The recent passage of two Iranian naval ships through the Suez Canal for the first time since the Iranian revolution of 1979 has drawn large media attention in the West and Israel.
In a reaction to this development, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated “we can see what an unstable region we live in, a region in which Iran tries to exploit the situation that has been created in order to expand its influence by passing warships through the Suez Canal”.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom also said that “the timing of the crossing was an unmistakable message from Iran that it is attempting to expand its influence in the region”.
“The objective is to signal to the leaders of the Arab world who the new leader is in the Middle East,” Shalom said.
Given the degree of sensitivity exhibited by Israel to this, it is important to know why Iran has decided to send its naval ships to the Mediterranean Sea after well over three decades and what significance and implications would this move entail in the long run.
The evidence shows that it was a sheer coincidence that Iranian ships have crossed the Suez Canal at the height of political upheavals in the region. The decision by Iran to dispatch its naval ships to the Mediterranean Sea was obviously taken well before Mubarak was ousted from power. Iranian ships reportedly embarked on their journey in mid-January, when there was no indication that the Egyptian dictator was falling any time soon.
However, Iranian officials tried to use the presence of their naval ships in the region as a signal to Israeli leaders, warning them against any military adventures in light of the ongoing turmoil in the region. It was in this vein that the chairman of the Iranian chiefs of staff, General Firouzabadi, warned the Egyptian military commanders about the possibility of the seizure of the Sinai peninsula and the Suez canal by Israeli forces in light of the uncertain future political order in Egypt.
Regardless of its short-term and symbolic significance, the presence of the Iranian naval ships in the Mediterranean Sea signifies Iran’s increased confidence and assertiveness in conducting naval operations in areas far away from its own coasts. Iran has traditionally limited its naval operations to the Persian Gulf and to the Sea of Oman.
However, over the past two years Iran has conducted a number of naval operations in the Gulf of Aden combating Somali pirates. The first group of Iranian naval ships was deployed to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, after several incidents of piracy against Iranian cargo ships and oil tankers by Somali pirates. Iran has since dispatched several other groups of naval ships on the same mission to the Gulf of Aden. These experiences have admittedly boosted the confidence and the skills of the Iranian navy in conducting similar operations and having presence in distant seas.
It is not clear how long the two Iranian naval ships will stay in the Mediterranean Sea and whether Iran is considering to deploy more naval ships to the area in the future and to establish a longer-term naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. It has lately been reported that Iranian and Syrian naval authorities have signed an agreement paving the way for broader naval cooperation between the two countries, including the possibility of additional Iranian ships visiting Syrian ports in the future. The prospects of any long-term and, more importantly, larger naval presence in the Mediterranean sea by Iran will surely be unnerving to Israel.
Regardless of whether Iran is seriously considering such options, any long-term naval presence of Iran in the Mediterranean Sea will have significant implications for Iran-Israel relations, as well as for broader Middle East politics. The most obvious implication would be that Iran’s naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea will put the military forces of the two countries in a direct contact zone. Under present conditions, there is no possibility of face-to-face military confrontation between the two countries as they share neither land nor sea borders with one another. Any possible military confrontation between the two countries is currently limited to missile and aerial strikes on each other or war through proxies. Iran’s naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea at any size will not make an all-out war possible between Iran and Israel, but it will increase the possibilities of limited direct military conflict between the two countries.
Increased possibility of limited direct military conflict between the two countries will in turn entail other implications. One main implication of Iran’s long-term naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea will be that Iran will have more retaliation options in the event of an Israeli military strike on its nuclear facilities. In a hypothetical military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel will first need to neutralize Iranian naval ships and submarines in the area. Israel already faces viable retaliation options by Iran which act as deterrence against any possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, but Iran’s naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea will bolster the existing deterrence and will make such an attack seem even more daunting for Israel.
By the same token, the long-term naval presence of Iran in the Mediterranean Sea will also raise the costs of any future military aggression by Israel against Iranian allies in the region. As the Hezbollah-Israel war in the summer of 2006 demonstrated, Iranian options to support its allies in the face of an Israeli military aggression have been limited to diplomatic and logistical supports. Any naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea will make it harder for Iran to remain on the sidelines in the event of a military attack by Israel on Iran’s allies in the region. It is true that a handful of Iranian naval ships and submarines cannot exert decisive damage on Israel and thus deter it from military action when its vital interests are at stake, but they can limit Israel’s room for maneuver in the region by raising the costs of its military confrontations in the future. Having made these points, it remains to be seen what trajectory regional events take in the upcoming months.