Iran's New Strategic Threat Against Israel

The possibility of closing the Bab al-Mandab and Hormuz straits pose a threat no less serious than others coming from Tehran and Hezbollah

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the inauguration of the newly arrived foundation platform for the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Haifa, on January 31, 2019.
Marc Israel Sellem / AFP

Update: Saudi DC embassy confirms interception of Houthi missiles headed for Mecca

Israel isn’t involved. That’s the official response to anyone who asks what the recent deterioration in relations between Iran and the United States means for Jerusalem. We’re not involved; we’re not addressing or responding to it. Ramifications? Potential harm to Israel’s maritime space? Our lips are sealed.

But on the informal level, behind the scenes, there is concern. Israel understands well that a possible escalation of tensions along the Tehran-Washington axis constitutes a different kind of strategic threat: harm to free passage in the shipping lanes to and from Israel.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and local intelligence officials are getting continuous updates about developments from the Americans and other countries. Three names apparently starring in these updates are the straits of Bab al-Mandab and Hormuz, and the Suez Canal. Iran is threatening to seal off these passages hermetically, with no entry to commercial vessels, and with anyone persisting in entering risking attack. This is a threat in every sense, no less serious than the others directed at Israel by Tehran and Hezbollah, which are perceived as more tangible. This time the warhead is not on a missile.

Gulf Infographic

There are no alternatives to these shipping lanes; they are among the most important in the world: Approximately 20 percent of the world’s fuel passes through these straits every year. Bab al-Mandab is the gateway from Asia and Africa – through the Suez Canal – to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe, and one cannot exaggerate its importance. With regard to Israel, 90 percent of its imports and exports are transported by sea, and 12 percent of them pass through Bab al-Mandab. This includes all commerce between Israel and the East, particularly its imports from China. We’re talking about around $15 billion worth of goods a year.

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Although it seems as though blockage of these straits (Hormuz being the only passageway from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean) is no more than a plan on paper, for now – there is apparently no alternative but to prepare for such an eventuality, whether it occurs in the near or distant future. In any case there will be a price to pay. At best it will be merely a (substantial) hike in the cost of shipping insurance. At worst, all maritime transportation via these strategic choke points will stop altogether. Israel’s economy will have a hard time dealing with such a situation, certainly if it lasts a long time.

Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

A lack of strategy?

This is where Israeli deterrence comes in – or, at least, is supposed to come in. The Iranian threats that have been so widely expressed in recent days are not the first. In the past Jerusalem has had some sharp verbal exchanges with Tehran over maritime issues. This happened when Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami declared a few months ago that “Tehran will destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa,” if the United States were to attack Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu hastened to respond the next day, while standing on an Israeli missile boat, declaring that “Our missiles can reach very far.” Hatami recently reiterated his threat.

As far back as last August, the Iranians threatened to close the straits, and Netanyahu responded: “If Iran will try to block the straits of Bab al-Mandab, it will find itself facing a determined international coalition that will include the State of Israel with all its weaponry.”

But there arises the question of what is behind these threats and that promise. Israel “has no overall maritime strategy,” says political scientist Shaul Horev, a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces reserves, who commanded a flotilla of submarines and missile boats and currently heads the Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy.

In a strategic naval assessment published in January, the center wrote that Netanyahu’s responses to threats from Iran must be “backed by a comprehensive naval strategy that will deal with the issue by means of a maritime coalition of western forces operating in the region, or independently.”

Horev is not alone in thinking that Israel is lacking a vital strategy: Security and defense officials, past and present, as well as other researchers, agree with the professor. They have repeatedly warned that the way the Israel Navy is building its forces for the future won’t necessarily meet the challenges and missions it is expected to face in a changing arena.

Some say the navy is still thinking in terms of fighting enemy battleships and insists on participating in the fighting vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip despite the fact, as one source said, that the navy's “influence on the fighting in such events is marginal to irrelevant.” In addition, there are those who believe that in the last 10 years, the IDF's top brass and naval commanders have exploited the navy’s protection of offshore gas rigs to soak up budgets and pursue procurement the likes of which the navy has never seen before – while meanwhile neglecting other, equally important matters. Such as ongoing maintenance of security, for example.

The U.S. Navy's Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group transits the Suez Canal in Egypt, May 9, 2019.
U.S. Navy via AP

The navies of Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia and other countries, say these officials and researchers, have realized that they must change with the times. The Israel Navy hasn’t. It doesn’t accept the fact that it’s supposed to protect Israel’s economy too, for example, by guarding its maritime trade routes.

