Behind the sound and fury in Egypt, Iran is quietly developing its naval westward momentum for extending a military loop around the Persian Gulf and out to the Red Sea and Mediterranean. The American fleet is also quietly redeploying around Egypt and in the Suez Canal.
Sunday, Feb. 6, for the first time ever, Iranian war ships docked at the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah opposite the Egyptian coast – just days after the USS Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group took up position in the Suez Canal.
The two navies are quietly maneuvering around one another though without facing off.
The Iranian movement appears to signal a radical reshuffle of the pieces on the region's checkerboard, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East experts: Up until now, Saudi Arabia, in close conjunction with Egypt and its President Hosni Mubarak, has led the Sunni Arab thrust to contain Iranian expansion – especially in the Persian Gulf. However, the opening of a Saudi port to Iranian war ships for the first time in the history of their relations points to the Egyptian uprising causing a shift in a new direction – a point Tehran has gladly made against American and Israel silence.
The Iranian Navy's 12th Flotilla is received in Jeddah, on the Red Sea
Just an hour after the Iranian Navy's 12th flotilla, which has been deployed in the Gulf of Aden to secure its shipping against Somali piracy, put in to Jeddah Sunday, Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari announced they were on a mission of peace and friendship to the states of the region:
"In pursuit of a powerful (military) presence in the high seas and to consolidate our friendly ties and declare our message of peace and friendship to the regional countries," said Sayyari, "the flotilla of warships of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Navy has entered Saudi Arabia's port city of Jeddah."
He listed the ships as Khark cruiser Kharg-class replenishment ship, hull no. 431, Alvand destroyer – IRIS and Alvand-class frigate, hull no. 71.
The Saudis have kept the Iranian warships' arrival quiet. Even more intriguingly, they held their silence when Iran trumpeted its assumption of the exclusive right to decide which "alien" vessels and forces may be present in or transit the entire Persian Gulf.
Monday, Jan. 31, less than a week before Iranian warships entered Jeddah port, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of Staff of Iran's Armed Forces, said explicitly that the presence of alien forces and warships in the Persian Gulf was "unacceptable" to Tehran. This was closer than Iran had ever come to claiming sovereignty over the entire sea.
He pointed out that the Islamic Republic of Iran's southern shore extended from the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf to the strategic Strait of Hormuz (through which Gulf oil reaches world markets). Firouzabadi admitted passage via the Persian Gulf was not illegal, but his tone made it clear that it was entirely up to Tehran to determine which movements were legal and which were not – the pretext of security against threats being unacceptable.
Iran claims right to control passage in the entire Persian Gulf
Indeed, Iranian Navy warships were deployed in Persian Gulf waters around the clock "to register the names and other details of foreign ships before permitting their passage," he added, ignoring altogether the US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, the navies of the Gulf states and the British, French, Dutch and German warships cruising in the Persian Gulf.
And if the US thought it calls the shots on Persian Gulf traffic, Tehran advised Washington to think again. The Iranian Army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps navies are working together to control the country's waterways and protect its interests inside territorial waters and on the high seas, Firouzabadi said.
In the past, this sort of talk from Tehran always drew a strong response from Riyadh. Saudi lack of response this time may be due to the illness of King Abdullah, absent from home for two months and recuperating at his palace in Morocco, or possibly the outcome of a Saudi reassessment of the fallout on its own interests from Egypt's popular uprising against Mubarak.
Saudi rulers may also have drawn certain conclusions from US President Barack Obama's treatment of Mubarak. King Abdullah is reported by our Persian Gulf sources as so enraged by what he sees as "Obama's betrayal" of the Egyptian president – virtually giving him his marching orders – that the White House felt compelled to send a special personal envoy to the Saudi palace in Morocco this week to smooth his ruffled feathers and explain the game the administration has been playing in Cairo.
(More about the Saudi-US rift in Hot Points below)
Saudi king will never forgive Obama for driving Mubarak out
The king received the envoy but, after hearing him out, said very distinctly that for as long as he reigns, he will never, ever forgive the US president for his treatment of the Egyptian president and his attitude toward the Arab states counted as American friends and allies.
It was revealed later that he had set in motion the process for raising the level of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran after a bitter conversation by phone with President Obama.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and military sources report that Iran's push to the west continues beyond the Red Sea. On February 2, less than a week before the Iranian warships docked in the Saudi port, the Iranian Navy's Lt. Commander, Rear Admiral Gholam-Reza Khadem Biqam, instructed naval commandos that their next mission would take them to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal on their way to the Mediterranean.
Tehran is making no secret of its objective to establish a strategic presence far from its shores and close to the action.
This objective cast a bright light on Tehran's order to the Palestinian Hamas fundamentalists late last week to muster all the combat strength they had in the Gaza Strip, transfer it across the border into Egypt's Sinai peninsula and establish an operational link with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report. (See debkafile's exclusive report of Feb. 8: Lawlessness spreads in N. Sinai as Hamas transfers Al Qaeda cells).
Tehran commands Hamas to seize North Sinai
Hamas obeyed the command. Its armed men moved into Sinai along with senior Hizballah operations officers present in Gaza and 22 Hizballah escapees from Egyptian prisons. They had been convicted of running a spy and terrorist network in the Suez Canal cities in 2007-2008 under the command of Sami Shehab, a Hizballah officer very close to the organization's leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Hamas was told to use the Egyptian riots for a jailbreak to release the entire Hizballah cell from Cairo prison, which it did last week.
In April 2009, Nasrallah admitted he had sent Sami Shehab to Egypt to establish the network. He explained this was a blow in the service of Arab interests versus the US and Israeli takeover of Egypt. But by then, he knew that Egyptian interrogators (members of the intelligence service headed by the new Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, then Minister of Intelligence) had anyway extracted from Shehab under torture every detail of the network's ties with Hizballah leaders in Beirut and they were no longer a secret.
Now, two years later, Nasrallah and Tehran appreciate the usefulness of the suddenly-freed Hizballah network and its knowledge of the cities on both banks of the Suez Canal, combined with the knowhow of Hamas special units on the loose in Sinai, for achieving six goals:
An Iranian super-plan to annex Sinai to Gaza for a radical Palestinian state
1. To cut off, even partially, the US military and naval Persian Gulf forces from their main route for supplies and reinforcements;
2. To establish an Iranian military-naval grip on the Suez Canal, through which 40 percent of the world's maritime freights pass every day:
3. To bring an Iranian military presence close enough to menace the Egyptian heartland of Cairo and the Nile Delta;
4. To thread a contiguous Iranian military-naval line from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea through the Suez Canal and the Gaza Strip and up to the ports of Lebanon, where Hizballah has already seized power and toppled the pro-West government.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 479 of Jan. 28: An Iranian Naval Base Planned in Beirut).
5. In the long term, to sever the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, annex it to the Gaza Strip and establish a large Hamas-ruled Palestinian state with access to the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea.
A Fatah-led Palestinian state on the West Bank within the American orbit would by comparison be politically and strategically inferior.
6. To tighten the naval and military siege on Israel.
US fleet takes up position in Suez Canal
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and Washington sources note that, given the scale of Tehran's expansionist and hegemonic ambitions, it is no wonder that President Obama last week ordered the USS Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group (LHD 3) to take up position in the Greater Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal.
The Kearsarge is accompanied by the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce, the dock landing-ship USS Ashland, the cruiser USS Normandy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez, the guided-missile frigate USS Kauffman, the fast-attack submarine USS Scranton and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Based at Camp Lejeune, NC, the 26th consists of Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162 (Reinforced) and MEU Service Support Group 26.