The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Dr. Omer Dostri: Were the oil spill indeed identified as an Iranian action, it would be in keeping with Iran’s strategy in its conflict with Israel.


By DANIEL SONNENFELD, The Media Line, 04.03.2021

Israeli security officials were surprised by the claim and some disputed it; expert says ‘wouldn’t be surprising’ to find Iran behind it

Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel has pointed a finger at Iran, blaming the Islamic Republic for last month’s oil spill that polluted Israel’s shoreline, causing an ecological disaster. The ministry on Thursday released new information tracking the course of the alleged culprit. But defense officials weren’t part of the investigation, and some have disputed the claim.

On Wednesday, Gamliel blamed Iran for the crude oil spill that brought large amounts of tar to Israel’s Mediterranean coast. A ministry statement said that the culprit had been identified as the crude oil tanker Emerald, “a Libyan-owned ship that was carrying cargo from Iran to Syria.” The statement quoted the minister as saying that “Iran is waging terrorism by harming the environment.”

A second statement by the Ministry of Environmental Protection on Thursday supplied more details tying the ship to Iran. Information provided by   documented the course of the ship to the eastern Mediterranean and to Israel’s economic water zone from Iran’s Kharg Island, in the Persian Gulf. “Authorities believe Iranian crude oil was loaded onto it at that time. That oil eventually leaked, and ultimately reached Israel’s shoreline, resulting in one of the worst environmental disasters in Israel’s history,” said the statement.

The oil spill disaster, which has been classified as one of the worst ecological disasters Israel has ever known, started on February 17 when large amounts of tar washed up on Israel’s beaches. The tar reached 160 km of Israel’s 195 km coastline, and severely polluted the beaches, harming the resident wildlife. At the same time as great efforts are being made to clean the damaged areas, Israel has been working to identify the ship behind the oil spill.

The Thursday statement quoted Gamliel as saying: “The connection to Iran is a direct one, it is not an unknown one. There is room here for an urgent discussion of all government bodies, including security agencies, aimed at a broader understanding of the threats to Israel’s economic waters, which are not only environmental.”

However, Israeli defense officials were surprised by the minister’s claims, saying that the country’s defense apparatus wasn’t involved in the investigation. The Israeli business daily Globes reported that some defense officials expressed their doubts about an intentional Iranian action, saying it is more likely that the spill was the result of oil smuggling gone awry.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told The Media Line that Israel’s military has no comment on the matter, and referred The Media Line to the spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Minister. The Media Line contacted Gamliel’s spokesperson for her response, but no comment was received in time for publication.

Omer Dostri, a strategy and security expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said it is not clear yet if Iran is behind the spill, but it would not be a surprise if it is. “We don’t know. That is what Gamliel is claiming, and she is basically the only one,” he told The Media Line. At the same time, he said, “we know that there are some – for example in the IDF and other Israeli security bodies – that claim that there is not what is called ‘forensic evidence’ in this area.” But, he added, “assuming Gamliel’s claim is correct, and the Iranians are indeed responsible for this event, it shouldn’t really surprise us.”

Dostri said that, were the oil spill indeed identified as an Iranian action, it would be in keeping with Iran’s strategy in its conflict with Israel. Iranian strategy, he said, is “based on indirect, obscure, covert fighting that is intended, among other things, to avoid Israeli retaliation or to limit it.” The expert also said that if Gamliel’s claim is discovered to be true, this action would connect to another recent attack that has been attributed to Iran by Israel.

A week ago, an Israeli-owned ship named MV Helios Ray experienced a mysterious explosion while sailing in the Gulf of Oman. The explosion forced the ship to return to a United Arab Emirates port for repairs. The Iranian government dismissed the Israeli accusations – voiced Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and high-ranking security officials.

Dostri said that the attack on the ship, which he believes is Iranian, is “in fact an attack on Israeli freedom of navigation, which is a very grave thing, and a true escalation” in Iranian attacks. Freedom of navigation, a standard of customary international law, stipulates that a state must not interfere with a ship flying the flag of a sovereign state. Dostri believes that “Israel will certainly, in my opinion, have to raise the bar of its response to such a threat and an attack,” and this is doubly true if Iran is behind the oil spill.