Theoretically, the navy is aware of this. Over a year ago Israel Navy Commander Gen. Eli Sharvit wrote in the defense establishment publication Maarachot that the threat to maritime traffic has changed and intensified: Israel must aim to achieve naval superiority and create an “iron wall” to guard its strategic assets (i.e., the gas rigs) and its territorial waters – both above and below the waterline.

A few months ago another article appeared in Maarachot, this one by Lt. Col. Dubi Raz, head of the platforms branch of the navy’s combat systems department. “It is hard not to wonder if, in contrast to the maritime awareness the Indian navy has labored to cultivate in recent years, we haven’t contracted ‘maritime blindness,’” Raz wrote. “Could it be that we haven’t grasped the full significance of maritime traffic to the State of Israel, from all perspectives – strategic, military, commercial or economic, along with other aspects not seen in full by any official, whether political or military?”

At the Haifa center for maritime strategy, the issue has been taken further. Its researchers claim that procurement processes undertaken by the army and navy are not conducted properly, citing for instance the fact that the navy purchased boats for long-range missions – that can’t be used to protect the gas rigs closer to home. It also bought equipment for these boats, for use in fighting other such craft. And in any case, given the state of guided-missile technology and the range of such weaponry, the main peril to Israel’s boats isn’t other boats, it’s ground-launched missiles.

Terrorism at sea

A glance at the statistics shows that only 2 percent of terror attacks happen at sea, although the economic and security-related repercussions of such incidents are extremely serious. It is no surprise, then, that both the IDF brass and academicians are expecting organizations such as Al-Qaida and the Islamic State to launch such attacks this year, given their vow to disrupt commercial maritime traffic.

This may be where Iran comes into the picture, too. In recent years the Islamic Republic has been upgrading its naval capabilities, under the assumption that they will bolster its deterrence against the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries, and its influence in places like Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Iran actually has two navies, one an arm of the standing army and one belonging to the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps. The latter constitutes the country’s maritime attack force; it has 20,000 soldiers, of whom one-quarter are commandos. Its function: to attack enemy ports and offshore rigs. Its troops can fire missiles from land and sea, from land vehicles and naval vessels alike, in an effort to block shipping routes.

Satellite photo of the targeted Saudi oil tanker Amjad, May 13, 2019.
Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies via AP

That operations of the Revolutionary Guards navy are supplemented by the regular Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, which resembles a coast guard, protecting ships, rigs and the coastline. It also has 20,000 soldiers: two marines corps with about 6,200 fighters, and a naval aviation force with another 2,000 troops. Among other things, this standing navy maintains two main flotillas, three outdated submarines, 11 missile boats and 13 amphibious landing vessels that serve the marine forces.

Even combined these two navies don’t seem to pose a serious threat to powerful enemies, but that situation could change, given Iran’s determination to beef up its naval power by allocating more funding, including to underwrite acquisition of more advanced combat weaponry.

Iran’s fingerprints

In addition to the two naval forces, Iran also operates militias such as that of the Islamic-based Houthi forces in Yemen. Every time the Houthis launch an attack – from their own shores – against foreign vessels, typically Saudi ones, Iran’s fingerprints can be discerned.

If Iran does decide to block the straits, the Houthis could come into the picture, especially at Bab al-Mandab – between Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The Houthis have naval commandos operating in the straits, unmanned “suicide boats” and chains of anti-ship mines. All these are a form of warning.

“The Yemenite arena, especially at sea, has become a testing ground for Iranian weapons, mainly unmanned suicide boats,” wrote Israel Navy Lt. Col. (res.) Eyal Pinko, in the journal of the Haifa Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy.

Pinko, who has held a number of positions in operations and intelligence, believes that given recent developments, and the threat Iranian poses to Israel’s territorial waters, the Israel Navy along with the entire IDF should “prioritize building up and maintaining up-to-date intelligence about the region, Iranian involvement, its weaponry, and the infrastructure Iran supplies to others, as well as the Iranian-Houthi doctrine of combat as it is being developed and applied in the field.”

Pinko doesn’t not put major emphasis on battleships, mid-sea combat in the Mediterranean or some future escalation in Gaza. He does, however, mention the sea mines.

The IDF Spokesman's Office has stated in response that according to a government resolution, the navy is responsible for guarding Israel’s assets at sea. The army has therefore formulated a clear strategic concept regarding protection of all facilities in the country's territorial waters, which was approved by the relevant political and military entities, noted the spokesman. This conception – plus the realization that each strategic facility needs protection wherever it is located – has given rise to a project aimed at defending these assets, now seen as the most effective solution.

The IDF response noted that the threats Israel faces have been changing, and beyond preparing for them on the ground, the country must continue to improve its traditional naval warfare capabilities. The operational concept of the navy is driven solely by security considerations, and adapts to changing circumstances. During the clashes with Gaza, the navy participated in attacks on the enemy.