Turbulence in North Arabian Sea Crescent

Sub Title : North Arabian Sea is the new hot spot in Iran Israel tensions

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2021

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Page No. : 56

Category : Geostrategy

: September 30, 2021

North Arabian Sea is the new hot spot in Iran Israel tensions. There has been  a pattern of  gradually accelerating hostile actions by both countries as they step up their covert war – both countries vying for regional control essentially to ensure own security. The security dynamics of the region will  be hugely impacted by the partnerships that emerge in the wake of the Afghanistan crisis

There are clear destabilizing developments currently underway in the north Arabian Sea Crescent (NASC) stretching from the Makran Coast (coastal Baluchistan) to the Red Sea through the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden.  Importantly, the developments are not between India and Pakistan, who have in the past been the dominant competitors in the region; instead, these involve Iran and Israel. Their navies are not into any naval supremacy competition in the Persian Gulf but are simply using the maritime medium to deter/coerce each other.

Last month, the Iranian media reported that an Israeli Dolphin class conventional submarine capable of launching land attack cruise missiles (LACM) had “secretly” sailed across the Suez Canal and could be headed towards the Persian Gulf. Also, two Israeli destroyers crossed the Suez ostensibly as escorts for the submarine. Further, the Israeli decision to deploy the submarine in the Arabian Sea was in response to a suicide drone attack on an Israeli tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman. The United States and Britain have accused Iran for the attack which Tehran has vehemently denied.

In turn, Iran has accused Israel of attacking its tankers and the Iranian Nour News has listed 14 attacks against Iran’s commercial ships, targeting 12 Iranian vessels in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea over the past two years. The report further notes that the “ attacks began in the Red Sea and then spread to regions off the coast of Syria in the Mediterranean Sea. On August 26, 2019, an Iranian container ship Sharekurd came under attack at the mouth of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. About three weeks later, an Iranian oil tanker was targeted near the Saudi port city of Yanbu in the Red Sea”

This is not the first time that Israel has dispatched a submarine to the Arabian Sea. In 2009, an Israeli Dolphin class submarine conducted exercises in the Indian Ocean to “check the viability of deploying its naval vessels in the region to respond to any aggressive posturing by Iran”. In December 2020 there were reports of an Israeli submarine in the Red Sea / Arabian Sea ostensibly to support US build up in the Persian Gulf to deter Iran from taking any action ahead of the first anniversary of the assassination (January 2020) of Iranian intelligence chief General QasemSoleimani  by  an US drone strike near Baghdad Airport. Besides, Iran has accused Israel for the killing of several Iranian nuclear scientist including the November assassination of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and has vowed retaliation.

Israeli Navy currently operates five Dolphin-class submarines, designed and built by Germany’s Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW). The details of the delivery of the sixth vessel that was scheduled to be delivered in 2020 are not quite clear.  However, in 2016, Israel had also ordered three additional Dolphin II-class Air Independent Power (AIP) submarines to replace the older vessels and these will be delivered by 2027.

There are rumors that Israeli submarines may be equipped with a miniaturized nuclear warheads. The Israeli government neither confirms nor denies that it possesses nuclear weapons and this ambiguous posture is widely accepted.  It is also suspected that Israel may have developed a nuclear warhead for its submarine launched cruise missile.

Iran also possesses a significant underwater capability. The Iranian naval inventory   includes three 877 EKM Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines acquired from Russia during 1992 and 1996. Its indigenous Ghadir-class midget submarines (presumably of North Korea’s 90-ton Yogo-class submarine design) can lay mines and launch saboteurs to attack shipping.

Israel’s nuclear and missile capability including the deployment of Israeli submarines in the Arabian Sea has been a major concern for Iran for a number of reasons. Iran has identified Israel as the primary threat to its regional leadership role and it has been noted that “Iran has been under constant threat of an attack by Israel. It has also been the target for several years of Israel’s extremely dirty low intensity war”, which prompted Tehran to develop nuclear weapon capability.

