An Iranian destroyer and supply ship docked in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Saturday, marking the second such deployment of an Iranian naval task force in a year.
In early February 2011, the first such task force made a stop in Jeddah on the way to an equally unprecedented visit to the Mediterranean. While in the Med – as anti-regime fervor caught fire in the Arab nations – the Iranian warships visited Latakia, Syria. According to disclosures from a Syrian who recently fled his post with the defense ministry, the Iranian warships in 2011 delivered arms to the Assad regime.
There is no public information on whether the current task force will go north through the Suez Canal. In 2011, Iran announced the Suez passage of the first task force before the ships arrived in Port Suez on the Red Sea.
One of the noteworthy aspects of last year’s visit was that it occurred in the same time period as the visit in Jeddah of the French aircraft carrier, FS Charles de Gaulle.
This year’s deployment occurs in conjunction with a fresh Iranian naval exercise in the Strait of Hormuz. It also occurs in the immediate wake of a speech in which Ayatollah Khamenei announced that Iran would “support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world.” Characterizing Israel as “a true cancer tumor,” Khamenei declared:
The Zionist regime … should be cut off. And it definitely will be cut off.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, doing his bit earlier this week to support America’s and Israel’s strategic interests, announced his suspicion that
… there was a ”strong likelihood” of Israel launching a unilateral strike against Iranian nuclear facilities in ”April, May or June.”
The helpful nature of this disclosure can hardly be overstated. It keeps Iran on perpetual alert and tips Israel’s hand even if the Israelis are not planning a strike for the particular timeframe indicated. I’m not sure what the Obama administration thinks it’s accomplishing with these incessant hand-wringing references to what Israel might be about to do – there are a couple of possibilities, which I have discussed before. But the most probable consequence is Iran wanting badly to inflict another “intifada” on Israel, and keep her preoccupied with self-defense.
Outcomes and new power relationships are still in flux in the region, a year on from the Hezbollah takeover of the Lebanese government and the eruption in Tunisia that launched the “Arab Spring.” Putting another naval task force in the northern Red Sea is an Iranian move intended to impress the region, and establish a presence and freedom of action. It may also be intended pragmatically, like last year’s deployment, to deliver arms somewhere. Iranian commercial ships may get stopped, but warships probably won’t.
Meanwhile, the exercise in the Strait of Hormuz does more than merely send political signals. It provides training for the Iranian sailors – something they always need – and it begins to establish a pattern of more frequent exercises. In the future, assuming that that pattern continues, it will be harder for the US and other navies to distinguish an exercise from a set-up for a real operation.
It is interesting to note that the Iranian warships have arrived in Jeddah just as the Russian carrier task force has departed the Med. The RFS Admiral Kuznetsov and escorts entered the Atlantic, reportedly for the return transit to their homeports, on 3 February. Kuznetsov visited Syria several times in December and January. If the Iranian warships are headed for Syria – and that is not established yet – it is a good question whether any other navy in the Med would attempt to intercept them. The navies of France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Israel have the capability to; the question is whether they would. A Russian arms carrier was allowed to deliver weapons to Syria last month.
The region is shifting away from the condition of relative stability it inhabited as little as two years ago. Some things mean more now than they once would have, and some mean less. It went over most Americans’ heads, for example, that the homicidal soccer melee in Egypt on Wednesday occurred in Port Said, the entry point to the Suez Canal on the Mediterranean side. Additional follow-on violence has been seen in Port Suez, the southern access point on the Red Sea side of the canal. A crowd of at least 3,000 besieged the governorate security-force headquarters there on Friday, and had to be fought back by security personnel, with two protesters being killed.
The Egyptian revolution in early 2011 saw long-running protests in Suez, organized by the labor unions that work the port facilities. National authorities have assured the world that the canal will be kept safe, but the latest rounds of violence have hit the canal’s northern and southern access points within the space of 48 hours. The interim regime’s ability to secure the canal without a fight, or without disruption of service, is not guaranteed.
In the fluctuating conditions of the Middle East, it is not clear what reaction Iran’s naval ventures will get. Last year there was a US aircraft carrier in the immediate vicinity when the Iranian warships went through the Red Sea and Eastern Med. This year there is not. The US naval presence is relatively distant from the Eastern Med: two carriers in the Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea area; a BMD cruiser (USS Vella Gulf, CG-72) currently in the Black Sea; a couple of destroyers on antipiracy patrol off Somalia. We do not now maintain a deterrent, sea-control naval presence in the Med.
Would the nations of the region shrug off the Iranian naval deployment if it went further than Jeddah? Do those nations – Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Israel – see a need to decide on a “post-American” posture on this matter now? We don’t know yet. The warships may turn around in the Red Sea this time. But that day is coming.