Israel is currently facing one of the worst ecological disasters in the history of the country, as over 90% of its coastline became awash in black tar after an oil tanker spill occurred in the international waters of the eastern Mediterranean in early February 2021. As reported by AP, the tanker is suspected of illegally smuggling Iranian oil to Syria in violation of sanctions, which Iran was last accused of in 2019.
Despite accusations from the Israeli Environmental Protection Minister, Gila Gamliel, that the spill was the deliberate orchestration of Iran, the Israeli Defense Ministry thus far has been silent on the issue. On March 12, the Wall Street Journal shared an exclusive report that U.S. intelligence had revealed Israel has bombed at least a dozen ships, most suspected Iranian oil tankers, en route to Syria in the past two years—a previously unreported front in the feud—which makes the swift accusations by Gamliel even more questionable, less for the reason behind the spill than for Israel's active role in motivating aggressive action by Iran. While the Israeli operation has not been directly connected to the oil spill, both of these developments come on top of rising tension between Israel and Iran as the United States explores a return to the JCPOA on Iran’s nuclear program after re-imposing sanctions when leaving the JCPOA in 2018.
Israel, an outspoken critic of the JCPOA, sees Iran, and especially Iran’s nuclear program, as an existential threat and is determined to prevent Iran gaining any strategic nuclear capability. While not officially acknowledged, Israel is a nuclear power—which it values as a key strategic advantage to deterrence against Iran. Israel’s aggressive action against Iran, however, reaffirms Israel’s questionable level of commitment on alternatives to conflict, as it updates plans for a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear sites, in pursuit of peace.
The greatest obstacle to the United States rejoining the JCPOA may not be Iran, but a U.S. ally. Israel, not party to the JCPOA, is convinced that Iran will not follow the limitations of the agreement and will continue covert production of nuclear weapons. Both countries have a clear national security imperative to ascribe to nuclear deterrence theory, which assumes that the threat of a nuclear attack will impose costs that are too high for an adversary to engage in war. Israel does not want another Arab-Israeli war and Iran, knowing that Israel has nuclear capability, does not want a preemptive strike by Israel that seeks to eliminate Iran as a threat.
However, Iran has also demonstrated a stronger interest than Israel in cooperation on nuclear energy, which presents an opportunity to limit its nuclear program to match international norms, make violations more difficult to hide and compliance more attractive, and take steps to prevent a similar lack of transparency to North Korea's nuclear program in the Middle East. Although numerous articles have been written lauding Israel's nuclear arsenal as the reason for the lack of open conflict between Israel and Iran in recent decades, Israel's superiority in conventional warfare makes the added deterrence of nuclear weapons of questionable importance. Considering the rippling costs of using such a weapon to environmental and regional health as well, Iran's nuclear program is symptomatic of trust issues between two adversaries with a long history of conflict that is unlikely to be improved without a sustained effort by international and regional actors to minimize new reasons for unilateral decisionmaking and aggression.