Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | June 8, 2011

Oh boy: Iranian submarine(s) in the Red Sea

In the hours after Iran’s Fars News agency reported on 7 June that the Iranian navy had deployed “submarines” to the Red Sea, a US military spokesman confirmed the deployment referenced by Iranian authorities.

Neither US nor Iranian sources have specified how many submarines are actually involved.  My supposition would be that the deployment involves a single Kilo-class submarine (Iran has three constructed by Russia), which is built for transits and patrols at relatively long ranges.  The submarine is in company with a surface task force (recently deployed for antipiracy duty), which includes an Iranian destroyer.

On one previous occasion, in December 2008, regional reporting suggested an Iranian submarine showed up briefly in the Eritrean port of Assab on the Red Sea.  I was skeptical of that report at the time and continue to be so.  In any event, this month’s deployment represents the first time the Iranian government has announced putting a submarine in the Red Sea.

Egypt is unlikely to allow an Iranian submarine to transit the Suez Canal, at least for the time being.  Iranian submarine operations will probably be confined to the Red Sea while the current government is in place in Cairo.  But the Red Sea is far enough to go to send shivers through the region.

Analysts have focused on different purposes for signal-sending from Tehran; Stratfor emphasizes the impending US drawdown in Iraq and says “this is all about Iran calling dibs on the Mesopotamian sphere of influence.”  DEBKAfile – rather weirdly – calls the deployment a “riposte” to the indictment handed down by IAEA of the secrecy and actionable discrepancies in Iran’s nuclear program.  (DEBKA usually goes for more sensational theories.)

In my judgment, both evaluations are missed tips.  I’m sure Iran did have these issues in mind in deciding to go forward with this deployment, but it is always a mistake to go out of your way to discount the obsessive concern of Iran’s current leadership with two things: Israel, and revolutionary Iran’s overseas adventures in terrorism and nation-torturing (e.g., with Hamas in Gaza, and in Lebanon and Syria).

The Iranian submarine (probably) can’t get into the Mediterranean for now.  But it can reconnoiter Israeli naval operations from the base at Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba, as well as the operations of the Egyptian and Saudi navies in the Red Sea.

It can lay mines, although we need not assume that that is imminent.  It can hold other shipping at risk with torpedoes.

But it can also attempt covert cargo transfers at sea to anyone who can get a boat into the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden: Hamas, obviously, or Iranian-supported factions in Yemen or Somalia.

Iran surely cares about Mesopotamian dibs and the plans of the Western nations to counter her nuclear program.  But in terms of her priorities and her modus operandi – undermining Israel, extending the reach of her brand of Islamism through covert action, and supporting terrorist insurgencies – a submarine in the Red Sea has direct, tactical application, and at a political juncture never seen before.  No six-month period in history has combined the destabilizing political eruptions of the Arab Spring with the concerted effort of the Palestinian Authority and its supporters to press for a multilateral fait accompli against Israel.  Those factors, in my view, are the ones at the top of the mullahs’ priorities list.

Iran will want to get the region accustomed to a “forward presence” posture from her submarines.  The announcement was undoubtedly geared partly to that consideration.  The submarine may show up shortly in a Red Sea port – perhaps Eritrea’s – in which case the prior announcement would showcase and defuse that event.

An Iranian Kilo is not a ballistic- or cruise-missile equipped submarine; it cannot be in the Red Sea to hold the territory of Israel or Saudi Arabia at risk.  There is some strategic value, in terms of signal sending, to proving that Iran can bring this deployment off.  But analyzing this development solely in that more abstract light is insufficient.

The final consideration is that Iran is probing the US with this move.  No one in the region thinks it’s a good idea for an Iranian submarine to be driving around the local waterways loaded with mines and torpedoes.  A blasé US attitude is the opposite of a leadership posture.  This matters, and to speak as if it doesn’t is to appear clueless.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.


Responses

  1. Keeping tabs on an Iranian pig boat is good training for the US Navy. And by the way opticon, what did you think of “Blindman’s Bluff”? I thought it was a great read but don’t know about the veracity of it. Your thoughts?

    • I read it a long time ago and enjoyed it although I can no longer recall the plot. One thing I do recall, though, is the error in the title. The phrase is “blind man’s buff,” not “bluff.” “Buff” is short for “buffet” or blow, and a blind man’s buffet signifies an ineffectual effort, a pointless attempt, since there’s nothing easier to avoid than a flailing blind man.

      As for the Iranian sub, my hope is that it soon develops an unaccountable leak sending it to the bottom.

  2. “Iran’s overseas adventures in terrorism and nation-torturing (e.g., with Hamas in Gaza, and in Lebanon and Syria).”

    Don’t forget Yemen, which is looking awfully wobbly at the moment.

  3. nailheadtom — I too thought Blind Man’s “Bluff” was a great read. Can neither confirm nor deny that I thought any more than that. 🙂

    I agree with Tminus1 on the need for a fast leak in the Kilo’s hull. As a partly-fledged, honorary member of the submariner community, I of course hope that happens when the sub is next to the pier and has only a skeleton duty crew aboard, who can all get out and go on to live happily in the new and better regime coming in Iran…

    (Thanks for the comments on “Buff” versus “Bluff” — I gave up on mentioning that a long time ago, and would bet 95% of English-speaking people don’t know which word is correct.)

    Steven, you’re right about Yemen. I think there is an internal struggle going on there between Muslim Brotherhood/Al Qaedists and Iran-backed Shi’as — barely visible to us in the West, but it will decide the near-term fate of the country. In terms of who wins the internecine radical-Islamist duel, Yemen and Somalia are a dyad: gateways to each other and interdependent. Iran has put a covert asset right in the traffic scheme.

  4. Any chance this could be one or more of the smaller, North Korean subs?

  5. A reader at Hot Air asked a good question, and I am appending the question and my response here for TOC readers’ consumption:

    Question:

    Are we so sure this sub hasn’t been modified for missiles of some kind?

    Not endorsing the idea, and not sure it’s even possible, but we should always deal with capabilities, not just intentions, right?

    WitchDoctor on June 8, 2011 at 11:55 AM

    Answer:

    WitchDoctor — you bring up a good point. Iran tested a submarine-launched missile of former-Soviet design in August 2006. The Klub-S (NATO desig SS-N-4, range about 220km) is launched from the torpedo tubes, so it wouldn’t require modification.

    Iran may have launched a back-engineered Chinese version of the missile, rather than a Soviet-produced one. China is thought to have provided it.

    You’re right that the worst-case assumption would be that Iran has fully incorporated the missile into the Kilos’ operational load-out. There is no specific evidence of that, at least not available to the public, but China and Iran opened a joint missile manufacturing facility in 2009, so the possibility should not be discounted.

    It’s a very old, 1960s-technology missile design; modern air defense systems like Israel’s or the Saudis’ would be effective against it.

    J.E. Dyer on June 8, 2011 at 12:16 PM

  6. Kent Gatewood — no, no chance it could be one of the Iranian-built mini-subs. They are too small and can’t carry enough fuel to operate for days on patrol at the range required.

    Iran could mass them at the Strait of Hormuz and hold every steel-hulled ship that goes through it at risk, but they can’t stay out for more than a few days at a time. Even a big, tough battery needs recharging from a fuel-driven source. A mini-sub like the Ghadir could extend its operating TIME by doing a lot of low-energy bottoming while it lies in wait, but could not extend its RANGE that way.

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  8. What’s the big stink about all this? Didn’t Israel deploy two Dolphin class subs in the Persian Gulf some time ago? These are said to be capable of launching nuclear tipped cruise missiles. Who is provoking who?

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