As Gulf Tensions Grow, Israel Prepares to Fend Off Maritime Threats

Concerned over Iran's influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, defense officials discuss potential attacks on vessels, including surface-to-sea missiles and fast boat attacks

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Israeli naval vessel at Haifa Port, February 15, 2017.
Israeli naval vessel at Haifa Port, February 15, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Israel is preparing to address potential threats to its naval and merchant marine vessels and those making their way to Israel, amid rising tensions in the Gulf over the seizure of British oil tankers by Iran's Revolutionary Guards on Friday.

At a recent discussion over potential measures to contend with threats both along Israel's coast and farther away, defense officials said Iran plays a significant role in the naval arena not only in the Gulf but in the Eastern Mediterranean, too, currently also posing a threat to Israeli vessels passing through the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea.

Israel hasn't identified any Iranian plot to confront it at sea, and officials assess Tehran is trying to exact costs for the sanctions imposed on it while avoiding action that would be considered a declaration of war; Iran understands attacking an Israeli vessel, whether commercial or military, would not go without retribution. Therefore, even in an escalation, Tehran would likely prefer to let militias it backs, such as the Houthis in Yemen or Hezbollah in Lebanon, operate on its behalf. These groups are capable of targeting Israeli ships up to 300 kilometers away, placing all Israeli waters within range of Iranian missiles in Lebanon, Syria or Yemen.

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A marine barrier in the southern city of Eilat was recently erected to protect vessels anchoring at its naval port, in order to prevent civilian vessels carrying tourists from entering it, but also due to the rising tensions in the region and intelligence suggesting a potential attack could be launched by fast boats or similar watercraft.

In recent years, the Israeli navy has operated with almost complete liberty on all fronts while keeping its activity largely undisclosed, allowing it to play a key part in the Israel Defense Forces' efforts against Iran's entrenchment in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as reports of Israeli actions on these fronts reported in recent years show.

Given the Israeli navy's good relations with foreign ones, officials are also taking into consideration the presence of many global players at sea. Russia, the United States, China, France and the United Kingdom all have presence in Israel's naval arena, as do Poland, Greece, Scandinavian naval forces and those from East Asian countries, who participate in international forces.

The targeting of an Israeli warship during the 2006 Second Lebanon War with Hezbollah has led defense officials to change their prevailing baseline assumption, now assuming any vessel could be attacked. Officials estimate Israeli vessels may be under threat, regardless of its navy's superiority over foreign navies considered hostile.

Iran seizes tankerCredit: Reuters

Discussing marine threats, officials voiced concern over potential aerial attacks, as well as attacks by long-range surface-to-sea missiles, drones or fast boats. Officials also noted Iran has worked over the past years to convert long-range rockets into precision naval rockets, developing GPS-based technology and advanced optical systems. Tehran, Israel assesses, has begun producing these rockets, and may deliver them to the Houthis or to Hezbollah, leading to the premise that any capabilities Iran has might also be used anywhere else in the region where there is Iranian involvement.