CDR (ret.) Eyal Pinko, Ph.D.
Iranian Maritime Ecological Terrorism?
The Cormorant, one of the biggest seabirds, oil-based, is one of the images we will not forget from the first Gulf War. At the beginning of 1991, the United States has invaded Kuwait to liberate it from Iraq. In response, Saddam Hussein orders the release of a considerable amount of oil from Kuwait's rich wells to the Persian Gulf waters.
This act coined the concept of ecological terrorism. The term ecological terrorism (or environmental terrorism) refers to an action or threat of action against the environment by a state, organization, or individuals, the purpose of which is to threaten, deter or influence states in times of war, conflict, or in between conflicts.
This type of terrorism is an act of war, using resources and natural resources to achieve state or military achievements. Ecological terrorism includes, for example, burning fields and trees, killing of animals, poisoning water sources, or the use of other biological weapons against fields, crops, and animals.
The 1976 UN resolution determined that states must make every effort to minimize environmental damage during a conflict or military campaign.
Another definition of ecological terrorism suggests that ecological terrorism may also be used against organizations or countries to prevent them from acting against the environment. Ecological terrorism of this kind will be perpetrated by "green" organizations or radical ideological protest organizations, which see countries or organizations responsible for environmental damage. Such organizations act in the name of nature against human society.
In the United States, three such organizations are defined as ecological terrorist organizations under a law passed by the Bush administration after 9/11. These organizations are the ELF (Earth Liberation Front), founded in 1977; the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), founded in the 1970s; and the EF (Earth First), founded in the 1980s. These organizations are responsible in the United States and worldwide for a long line of violent terrorist acts and crimes in the name of environmental protection, and their actions do not fall short of those of large and well-known criminal and terrorist organizations.
The sea is the source of life for all of humanity, and since its beginning, the human race has tried to exploit the sea for its needs, find food, commerce, and prosperity. From ancient times to the present day, sea trade has enabled the development of civilizations and commerce between countries and continents. More than 80% of world trade today is made through sea routes.
Moreover, the energy that drives economies and countries is produced and transported at sea; communication cables are laid on its bottom, and humankind still enjoys fish as a significant ingredient of its food, in countries where water shortages for drinking and irrigation increase, sea desalinated water is used as the source of life.
The sea is the source of life, and the economy and a marine ecological disaster can affect life at sea and the lives of countries and their inhabitants. An environmental catastrophe could cause the destruction of fish, marine mammals, vegetation, and the marine system as a whole, including tourism. The metastases of an ecological disaster at sea can continue and affect for decades.
In early February 2021, Israel declared that its shores had been contaminated with crude oil allegedly spilled from an Iranian tanker. This article will examine the possibility of this event as an event of marine ecological terrorism.
Iran and ecological terrorism against Israel
On the night of February 1st to 2nd, an Iranian-owned crude oil tanker, the Emerald, carrying the Panama flag, sailed through Israel's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) waters to Syria. Before entering the Israeli EEZ, the Iranian tanker turned off its Automatic Identification System (AIS), and when it reached the Syrian border area, the tanker activated the AIS again. As it is off the coast of Israel, it is suspected that amounts of oil were spilled from the Iranian tanker, which created sea pollution along the Israeli coastal strip of about 170 km.
During the two weeks following the incident, oil spread from the sea to the Israeli coast. Israeli officials hurried to declare that this was ecological terrorism directed by Iran against Israel.
This is not the first time Iran has smuggled oil in this same operational way. With the US embargo's entry against Iranian crude oil during the Trump administration in late 2018, Iran lost a significant chunk of its income and entered a deep economic crisis.
Since then, as part of its efforts to find a bypass economy and other income sources, Iran has begun, among other things, oil smuggling efforts. US intelligence sources estimate that Iran smuggles about 300,000 oil barrels per day (before the sanctions imposed on it, Iran exported about 2.5 million oil barrels per day). Iran has a fleet of about 42 oil tankers, with a capacity of about 2 million oil barrels each. Therefore its ability to carry out such oil smuggling operations to all corners of the globe is almost unlimited, primarily when Iranian oil ships operate under the flags of convenience of neutral countries.
Iran's smuggling oil method is similar in different parts of the world: from the Arabian Sea, through the Middle East to the Atlantic Ocean. Iran shifts oil at sea through its tankers, sailing under flags of convenience (or through friendly states' tankers) to other legit oil tankers.
