Israel’s navy has now sent one Dolphin submarine and two Saar-V class corvettes, or frigate-size warships, through the Suez Canal over the last month — the most such activity in years. Israel has been able to send warships through the Canal since 1979, when an agreement for such transits was concluded with Egypt, but the Israeli Navy suspended them late in 2005 due to concerns about the Canal’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks. The flurry of transits this summer is reportedly intended, at least in part, as “a show of strategic reach in the face of Iran.”
While this “show” has been interpreted as a demonstration of Israel’s ability to reach Iran, there is good reason to conclude that the equally important reach being demonstrated is into the Red Sea. The value of Israel’s Dolphin submarines to an attack on Iran’s nuclear program is not that great, in comparison to the effort required to deploy the submarines into positions in the Persian Gulf, and the limited target-set submarine-launched missiles are useful for. Of course, given the other constraints under which Israel has to operate, the value of a submarine stand-off attack option is still greater than zero, so the possibility should not be dismissed. But there is an equal and more immediate value in sending the signal to Iran that its shipping, including both arms carriers and warships, can be held at risk in the Red Sea, any time Israel wants to.
Events earlier this year highlighted the importance of the Red Sea, and of ports in Sudan and Eritrea, to Iran’s arms supply route to Hamas in Gaza. These events included an air attack on a Gaza-bound arms convoy in Sudan, in January; the sinking of a ship carrying cargo from Iran in the Red Sea in February; and another Iranian cargo ship being sunk during its approach to a port in Sudan, in April. The media is speculating that all these attacks were mounted by Israel. A Ynet report from April suggests that yet a third attack on an Iranian cargo ship in Sudan, in January, was indeed carried out by Israeli special forces.
Reuters also, however, reported Israeli officials warning more than a year ago that the Red Sea-Suez maritime route was a more significant path for arms to Gaza than land routes running through Egypt and Sudan. The convoluted tale of still another arms carrier from Iran, M/V Monchegorsk (aka Iran Hedayat), which was stopped in the Red Sea during “Cast Lead” by the U.S. Navy and Egyptian authorities and eventually detained in Cyprus, featured extensive reporting on maritime smuggling methods. Arms carriers reportedly drop cargo overboard in agreed spots, and Palestinians in fishing boats move in to retrieve it. Interdicting arms carriers in the Red Sea before they are subject to the Egyptian Canal authorities is the most effective way to guarantee there will be no delivery.
The Red Sea arms-trafficking threat thus looms on multiple vectors. Israel’s incentive to exert a de facto maritime control of Red Sea shipping, stretches back to at least the early 1970’s, when a “fedayeen” attack on an Israel-bound tanker reportedly prompted the Israelis to establish a special-forces presence in the Hanish islands on the Yemeni side of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The more recent December 1995 dispute between Yemen and Eritrea, in which Eritrea seized control of at least two of the islands, has been tied by analysts to Israel’s 1995 accord with President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea — as have Arab media reports, citing British intelligence, that Israel had a “naval base” (more likely a surveillance station) in Eritrea’s Dahlak Islands starting in the 1990s.
These reports, officially unsubstantiated but credible, give informative context to Iran’s own full-bore effort to demonstrate maritime reach into the Red Sea. Little noticed in the West, this initiative has been underway since late 2007, and in 2008 resulted in a naval basing concession for Iran — not just from any Red Sea nation, but from Eritrea, which is still ruled by Isaias Afewerki. Iran did not merely acquire a Red Sea partner, but lured away Israel’s. Using the pretext of anti-piracy patrols, Iran has had warships in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea since November 2008, and the ships reportedly spend much of their time pierside in Assab, Eritrea.
Iran already knows Israel can attack its nuclear facilities from the air. Tehran’s leaders are unlikely to discount the threat of submarine-launched missile attack, given the IDF’s means, and its reputation for audacity. Israel is probably sending more complex signals than these with the Suez Canal transits. First, the message that Israel can hold Iran’s shipping at risk — including by submarine stealth — in the Red Sea. Second, that by interdicting Iran’s Red Sea arrangements, Israel can thwart retaliatory terrorist attacks after an air strike. And third, that Israel may well position herself, by routinely operating her most powerful and longest-range warships in the Red Sea, to interdict Iranian shipping before it even gets there.
The submarines, in particular, give Israel the option of sinking arms carriers coming from Iran in the open ocean of the Arabian Sea, before they transit the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Making a submarine presence in the Red Sea mere routine could be a way to lull the regional suspicions that attend less frequent deployments. And of course, since no vessel can transit the Suez Canal without the knowledge and approval of the Egyptian authorities, Israeli warship transits clearly signal concerted action by Jerusalem and Cairo.
Regional reporting suggests the two Saar-V corvettes are heading for joint maneuvers with the U.S. Navy. The USS Bataan Expeditionary (Amphibious) Strike Group, with its embarked Marines, conducted tactical training in the Red Sea last week, and would be an impressive exercise partner for the Israeli warships. In conjunction with the IAF’s participation this month in exercises in Nevada and Washington State and Israel’s scheduled Arrow missile test at a U.S. rest range off California, also this month, the message about Israel’s tactical preparedness, and valuable strategic alliance, is a strong one. We will see how it holds up as the diplomatic messages evolve.