Saudi Arabia too is concerned about Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  In 2015, it was noted that “Saudi Arabia has been periodically dropping hints that, should Iran’s nuclear ambitions go unchecked, it might just have to get nuclear weapons itself”.

It is a well-known fact that Saudi Arabia has financially supported Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and a former US defense official corroborated that “There has been a long-standing agreement in place with the Pakistanis, and the House of Saud has now made the strategic decision to move forward.”

The regional nuclear dynamics in the form of Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (MENWFZ) also merit attention. The proposition for a MENWFZ was made by Iran in 1974 and was supported by Egypt. The Zone includes the territories of all League of Arab states, Iran and Israel. The latter has argued that it cannot be part of the NWFZ since all regional countries do not publicly recognize and accept it as an integral part of the region. In 2012, during a conference on MENWFZ in Moscow, an Iranian representative stated that “Despite the current complicated situation in the region, we are still supporting the idea of the Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.”

The Iran-Israeli contestation is primed for great power involvement in the north Arabian Sea Crescent and can be discerned from at least two trends. First, China-Iran-Russia axis has been spurred by Iran at whose behest these countries hold joint a maritime drill codenamed Marine Security Belt (MSB). The December 2019 MSB was timed to respond to stepped up tensions between Iran and the US. An Iranian state television report heralded the drills as a “new triangle of sea power” in the region, with a declaration that the “era of American free action in the region is over, and [US forces] must leave the region gradually” The next iteration of the Marine Security Belt (MSB) is planned to be held later in 2021 or early 2022.

Russia continues to seek new partners in Africa, and join coalitions and partnerships to counter the US influence in the Horn of Africa. It now has port access arrangements in Eritrea, Egypt and Mozambique, and since 2016 its naval vessels have been making regular port calls. In 2020, Moscow signed an Agreement with the Sudanese government to set up a military-naval facility at Port Sudan. During the past two decades, Sudan acquired Russian weapons valued at US$ 1billion and Russian military instructors and advisers have been training the Sudanese armed forces.

China’s naval and maritime presence in the Indian Ocean is well known. It has a naval base at Djibouti that can support deployment of its aircraft carrier and expeditionary ships and has access arrangements with Pakistan at Karachi and Gwadar that allow PLA Navy to operate for long durations in the Arabian Sea. China has also financed-supported commercial ports in the Indian Ocean and these dual-use facilities support the Chinese naval strategy and PLA Navy’s operations.

Second, Israel-US-UK could be the likely combination of a preemptive and coercive strategy against Iran in case President Biden is unable to bring Iran to the negotiating table. There have been at least six rounds of talks in Vienna earlier this year but have not resulted in resumption of talks on the multilateral agreement. After the election of Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative, as the new Iranian President, negotiations have been on hold since June 2021.

The United States is the predominant extra regional military power in the Gulf Region and has instituted and established a number of treaties, partnerships, alliance arrangements, and access and basing agreements with Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates (UAE). The strategic relationships between the US and Persian Gulf States, wherein the United States is widely regarded as a factor of stability and contributing to their resilience and protecting the national interests of these regional countries, has been a significant arrangement for the regional countries.

As far as the UK is concerned, in 2014, it announced plans to set up a permanent military base at Mina Salman in Bahrain to support forward deployment of the Royal Navy. It has plans to develop infrastructure to store equipment and house military personnel. Also, it uses the UK Joint Logistics Support Base (UKJLSB) located at Duqm in Oman.

Israel sees Iran as a major nuclear threat and Prime Minister Bennett told his cabinet “A regime of brutal hangmen must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction.” Similarly, Saudi Arabia which seeks to be a regional power is concerned about Iran’s increased nuclear activities and believes it potentially threatens regional security. It has been at the receiving end of several drone attacks on its energy infrastructure by the Iran-backed Houthis.

Finally, it remains to be seen how the security dynamics in the North Arabian Sea shape in the backdrop of the efforts to salvage the P5+1 consultations. The nuclear issue will loom large in the region despite the P5+1 consultations.  A sustained Russian and Chinese naval presence in the North Arabian Sea could further exasperate the situation and impact on the region’s security that is already in a flux after the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.