Warships of the Islamic Revolutionary Iranian Navy have never visited a Saudi port until this week. Jeddah is on the Red Sea, where Iranian warships have occasionally ventured since they were first dispatched in late 2008 for anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. Regional reporting has indicated that Iranian patrol ships have made port calls in the Red Sea port of Assab, Eritrea (where other unconfirmed reports have it that Iran has deployed missiles – of unknown type – and a contingent of troops).
But until now, there has been no port call in Saudi Arabia and no hint of one. Indeed, Saudi reporting from November 2009 registered grave concern over Iranian activities in the Red Sea.
The two-ship Iranian task force, consisting of two British-built vessels, Vosper Mark V-class frigate Alvand and supply ship Kharg, left Iran on 26 January, according to Iranian news sources. The next day, a senior naval officer announced that the task force, deployed as the 12th Naval Group, “would enter the Red Sea and the Mediterranean waters.” The prospect of a Mediterranean deployment is as unprecedented as the Saudi port visit. There is no guarantee it will actually happen, but the timing is interesting.
While the Mubarak regime was in power, there was little possibility of Egypt permitting an Iranian naval task force to transit the Suez Canal. I’m not convinced any Egyptian authority will agree to such a transit before the country’s political future is sorted out – I certainly don’t think the Iranians know their warships are approaching a Canal that will be opened to them by a specific, expected change in political conditions. But what I do perceive is a bold move by Iran.
The current regime engages in a lot of bluster, but putting warships in the Red Sea port of America’s long-time partner Saudi Arabia is genuine action. For no navy on earth – not even ours – is a naval deployment undertaken easily or lightly. This is a big deal for them. It’s also a big deal for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been alarmed about revolutionary Iran’s activities for a long time; the chill between the two nations has meant precisely that things like naval port visits don’t happen. The Saudis wouldn’t have accepted this visit if they didn’t perceive their US-backed position as vulnerable and exposed.
I believe it’s the right thing for Mubarak to go. The Egyptian people have legitimate grievances and a genuine desire for better government. But regional relationships have already started to shift; the unprecedented port visit is uniquely clear evidence of that. Hezbollah, Iran’s client, triumphed in Lebanon in January; the Egyptian unrest has seen the emergence of Hezbollah and Hamas operatives from detention in Egypt and an increase in violence at the border with Gaza. It’s not just that the Saudis are running scared. Iran sees opportunity.
In the absence of US leadership, the only way the other regional actors can deal with Iran is through appeasement and the forming of counter-coalitions. We are already seeing the beginnings of those patterns. Turkey is vying for regional leadership; Egypt may do so as well, depending on the outcome of the popular revolt. Russia and China are in the mix already, but we can expect their roles in cultivating and backing clients to become more prominent. We can sit passively and watch the others sort out their priorities and their new BFFs, or we can declare our priorities and act like a leader.
Obama has declared one priority: that Egypt be able to decide her own political future, without outside interference. That’s a good priority, but it is meaningless without specific corollaries. One should be that the US will cooperate with Egypt and other nations in the region to interdict jihadists who plan to descend on Egypt, wherever they come from – and we will continue our cooperation with regional governments to prevent terror in their nations as well; namely, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and others. Another priority should be that the Suez Canal remain secure and open to traffic. We will partner with Egypt to ensure that; we will not leave it to anyone else. The other high priority is the continued observation of the peace accord between Egypt and Israel, including demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula.
All things are no longer equal; we cannot trust this situation to inertia and silence.