab el Mandeb have shown that sea blindness allows for tolerance for maritime aggression that would not be tolerated overland.

Iran has an opportunity to use all this to its advantage. Heat the conflict with Israel and ‘the West’ without it boiling over. This will stretch international maritime resources even more thinly than they already are. They will know this. Hopefully, this hijacking was a one-off, not a new front in a new war.

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