As tensions run high across the Middle East, two Iranian naval ships have sailed through the Suez Canal and back again, managing to irritate the Israelis without provoking a full-scale confrontation.
The vessels, a frigate and a naval supply ship, were the first to navigate the canal since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. They crossed into the Mediterranean on February 22 and docked at the Syrian port of Lattakia until their return voyage, travelling back through the Suez Canal on March 3 on their way back home.
Their appearance off the coast of Israel was cause for consternation in that country. While Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak admitted that there was little his country could do about the convoy, Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, condemned the Iranian action as a “provocation”.
The timing was significant. The round trip to Syria had been planned before the Middle Eastern unrest, but it was Egypt’s new military rulers who sanctioned their passage through the Suez Canal. The manouevre came only days after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, who was no friend of Tehran and who oversaw a longstanding peace deal with Israel.
Yet considering the fraught situation in the region, the mission went off without incident.
The commander of the Iranian navy, Rear-Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, claimed afterwards that the only tense moment happened on the return trip when the Israeli navy requested the ships to identify themselves. The reply was, “None of your business.”
A defence expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, who asked not to be named, said the absence of a stronger reaction from Washington and Tel Aviv suggested that Tehran had laid the way for it with some care, by ensuring previous naval missions as far as the Gulf of Aden were not accompanied by firebrand rhetoric, and by joining the international effort to suppress Somali piracy.
Even opponents of the Iranian regime have acknowledged the skill with which the diplomatic side of this naval mission was executed. Massoud Behnoud, a veteran dissident and journalist based in London, wrote that Iran’s tactful handling of the matter “even won admiration from its critics”.
“It is a reward for judicious and timely action,” he added. “It brought a sense of pride on which both [regime] opponents and supporters can agree.”
While its Mediterranean foray was a first, Iran’s navy has been operating around the Gulf of Aden – which leads to the Suez Canal – for some time. The two-vessel was the 12th deployed in international waters since 2009, when several Iranian ships were hijacked by Somali pirates.
A defence analyst in Tehran, who did not want to be identified, believes the piracy problem been a blessing in disguise for Iran. Despite the high costs to commercial shipping, the navy has been able to expand its strategic presence on the high seas.
A couple of months before the frigate Alvand entered the Mediterranean, it had already completed a trip to Sri Lanka. Although the mission was just to take part in an international naval review, it was hailed as a success by Rear-Admiral Gholam-Reza Khadem Bigham, deputy commander of the navy, who said Iran was now joining other world powers whose navies cruised international waters.
Tehran is clearly serious about becoming a major player in international waters, at least in the Indian Ocean. Its navy performed the first exercises there last May.
Rear-Admiral Sayyari said recently that the new emphasis on projecting naval power onto the high seas was taking place on the instructions of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter of Iranian foreign and security policy. He added that as well as surface ships, submarines were likely to be deployed in international waters in future.
“Some believe that Iran’s naval presence is no more than a propaganda exercise, given its limited resources,” the Tehran-based analyst said. “But we should remember that an expansion of naval power depends, more than anything else, on building up seafaring experience.”
A former officer from old Iranian Royal Navy says recent efforts to extend the reach of the Iranian fleet remind him of the Shah’s ambition to become a major player in the Indian Ocean, not just the Persian Gulf.
“His Highness’s dream has come true,” he said.
Ebrahim Gilani is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and foreign policy analyst based in London.