A few hours before the ships' meeting at sea, they both turn off their AIS systems and meet in a pre-defined location, far from naval forces' expected activity.
Pipes are passed between the tankers, through which the oil is transferred between the ships. After the oil is transferred, each of the ship's sails on its way. After a while, far from the meeting place, the AIS systems are activated again in both tankers.
In such a process of transferring oil at sea, when time limits are tight, when the waves are high, and the sea is uncomfortable, spilling oil into the sea is undoubtedly a possibility that may happen.
It should be noted that the flow of oil in an exact location in the middle of the sea, which will reach the shores of the country, requires a relatively accurate calculation based on the current and wave regime in the area so that the oil reaches its destination and does not reach the shores of another country. Such a database with calculating the location required for oil spill is not complicated to obtain and carry out.
A relatively large oil was spilled off Israel's coast, a relatively high probability leaked into the sea due to a malfunction or human error. A much more considerable amount of oil is required than that spilled off the country's coast to achieve a real and significant effect of an ecological terrorist act, despite the large-scale damage caused to fish and the Israeli shores.
In this context, it is also possible that the purpose of the Iranian operation was not to cause significant ecological damage but rather to experiment with a possibility for a future or potential ecological terror-attack.
Another option is that if the oil spill was carried out deliberately, it constitutes an Iranian warning call to Israel about Iran's ability to operate in relative secrecy off the Israeli coast and achieve military, political, psychological, and other achievements.
A different suspected incident of Iranian ecological terrorism against Israel was in early June 2020. At that time, Israel's National Cyber Directorate reported that Iran had tried through a sophisticated cyber attack to raise the chlorine level in Israel's drinking water and cause drinking water poisoning. The potential of such a cyberattack, which is an extreme act of ecological terrorism, is far more significant than the spill of oil by the Iranian oil tanker.
Summary and Recommendations
Whether the Iranian oil tanker deliberately or unintentionally spilled oil off Israel's coast, the event rekindled several key issues that needed to be raised on the Israeli public and global agenda.
The primary and first issue is Iran's actions to find a bypass economy and other income sources in the face of the US sanctions imposed on it during the Trump administration. Iran smuggles pirated oil using maritime trade routes and land routes; works to grow and distribute drugs from South American countries to North America and Europe; sells ammunition and weapons, and even leases electricity and computing-power services to China's virtual currency mining processes (Crypto mining).
The second issue is the importance of the ecosystem to our lives, vulnerability, and potential impacts on our lifestyles. The vulnerability of the ecosystem requires the various countries to preserve and prevent criminal and terrorist acts against it. A country's strategic assets at sea, including gas/oil rigs and pipelines, are vulnerable and can create enormous ecological damage, and therefore need extensive protection.
The third issue is Iran's capabilities and intentions to act against the ecosystem and critical national infrastructures. Damage to critical national infrastructures, such as transportation, water resources, communications, energy sources, food supply sources, and more, through a physical or cyber attack, would constitute a direct threat to national security and has the potential to disrupt a country's functional continuity in peacetime, and even more so in war times.
Iran's cyberattacks on water and energy infrastructure indicate its capabilities and intentions to attack and achieve the operational, political, and psychological achievements in this dimension vis-à-vis its adversaries, including Israel.
Therefore, it would be right to bring several recommendations to decision-makers and the defense and security community.
The first recommendation for preventing ecological terrorism at sea is to strengthen the Navy's intelligence and operational efforts to preserve assets in the maritime exclusive economic zone. These efforts should include building the maritime picture and the maritime awareness in real-time and distant ranges from shore, using intelligence, multi-sensor systems, and ongoing and continuous patrol vessels in this area (and not only for the gas rigs protection).
The second recommendation is to invest and implement extensive measures to protect and defend critical national infrastructures at sea and land, emphasizing cyber-security, as the State of Israel's National Cyber Directorate does.
The third and final recommendation is to step up intelligence-gathering efforts regarding Iran's intentions and capabilities to carry out physical offensive operations and, in the cyber dimension, against Israel's critical national infrastructures, emphasizing national infrastructures at sea. It is also recommended to increase the intelligence gathering on Iranian and its proxies (Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Yemen Houthis) intentions to carry out ecological terrorist acts.