The stretch of water between the UAE sheikdom of Dubai and the Straits of Hormuz bottleneck of the Persian Gulf is gaining pivotal value with the approach of a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources calculate that a naval force operating in this part of the sea would be less threatened than warplanes, yet able to hit Iranian targets with the same precision without having to transit the air space of other countries.
Marine platforms can carry larger ordnance freights than aircraft, provide launching pads for special operations against strategic shore targets such as command and control sites and surface missiles, while being harder to locate.
Dubai finds itself not only sunk in an existential financial mess but also uncomfortably close to Iran's Persian Gulf islands of Abu Musa, Sirri and Greater Tumb and Lesser Tumb, which are bristling with the republic's most sensitive air defenses. Those islands are formally in dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates of which Dubai is a member – although the federation steps gingerly around pressing claims against the powerful Islamic republic. For now, the troubled emirate is stuck in potentially stormy waters, surrounded by hectic war preparations which focus on the Persian Gulf as well as the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
Some of those preparations were made possible by the availability of Dubai's ample port facilities to Iran (as described in a separate item in this issue.)
1. The Iranian air defense exercise which ended Thursday, Nov. 26, tested how well the systems guarding nuclear facilities were integrated with Tehran's first line of defense on the islands, whose functions are to intercept incoming hostile aircraft and missiles before they reach the mainland and prevent them bombarding Iran while cruising over international waters of the Persian Gulf.
Disputed islands bristle with Iranian air defense bases
2. The Iranian drill was interrupted the day before it ended by the capture by Revolutionary Guards commando swift-boats of the British racing yacht Kingdom of Bahran and its five-man British crew near Sirri island.
A week later, Tuesday, Dec. 1, when the incident was first disclosed, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, said "The (Iranian) judiciary will decide about the five… but naturally Iran will take hard and serious measures if we find out they had evil intentions."
The intention was to put the five Britons of trial as spies. (See HOT POINTS of Dec. 1) Tehran planned to accuse them of trying to monitor its defense exercise and get a close look at the Iranian islands, under the guise of taking part in the Dubai yachting race.
This episode took an unexpected turn on Dec. 2 when Tehran suddenly decided to release the yachtsmen and accept the British foreign office's claim that they had strayed inadvertently into Iranian territorial waters. According to our Iranian sources, the Guards and the president were cheated of a spectacular spy trial by none other than the supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who alone had the authority to countermand the president.
For six months, since the wave of post-election protests, he has backed Ahmadinejad to the hilt. Some Western observers found the supreme ruler's unexpected stand again him intriguing and possibly signifying a softening in Tehran's pugnacious attitude on its nuclear program toward the world powers.
However, later that day, Ahmadinejad disabused them by delivering another blow to Western efforts to stop Iran's military nuclear efforts with diplomacy with the provocative announcement that Iran would itself enrich uranium up to 20 percent grade and "whatever it needs."
The Guards are poised to plug the Strait of Hormuz
3. As the British yacht was towed away from Iran, a new report came from the US office of Naval Intelligence in Washington on Iran's Iran's naval order of battle, as well as the Iranian Navy's history, strategic options, and favored tactics. Passages, which first appeared in the American Secrecy News website, disclose that the Revolutionary Guards, which are in command of naval operations in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, are poised ready to plug these vital sea lanes to traffic in the event of a war.
Since assuming this command from the Iranian Navy in 2007, the IRGC has been armed with high-speed boats and cruise missiles, says the Office of Naval Intelligence study.
"Throughout the restructuring, senior commanders in the IRIN (Islamic Republic of Iran Navy) and IRGCN (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy) have reiterated that the reorganization of existing bases and the creation of new bases create a line of defense that would prevent an enemy from accessing the Strait of Hormuz and, thus, the Persian Gulf," said the study.
But the spotlight meanwhile switched to another watery arena.
Tuesday, Nov. 24, Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told reporters that the Caspian Sea is the sea of "peace and friendship" and the Navy does not plan to instigate a major military build-up in the Caspian Sea region.
Obama may have to deploy a second aircraft carrier
But then he commented that the Navy is carrying out an important mission in the Gulf of Aden to provide security for oil tankers sailing in the region.
The silent confrontation between Iranian ships and American and Saudi craft in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea off Yemen was present in his unspoken subtext.
Five days later he was more outspoken: "The Iranian Navy will remain in the Gulf of Aden as long as the situation in the Mandab Strait (Bab al-Mandeb) is insecure," he said. This was a declaration that Tehran views its support for Yemen's Houthi rebels a matter of strategic interest, a move for staking its claim to domination of the Red Sea as well as the Persian Gulf.
The stakes are rising sharply in the naval competition between Iran and the US, the UK and other NATO countries which have a shipping presence in these seas, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and intelligence sources report. Only one aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, is present in this region. It is patrolling off the coast of Oman and lends air support to the troops fighting in Afghanistan.
In the present state of tension, President Barack Obama may have to revise is policy of maintaining no more than one carrier off the coast of Iran and order a second to be deployed.