US defense chief to visit Israel amid cloud of Iranian tensions -analysis

Marking the first visit of a high-ranking official of the Biden administration, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to arrive in Israel on Sunday.

According to reports, Austin is set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. The conversation is expected to focus on Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s activity in the region, the developing situation in Syria and Lebanon, and the effort to retain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East.

However, besides these issues, this visit comes with two major events happening in the background: The first is the JCPOA meetings that started this week in Vienna where it’s believed the Americans trying to reach a long-term agreement with the Iranians.

The other event is the ongoing maritime shadow war between Israel and Iran, which reached an explosive peak earlier this week with the attack against the Iranian Saviz cargo ship, believed to have been carried out by the Israeli Navy.

This warfare is considered now, alongside Israel’s ongoing strikes in Syria, to be the most dominant front in the IDF’s “War Between the Wars,” in which it combats Iran’s attempts to further entrench in the region.

Experts say that the Red Sea area became a primary venue for confrontation between Jerusalem and Tehran in the past three years, and its main objective, on the Israeli side, is to damage the shipment of oil that is meant to fund arms transferred to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in the region.

A sign of this shadow war was exposed only recently when an Iranian attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship was reported near the Gulf of Oman. Then, a former senior defense official experienced in combating Iran as well as its at-sea capabilities suggested that it came as a reaction to an Israeli operation.

It is still unclear if, and in what form, Austin’s visit will affect the nature of this campaign. It was suggested that the Americans were not satisfied with the Israeli-attributed actions in recent days — especially with the JCPOA talks going on.

However, judging by remarks made in recent days by senior officials such as Netanyahu and Gantz, it seems that Israel grants the maritime arena great importance in the overall battle against Iranian expansionism.

“We have attacking systems that work 24/7, 365 days a year, and are ready to act in and front, in every measure, and in any dimension that the IDF will be asked to operate within,” Gantz said in a ceremony on Wednesday.

It is believed that the American defense establishment is a channel to maintain effective relations between the two countries even in times of diplomatic disagreements.

Austin’s visit could set the tone for the near future, and reflect the administration’s expectations from Israel.

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