March 9, 2011

Iran's latest plea for relevance, ignored.

Last week's mini-crisis in the Suez-Mediterranean involved two Iranian warships that took advantage of the Suez Canal's treaty-protected neutral access to pass through to the Mediterranean for a few days.

It was an opportunity to show the world they can do it, and also to test their crews and equipment beyond their normal coastal patrol duties. Why now, for the first time since the Islamic Revolution over 30 years ago? For one thing, if Hosni Mubarak were still in charge, he probably would have made the Iranians 'an offer they couldn't refuse,' in order to preserve his reputation for advancing strategic stability in the region. With Egyptians distracted for now, and because most of the world is distracted, the Iranians took the opportunity to rain a little on the parade of Mideast regime change that seems to have left Tehran in the dust of irrelevance. It may have also distracted Iran's own population from the agitation for regime change at home. Ironically, the real message here is that getting two vintage boats through what may be the world's most routinely used waterway was such a big deal for Iran to pull off -- ouch.

The 1956 Suez Crisis was premised upon keeping the Canal open to all shipping, as established by the Treaty of Constantinople over a century ago, so it's a bit late to start restricting access. I have little doubt that the Iranian ships were well-shadowed during their entire training run, and that they could have been boarded or sunk on a moment's notice. The only question is how many different navies were standing by for the order. And there should also be no doubt that those navies got some new insights of their own regarding Iran's long-range capacity, shipboard communication capabilities and protocols, limitations, tactics, and methods. Double ouch.

The future prospects of an Iranian naval presence in the Mediterranean have real implications for strategic planners. The transfer of weapons, offshore positioning for strikes on Israel or delivery of terror commandos, intelligence-gathering, eventual launch of crude nuclear devices at closer range -- none of this should be discounted. But the best response was probably the one we have seen: None. Triple Ouch.

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