WASHINGTON – Israel has at least a dozen ships bound for Syria carrying mostly Iranian oil, fearing the oil proceeds are funding extremism in the Middle East, U.S. and regional officials said, marking a new front in the conflict between Israel and Iran.

Since late 2019, Israel has used weapons, including mines, to attack Iranian ships or vessels carrying Iranian goods bound for Syria in the Red Sea and elsewhere in the region. Iran continues to trade oil with Syria, transporting millions of barrels in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran and international sanctions on Syria.

Some of the attacks at sea also target Iranian attempts to transport other goods, including weapons, through the region, US officials said.

Attacks on oil tankers carrying Iranian oil have not yet been reported. Iranian officials had previously reported some of these attacks and said they suspected Israeli involvement.

Israel has yet to comment on such incidents, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office referred questions to the Israeli military, which declined to comment on an Israeli role in the attacks on the Iranian ships. Iranian officials at the U.N. mission in the country did not respond to a request for comment.

Damascus said disruptions to Iranian oil imports were causing shortages for Syrians. Syria and Iran deny funding terrorism and say their alliance is aimed at fighting it.

The unveiling of Israel’s campaign at sea marks a new dimension in its campaign against Iran’s military and economic entrenchment and its support for allies in the region. Since 2018, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes, mostly in Syria, to target Iranian-backed groups, their weapons and influence in the region.

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The revelation also comes amid escalating tensions in the region and as the Biden administration reconsiders its approach to confronting Iran. The government has said it wants to return to an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program reached in 2015, but progress has stalled as both sides have demanded reciprocal concessions.

Iranian oil shipments to Syria are controlled by officials of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to lawsuits filed in U.S. courts that have seized ships. The purpose of the Iranian operations is to circumvent sanctions against Iran and Syria in order to fund the IRGC, court documents say. These tankers often carry hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil.

The National Iranian Oil Tanker Company says this 2019 photo shows one of its tankers sailing in the Red Sea.

Photo:

National Iranian Oil Tanker Company/VANA/Reuters

Shippers often give false destinations, use old rusty tankers to avoid detection and sometimes transfer oil at sea from one ship to another to avoid detection, the regional army said.

In recent weeks, Israel has also publicly accused Iran of obfuscation and sabotage. Last week, Netanyahu blamed Iran for the explosion of the Israeli cargo ship Helios Ray. Iran’s foreign ministry denied being behind the attack.

US officials have blamed Iran for a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region in 2019, some of which were carried out with mines.

Last week, Israeli Environment Minister Gila Gamliel also blamed Tehran for Israel’s biggest environmental disaster, the spill of hundreds of tons of oil from tar sands that covered more than 100 miles of Israeli coastline last month. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel had no evidence that Iran deliberately caused the oil spill.

Experts say the series of attacks on Iranian oil tankers is due to the perceived inaction of the international community, especially after Iran broke its promise not to deliver oil from a hijacked tanker to Syria.

Israel has upped its game from sanctions to sabotage.

– Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that opposes the Iran deal and calls for a hard line against Tehran, said Israel and the US have long been targeting Iran’s oil revenues.

Israel has moved from sanctions to sabotage, he said. The sabotage of the Red Sea goes hand in hand with a broader campaign of economic warfare.

Among the dozens of attacks on ships carrying Iranian oil, there are three such attacks in 2019, the shipping expert said. According to a second shipping expert in Tehran, ships used by the Islamic Republic were attacked six times in 2020.

A second expert said Tehran was not talking about the attacks. We’re trying to keep a low profile, he said. It would seem a sign of weakness if Iran complained and did not respond militarily, he said.

In one case last month, suspected Israeli agents laid a lime mine to attack an Iranian ship anchored off Lebanon that was delivering Iranian oil to Syria, the leading shipping expert said. The Israeli military declined to comment on the incident.

Sticky mines are usually secretly attached to the hulls of ships in port and then detonated through holes in the sides of the ship.

The first known military action by the Biden administration was an airstrike on targets used by Iranian-backed militias in response to previous attacks on American troops. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expressed confidence that the U.S. had achieved its goal. (First published on 26/02/2021) Photo: Alex Brandon/Associated Press

An Iranian Navy message channel on Telegram posted photos Thursday showing a fire aboard the Iranian ship Shahr-e-Kord near Latakia, Syria. He said the ship was attacked with missiles. It is not possible to determine whether this incident is related to other attacks on Iranian vessels.

The attacks, attributed to the Israelis, did not result in reports of shipwrecks, but the explosions forced at least two ships into Iranian port, delaying the delivery of fuel on board to Syria, Iranian shipping experts said.

According to a person familiar with the matter, US officials provided tacit support for such attacks during the Trump administration. The two countries have long exchanged intelligence and the US has supported previous Israeli attacks in Syria.

At least there are no signs that the U.S. will stand in Israel’s way, analysts say.

As long as the [Biden] administration thinks the Israelis will stay below the threshold of escalation or serious conflict, I don’t think they will object to what Israel thinks it needs to do to defend itself, said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, met Thursday with Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to discuss a range of issues related to Iran, officials said.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com.

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