Green Room

Oh boy: Iranian submarine(s) in the Red Sea

posted at 10:05 pm on June 7, 2011 by

In the hours after Iran’s Fars News agency reported on 7 June that the Iranian navy had deployed “submarines” to the Red Sea, a US military spokesman confirmed the deployment referenced by Iranian authorities.

Neither US nor Iranian sources have specified how many submarines are actually involved.  My supposition would be that the deployment involves a single Kilo-class submarine (Iran has three constructed by Russia), which is built for transits and patrols at relatively long ranges.  The submarine is in company with a surface task force (recently deployed for antipiracy duty), which includes an Iranian destroyer.

On one previous occasion, in December 2008, regional reporting suggested an Iranian submarine showed up briefly in the Eritrean port of Assab on the Red Sea.  I was skeptical of that report at the time and continue to be so.  In any event, this month’s deployment represents the first time the Iranian government has announced putting a submarine in the Red Sea.

Egypt is unlikely to allow an Iranian submarine to transit the Suez Canal, at least for the time being.  Iranian submarine operations will probably be confined to the Red Sea while the current government is in place in Cairo.  But the Red Sea is far enough to go to send shivers through the region.

Analysts have focused on different purposes for signal-sending from Tehran; Stratfor emphasizes the impending US drawdown in Iraq and says “this is all about Iran calling dibs on the Mesopotamian sphere of influence.”  DEBKAfile – rather weirdly – calls the deployment a “riposte” to the indictment handed down by IAEA of the secrecy and actionable discrepancies in Iran’s nuclear program.  (DEBKA usually goes for more sensational theories.)

In my judgment, both evaluations are missed tips.  I’m sure Iran did have these issues in mind in deciding to go forward with this deployment, but it is always a mistake to go out of your way to discount the obsessive concern of Iran’s current leadership with two things: Israel, and revolutionary Iran’s overseas adventures in terrorism and nation-torturing (e.g., with Hamas in Gaza, and in Lebanon and Syria).

The Iranian submarine (probably) can’t get into the Mediterranean for now.  But it can reconnoiter Israeli naval operations from the base at Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba, as well as the operations of the Egyptian and Saudi navies in the Red Sea.

It can lay mines, although we need not assume that that is imminent.  It can hold other shipping at risk with torpedoes.

But it can also attempt covert cargo transfers at sea to anyone who can get a boat into the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden: Hamas, obviously, or Iranian-supported factions in Yemen or Somalia.

Iran surely cares about Mesopotamian dibs and the plans of the Western nations to counter her nuclear program.  But in terms of her priorities and her modus operandi – undermining Israel, extending the reach of her brand of Islamism through covert action, and supporting terrorist insurgencies – a submarine in the Red Sea has direct, tactical application, and at a political juncture never seen before.  No six-month period in history has combined the destabilizing political eruptions of the Arab Spring with the concerted effort of the Palestinian Authority and its supporters to press for a multilateral fait accompli against Israel.  Those factors, in my view, are the ones at the top of the mullahs’ priorities list.

Iran will want to get the region accustomed to a “forward presence” posture from her submarines.  The announcement was undoubtedly geared partly to that consideration.  The submarine may show up shortly in a Red Sea port – perhaps Eritrea’s – in which case the prior announcement would showcase and defuse that event.

An Iranian Kilo is not a ballistic- or cruise-missile equipped submarine; it cannot be in the Red Sea to hold the territory of Israel or Saudi Arabia at risk.  There is some strategic value, in terms of signal sending, to proving that Iran can bring this deployment off.  But analyzing this development solely in that more abstract light is insufficient.

The final consideration is that Iran is probing the US with this move.  No one in the region thinks it’s a good idea for an Iranian submarine to be driving around the local waterways loaded with mines and torpedoes.  A blasé US attitude is the opposite of a leadership posture.  This matters, and to speak as if it doesn’t is to appear clueless.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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Doncha know, JE? Obummer has no time to worry about any other ‘golf’ than his handicap.

AH_C on June 7, 2011 at 11:38 PM

I have to wonder, if the Iranian sub has a very quiet, very fast, very heavily armed stealthy companion trailing them around, listening to their operations.

If the US Navy could track Soviet nuclear boomer subs, I would imagine that keeping track of a diesel sub from Iran is somewhat less of a challenge for our Los Angeles class attack subs to pull off.

The question is, are we spread so thin in our submarine operations now that we have the boats available to do the job?

Something to think about.

Brian1972 on June 8, 2011 at 8:12 AM

Brian1972 on June 8, 2011 at 8:12 AM

Whether or not there is a Los Angeles class tracking the Iranian sub is likely classified information. So we won’t know until there is reason to know. Like you, I consider it very likely.

Sekhmet on June 8, 2011 at 8:35 AM

Don’t those Iranian mullahs know that Submarines are Pig-boats.

Slowburn on June 8, 2011 at 10:04 AM

Why would Iranians throw their sandwiches into the sea? And who knew they had subs, I thought they were more the felafel type.

Alden Pyle on June 8, 2011 at 10:04 AM

I don’t know the geography of all this so excuse my ignorance, will its’ presence have any bearing on the flotilla that is scheduled in the near future?

Cindy Munford on June 8, 2011 at 10:07 AM

Any bets on the US Navy knows exactly where subs are at every minute?

Wade on June 8, 2011 at 10:08 AM

But Iran has no military and would never, ever attack Israel….the Ronulan says so:

MR. RUSSERT: So if Iran invaded Israel, what do we do?

