From BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 175, July 26, 2012, by Dr. Shaul Shay*:
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: As tensions rise in the Middle East over Iran's nuclear weapons program, Tehran has upped the ante by developing an aggressive new naval strategy and sent warships to the Mediterranean for the first time since 1979. In addition, it threatens to block key straits in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf that would cripple Western shipping routes. Such bold moves by the Iranian navy are clearly meant to intimidate the West from continuing its pressure on Tehran regarding the nuclear issue, to show that Iran is able to foment trouble in the region, to aid its allies and counter the American naval presence, and to encroach with physical proximity upon Israel.
In June 2012 Iran announced that it would hold a naval exercise together with Syria and Russia in the eastern Mediterranean. This reflects an ongoing change in Iranian naval strategy. For years Iranian vessels have operated exclusively in the Persian Gulf. A new evolving strategy has now caused Iran to send military vessels to other waters including the Gulf of Oman, Caspian Sea, Red Sea, and even the Mediterranean Sea. Iran's naval leadership has declared that since today's major global threats are sea-based, Iran must update its naval forces and strategy.
In February 18, 2012, Iranian Admiral Habibollah Sayyari announced that two warships entered the Mediterranean for the second time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, showcasing Iran's "might" to regional countries. They docked at the Syrian port of Tartous, marking Iranian naval cooperation with the Syrian regime.
This expanded naval presence has been accompanied by threats in response to the ever-harsher sanctions being imposed on the country over its nuclear program. For example, in February 2012, Hossein Ebrahimi, a vice chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, called the ships "a serious warning" in case of any US strategic mistake in Syria.
The strategy is result of the Iranian attempt to achieve regional hegemony and a response to the perceived threats to its national interests, in particular Western attempts to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Therefore, Iran has adopted a new strategy of naval presence in the region, sending ships to the Red and Mediterranean seas.
Iranian Naval Strategy in the Red Sea
Iran recognizes the Red Sea as a strategic area of interest because of its desire to gain control over the main maritime oil and gas route to the West, the straits on each corner of the Arabian Peninsula: Hormuz to the east and Bab-el-Mandeb to the west. The latter forms the southern tip of the Red Sea between Eritrea and Yemen, places of strategic importance for Iran. Control of this area is also important when combatting Somali pirates who operate in the Gulf of Aden and threaten international oil shipping routes. The Red Sea route is also a main channel of communication and arms supply from Iran to its regional ally Hamas in the Gaza Strip, allowing Iran to funnel weapons to the Strip via Yemen, the sea, and through Sudan to Sinai and ultimately Gaza.
The straits of Bab-el-Mandeb are situated three kilometers from Eritrea and Yemen and constitute the closest spot to the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, the passageway for oil tankers and cargo ships in the African and Southwest Asian regions.
Eritrea has fostered close political, military, and economic ties with Iran. Iran has mist likely used Eritrea as a base to provide weapons to Shiite Houthi insurgents in Yemen. According to the Yemeni military, Iranian weapons have been used by Houthi rebels against the Yemeni government.
The Iranian Navy has been conducting anti-piracy patrols in the high seas, including the Gulf of Aden, since November 2008, when Somali raiders hijacked the Iranian-chartered cargo ship MV Delight, off the coast of Yemen. In September 2010 the Iranian Navy dispatched its tenth flotilla of warships to the Gulf of Aden to defend the country's cargo ships and oil tankers against the continued threat of attack by Somali pirates. The presence of the Iranian Fourth Fleet in the Gulf of Aden is useful in smuggling weapons to Iranian proxies in Somalia and Yemen.
Iranian Naval Presence in the Mediterranean Sea
The deployment of the Iranian ships in the Mediterranean is no surprise. In September 2010, Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari relayed Iran's plan to continue naval deployment in the high seas as part of Tehran's strategy for defending its interests abroad. In addition, he announced several months later that Iran would deploy its first home-made destroyer, Jamaran, in international waters. Soon after, on February 25, 2011, two Iranian warships docked in Syria after passing through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea, the first time Iranian ships passed through the canal since 1979.
This new development comes at a time of significant turmoil in the region and illustrates the Iranian search for strategic dominance in the region and Iranian efforts to support its regional allies in the Mediterranean: Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas.
Iran has used maritime routes to send arms shipments to Hizballah and Hamas through Sudan or the Mediterranean and has smuggled weapons into Gaza. In fact, from 2002–2012 the Israeli Navy intercepted five of these ships: the Karin A in 2002, the Abu Hasan in 2003, the MV Francop in 2009, the Victoria in 2011, and the Atlantic Cruiser in 2012.
In addition, an Iranian naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean could complicate a future maritime struggle near Gaza. Ali Shirazi, Khamenei's representative in the Revolutionary Guard, claimed in 2010 that Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards were ready to provide a military escort to cargo ships trying to break Israel's blockade of Gaza.
Iran is also a strategic ally of the Assad regime in Syria. Its naval deployment sends a strategic message of support in turbulent times for Assad. It also adds to Western concerns that the Syrian crisis could boil over into a regional conflict. Iranian presence could also deter a Western intervention in Syria.
Finally, the naval Iranian presence is intended to intimidate the West from continuing its pressure on Tehran and the nuclear issue. If a significant number of Western warships can operate in the Gulf – which Iran sees as its maritime backyard – then Iran can also deploy vessels to the Mediterranean, which NATO countries regard as their maritime backyard. It complements the Iranian campaign of terror against Israeli targets that can be expanded to Western targets as well.
The arrival of Iranian military vessels to the Mediterranean represents a clear sign of Tehran's widening strategic horizons and serves several functions. The efforts invested in building a stronger navy buttress the Iranian quest for expanding its influence in the Red Sea region and eastern Mediterranean. It is able to foment trouble and aid its allies, as well as counter the American naval presence. It also encroaches upon physical proximity to Israel, an arch-enemy. For now the Iranian naval deployment in areas close to Israel, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean is limited but nonetheless is of concern for Israel.
*Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay is former Deputy Head of the Israel National Security Council and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He lectures at Bar-Ilan University and the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.