Nicholas Saidel

Iran’s Naval Upgrade Could Spell War for Israel in Africa

Iran’s sea power is growing.  For evidence of this one need look no further than the Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets that were fired from Gaza into Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense.  These rockets, which by Hamas’ intent landed in civilian population centers such as Tel Aviv and Rishon Letzion, increase Hamas’ ability to rain down terror and death upon Israel both due to their range and their payload.  While Iran asserts it only provided Hamas with the technology to build the Fajr-5, reality presents a much starker picture involving Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and mastery of the high seas.

Iran has been investing in its navy for quite some time now.  As Western powers continue to threaten military action over Iran’s nuclear program, Iran recognizes the best deterrent and possible recourse to such action is closing the Straitz of Hormuz, arguably the most important oil shipping lane in the world.  Of course, this cannot be done without a modern navy able to threaten and inflict considerable damage to any ship or enemy force attempting to break through the blockade.  It is thought a combination of ships and weaponry would be needed, namely, warships, submarines, speed boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, torpedoes, surface-to-sea missiles, and drones.  Iran’s navy has thus become much more diverse and robust.  One report concludes:

Iran has expanded its maritime capability in terms of vessels and personnel; the combined naval forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy consist of submarines, frigates, corvettes, missile patrol crafts, mine warfare ships, coastal and inshore patrol crafts, and amphibious ships. Additionally, naval aviation support includes maritime patrol aircraft and armed helicopters. The total man power strength is approximately some 38,000 persons trained to fight traditional naval and asymmetric naval warfare… Iran has greatly improved its anti-ship missiles and missile warfare capability. The Iranian major weapon systems (obtained mostly from China) include the CSS-C-2 Seersucker (long-range mobile anti-ship missile); the Yinji (Hawk, C-801 anti-ship missile); the upgraded C-802 system; and the air launched anti-missile and variant of the C-801.

Iran has been weakened by the near-collapse of its Syrian ally and the economic sanctions imposed by the international community.  To restore its regional position and shore up domestic support, Iran is attempting to wrest back control of the Palestinian cause from its rivals in the region – the Sunni bloc of Turkey, Egypt and Qatar.  Warming relations with Hamas in particular, once chilled over contrasting views on Syria, also benefits Iran in its asymmetrical conflict with Israel.  Bleeding Israel through the use of proxy armies is essential to Iran’s Israel strategy (See Hezbollah).  The naval upgrade has given Iran the means to fulfill all of these goals, allowing it to make increasingly bold moves in order to supply Hamas with advanced weapons in its existential war against the Jewish state.

Iran is using its new found maritime power to wield more influence in the Red Sea, where the United States and Royal Saudi navies have traditionally dominated and where Israeli submarines and UAVs search for smuggling operations and maritime threats.  More importantly, Iran is using its naval power to enshrine its alliance with the Islamist government in Sudan, led by the indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir.  Sudan, which borders the Red Sea, is a critical component of the weapons supply route from Iran to Gaza.  According to Western intelligence reports, Iranian weapons and munitions leave Iran’s port of Bandar Abbas and make their way to one of several Sudanese ports before being smuggled by Bedouins into Gaza through Egypt.  Sudan also plays host to Iranian weapons manufacturing facilities, such as the Yarmouk plant in Khartoum, owned and operated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.  Sudan was implicated in the 2002 Karine A Affair as well, which involved the Israeli seizure of a cargo ship in the Red Sea carrying weapons destined for the Palestinian Authority.  It was at a Sudanese port where the cargo and crew of the ship were changed to conceal the ship’s mission.

In light of all this, Israel has adopted a very muscular Sudan policy.  Israel allegedly attacked Yarmouk with air strikes in October of this year.  This was not the first time Israel allegedly struck inside Sudan.  In January 2009, Israel allegedly used fighter bombers backed by drones to attack a 23-truck convoy in the Sudanese desert carrying arms to Hamas.  On the diplomatic front, Israel has taken measures to counterbalance the Iranian-Sudanese alliance.  Israel has been courting the South Sudanese government – a Christian-majority state,  which after years of bloodshed, still has unresolved border issues with its northerly neighbor.

Iran’s confidence since the Yarmouk incident is astounding.  Iranian warships have docked at Port Sudan twice since Yarmouk in displays of strength and solidarity with the Sudanese regime.  And on December 12, 2012 it was reported that al-Bashir gave the green light to Iran to establish a permanent military naval base on Sudanese soil, replete with long range missiles that could hit deep into the heart of Israel as well as Saudi Arabia and U.S. bases in the region.  Saudi Arabia, for its part, has threatened to cut off its substantial investment and aid to Sudan if the Iranian military installation is constructed.

Iranian confidence is also apparent from its efforts to rearm Hamas with Fajr-5 rockets so soon after the latest round of violence.  Israeli intelligence claims Iran began preparing weapons shipments to Gaza through Sudan at the same time the ceasefire deal was being reached.  Israel has gone on the record to state that the ceasefire will be null and void if Fajr-5 rockets once again reach Gaza.  Adding to this precarious situation, by all accounts the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt are being rebuilt and the smuggling of goods of all kinds has already resumed.

Though a ceasefire agreement was reached, there is still no concrete plan on how to deal with weapons smuggling, both into Egypt from Sudan and out of Egypt into Gaza.  This smuggling issue hinges primarily on one man, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who proved to be an adept and pragmatic politician during the negotiations leading up to the ceasefire agreement.  How he balances Egypt’s domestic support for the Palestinian cause with Egypt’s strategic interest in placating its primary benefactor, the United States, will in great measure affect the risk of a conflict between Israel and Iran either in the Red Sea or in Sudan.  With tensions surrounding the nuclear issue looming in the background, any direct confrontation between Israel and Iran would likely result in all-out war.  And as it stands now, it seems Iranian hubris, buoyed by material advances in naval power, is on a straight-line trajectory to meet Israeli resolve in Africa.




About the Author
Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania