The recent wave of uprisings across the Arab world provided Iran with numerous strategic and tactical opportunities to expand its status as a regional hegemon.
The announcement that Tehran has dispatched submarines to the Red Sea, in what is the first such deployment by Iran's Navy in distant waters, is the latest step in a series of actions the Islamic Republic has taken to secure its power in the region.
Permanent presence of warships and submarines in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea allows Tehran to keep surveillance of IDF Navy activities, which foreign reports claim Israel is conducting in the Red Sea and the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea.
According to the reports, Israeli naval activity aims to thwart arms smuggling from Iran to the Gaza Strip. The cargos leave from Iranian ports, pass through Yemen and reach Sudan's Red Sea coast. From Sudan they are transported by land to Egypt and then to the Sinai Peninsula.
Another smuggling route is on board unsuspected merchant ships, which sail directly across the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal and all the way to Port Said in Egypt, where the cargo is unloaded from the ships and loaded on another vessel that sails to Syria. The cargo can also be transported by land, through the tunnels, into the Gaza Strip.
Providing assistance to Hezbollah
The reports claim that the IDF and Navy employ constant operational and intelligence efforts to thwart smuggling attempts, including sinking Iranian ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, attacking convoys en-route from Sudan to Egypt and seizing cargo ships suspected of carrying weapons to Syria or to Hamas.
Iranian naval presence in the Red Sea enables the Revolutionary Guard to track Israeli activity and secure arms shipments by warning the vessels carrying the weapons or the smugglers waiting on shore, and perhaps in the future – by directly confronting with Israeli naval forces.
Arms seized on Victoria ship (Photo: Tsafrir Abayov)
Foreign reports also stated that Israel has been deploying various vessels, including submarines, to patrol along the Iranian coastline in order to gather intelligence on the nuclear and ballistic missile programs and prepare for future altercations.
These Israeli submarines, the reports claim, are equipped with the latest cruise missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. If these reports are true, Iranian presence in the Red Sea might also be geared toward tracking and thwarting such activity.
But Iran is not stopping there. It wants to establish a naval military presence in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea by dispatching its fleet through the Suez Canal.
Tehran regards this as an important step that will demonstrate to the Arab world and the Iranian people that it is a regional power, which is capable of military deployment in distant waters.
Iran's military presence also aimed at hinting to its allies – Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas – that it can provide them with assistance if needed.
Iran needs alternatives
The recent uprisings in Syria and the uncertainty surrounding the future of Bashar Assad's regime further highlights the urgency Iran is facing.
If and when the Syrian president is overthrown, Iran is expected to lose several important assets in Syria, including intelligence bases from which it keeps track of Israeli intelligence activity, and roads connecting between Syria and Lebanon, by which Iran provides Hezbollah with logistic aid and transports Revolutionary Guard members.
Iranian submarines. Coming our way? (Archive photo: AFP)
The unstable political situation in Syria can also potentially harm the connection with Hamas and Islamic Jihad's headquarters in Damascus, with which Iran conducts most of its contact.
Iran needs to prepare alternatives in case the Alawi regime collapses. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad know that the Syrian Sunnis will turn a cold shoulder to Iran, or even become hostile, and so will other elements that might take the place of the current leadership.
Naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and strengthening ties with Egypt may provide the answer, albeit a partial one.
The Iranians are acting determinately, but with caution – step by step. Their naval presence in the Gulf of Aden began last year under the guise of helping international efforts against Somali Piracy.
The big leap was taken in February, when Tehran asked the Egyptian authorities to allow two of its warships to cross the Suez Canal. The pretext was "a friendship and peace flotilla" to Syria.
Egypt's Higher Military Council, still overcoming the latest events in Tahrir Square and the fall of Mubarak, authorized the move in an attempt to prove that it had shifted its policies from those of the previous regime, which has been hostile to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in the country.
In the near future, we can expect to see more Iranian attempts to dispatch fleets through the Suez Canal and perhaps amassment of large Iranian naval forces in the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts. This trend can be slowed down if the Americans decide to assert their influence over Egypt's Higher Military Council.
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