Israeli expert says Iran 'had last word' in sea shadow war

Professor Rear. Admiral (Ret.) Shaul Chorev tells Israeli media JNS that Israel needs a more thought-out strategy when it comes to dealing with the Iranian threat at sea, as well as combat that has become increasingly asymmetric.

The Israeli Navy has played a crucial role in Israel's ongoing shadow war against Iran, but the events of the past months indicate that Tel Aviv needs to rethink its long-term strategy on how to target certain Iranian activities, an Israeli maritime strategy expert has said.


Professor Rear Admiral (Ret.) Shaul Chorev, head of the Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy at the University of Haifa, told JNS that when it comes to the navy's purported sea shadow war with Iran, it is important to distinguish between two types of activities. The first involves reported missions to disrupt Iranian weapons shipment at sea – a line of activity that Chorev described as imperative for Israel to pursue. The second, however, was the reported campaign targeting Iranian oil tankers that were delivering oil to the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.


In examining Tehran's retaliation about targeting oil tankers, Chorev noted that four vessels with links to Israeli businesspeople were hit in response.


"Israel stopped this part of the shadow war in the end. After the July 2021 attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker vessel [killing two European crew members on board], Israel abandoned the military channel and went instead for the diplomatic channel, recruiting the United States and the international community. This looks like a justified decision," assessed Chorev.


While there is "no question" that operations to stop Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from smuggling weapons via the sea to Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza is the right course of action, he argued, the reported campaign hitting the oil tankers from Iran did not achieve much in terms of pressuring Iran economically, especially since China is buying 51% of Iranian oil (directly or circuitously) at this time, despite U.S. sanctions. If the attacks were designed to disrupt an Iranian mechanism to fund Hezbollah via Syrian oil sales, that also proved short-lived, according to Chorev.


"In my view, those who had the last word here were the Iranians. They challenge our freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aden, and it appears as if we stopped our activities to target Syria-bound tankers. Russia also entered the picture, saying it would guard Iranian oil tankers. The result was that strategically, a new maritime front was opened, distant from Israel and out of the operational capabilities of the Israeli Navy," he concluded.


Beyond the shadow war, Chorev has been observing annual joint Iranian Chinese and Russian naval exercises, viewing them as a part of the diplomatic component of Iran's maritime strategy. The exercises reflect the formation of a Russian-Chinese axis supporting Iran politically at the height of the period in which it is being pressured to return to the nuclear agreement, and it is subject to economic and political sanctions by the West.


"The exercises are saying to the Americans, 'you left the nuclear agreement, and we want to say this was not legitimate,' " said Chorev.