REP. PAUL: Well, they’re not going to. That is like saying “Iran is about to invade Mars.” I mean, they have nothing. They don’t have an army or navy or air force. And Israelis have 300 nuclear weapons. Nobody would touch them. But, no, if, if it were in our national security interests and Congress says, “You know, this is very, very important, we have to declare war.” But presidents don’t have the authority to go to war.

jp on June 8, 2011 at 10:09 AM

Any bets on the US Navy knows exactly where subs are at every minute?

Wade on June 8, 2011 at 10:08 AM

WITH a fish in the tube ready to go!

Roy Rogers on June 8, 2011 at 10:14 AM

Just curious if this could be a sacrificial provocation. With Syria to the North East of Israel and Egypt to the South West an Iranian submarine probing around the Red Sea should be seen as provocation. I hope we have ears and eyes on the sub.

fourdeucer on June 8, 2011 at 10:18 AM

There is a very good chance they don’t know where it is; they can probably make reasonable guesses based on the location of the other Iranian ships, estimated time since it surfaced to recharge, etc.

Diesels are extremely quiet when they are on their batteries

exhelodrvr on June 8, 2011 at 10:23 AM

Any bets on the US Navy knows exactly where subs are at every minute?

Wade on June 8, 2011 at 10:08 AM

WITH a fish in the tube ready to go!

Roy Rogers on June 8, 2011 at 10:14 AM

A ram would be just as effective, with no big kaboom to give it away.

Slowburn on June 8, 2011 at 10:23 AM

Unspoken here is the capacity and capability for the submarine to act as a cargo carrier with the ability to carry items away from the Persian Gulf and eyes of the US Fleet to transfer items to other cargo ships. Items such as nuclear weapons or other wmd’s which then could transit the Suez canal and make for ports in Europe or North America.

skatz51 on June 8, 2011 at 10:25 AM

I don’t know the geography of all this so excuse my ignorance, will its’ presence have any bearing on the flotilla that is scheduled in the near future?

Cindy Munford on June 8, 2011 at 10:07 AM

The Iranian sub would have to go through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean to be a factor in the flotilla confrontation. So my guess for now is that that won’t happen. Submarines, which are ONLY ships of war, can’t automatically go through the Suez Canal; Egypt has the right to refuse passage to them. Egypt routinely lets US Navy submarines and some others through, but could and probably will exclude an Iranian sub for the time being.

J.E. Dyer on June 8, 2011 at 10:25 AM

One of our carriers are supposed to be returning around August, I think, I bet they will be sticking around awhile longer, or with this administration maybe not.

fourdeucer on June 8, 2011 at 10:26 AM

J.E. Dyer on June 8, 2011 at 10:25 AM

Thanks, “for the time being” weighs pretty heavy lately. I don’t think Egypt is moving in a favorable direction.

Cindy Munford on June 8, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Unspoken here is the capacity and capability for the submarine to act as a cargo carrier with the ability to carry items away from the Persian Gulf and eyes of the US Fleet to transfer items to other cargo ships.

skatz51 on June 8, 2011 at 10:25 AM

That was implied in my point about covert cargo transfers by the sub, but it’s a good comment to highlight. I believe an Algerian Kilo made an arms delivery to Lebanon in the spring of 2010. The Iranian Kilo could as well pick something up and take it home as bring it to the Red Sea.

Something to keep in mind is that Iran could be as interested in shuttling bad guys and bad things between Yemen and Somalia as in any other mission for the Kilo. Both nations could sink into armed confrontations between Muslim Brotherhood-type and Iran-backed Shi’a radicals at any time.

This patrol isn’t for show. Iranian submarines will be back.

J.E. Dyer on June 8, 2011 at 10:32 AM

I tend to agree with you, J.E. Dyer.

I think this deployment is part, “because we can”, on Iran’s part, getting regional forces accustomed to Iranian presence in the Red Sea, as well as probing the US Navy to see what our response is.

I can dismiss most of this as being ineffective on Iran’s part. But the part that disturbs me the most, which you mentioned as well, is the ability for covert cargo/personnel transfer to ships passing through the region.

I’m hoping that our Navy, or one of our allies, is shadowing the sub, not only to track it’s movements but to also keep an eye out for these kind of transfers.

RocketmanBob on June 8, 2011 at 11:35 AM

Are we so sure this sub hasn’t been modified for missiles of some kind?

Not endorsing the idea, and not sure it’s even possible, but we should always deal with capabilities, not just intentions, right?

WitchDoctor on June 8, 2011 at 11:55 AM

WitchDoctor — you bring up a good point. Iran tested a submarine-launched missile of former-Soviet design in August 2006. The Klub-S (NATO desig SS-N-4, range about 220km) is launched from the torpedo tubes, so it wouldn’t require modification.

Iran may have launched a back-engineered Chinese version of the missile, rather than a Soviet-produced one. China is thought to have provided it.

You’re right that the worst-case assumption would be that Iran has fully incorporated the missile into the Kilos’ operational load-out. There is no specific evidence of that, at least not available to the public, but China and Iran opened a joint missile manufacturing facility in 2009, so the possibility should not be discounted.

It’s a very old, 1960s-technology missile design; modern air defense systems like Israel’s or the Saudis’ would be effective against it.

J.E. Dyer on June 8, 2011 at 12:16 PM

I’m hoping that our Navy, or one of our allies, is shadowing the sub, not only to track it’s movements but to also keep an eye out for these kind of transfers.

RocketmanBob on June 8, 2011 at 11:35 AM

It’s ALL good training for our guys.

Roy Rogers on June 9, 2011 at 10:45 AM

Gotta love the “FREE SUB” quiznos ad this post attracted.

TexasDan on June 9, 2011 at 1:13 PM