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.