In mid-September, the United States quietly gave Israel a green light for its navy to attack Iranian warships and submarines sailing in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. This is reported exclusively by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources.
In a secret message, the Obama administration advised Israel to go for an Iranian submarine with one of its Dolphin-class subs rather than striking a surface vessel because then Iran could if it chose keep quiet about losing a sea battle to Israel.
Aware that this action carried the high risk of a retaliatory missile attack by Iran, Obama sought to win Israel over into embarking on this course by approving the handover of 55f bunker-busting GBU-37 bombs which would be ideal for destroying Tehran's deeply dug-in nuclear facilities and which Israel has for years been asking for.
Washington leaked word of the bombs release to Israel on Sept. 23, the same day that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas applied to the UN for state recognition. He and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu then presented their respective cases to the UN General Assembly.
Focused on those speeches, the media did not ask why Obama chose to arm Israel with smart bombs capable of striking subterranean Iranian sites just hours before the UN session held a critical session on the Palestinian question.
Obama reverses course, favors limited Israeli military action against Iran
Eleven days later, on October 3, the White House signaled its impatience with Israel's reluctance to go after Iranian warships in the Red Sea. It was relayed by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who criticized Israel to correspondents aboard the plane taking him to Israel: "It is not enough to maintain a military edge if you're (Israel) isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena. Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength," he said.
Although Panetta's remarks have been interpreted in many ways, most Western and Israeli analysts conclude he was referring to Israel's rocky relations with Egypt, Turkey and Syria.
But according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, the defense secretary was talking chiefly about Israeli shilly-shallying on attacking the Iranian warships proliferating in the Red Sea in recent months.
In his talks with Israeli military and government leaders in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Panetta promised that if Israel suffered Iranian retribution, Washington would step up with all the military aid needed to repel such an attack.
This is a striking reversal of standard administration policy.
For four years, Washington adamantly objected to any direct Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear installations or any other Iranian target. This line was led by Robert Gates, the defense secretary the Obama administration inherited from President George W. Bush.
The new approach which encourages Israel to go after Iranian naval vessels – though not its nuclear facilities – is down to the new US defense secretary. It is his most important strategic policy decision since taking over at the Pentagon on July 1.
Our sources report that Panetta talked the president round to this fundamental revision of policy by five arguments:
Iran's naval buildup on the Red Sea is cause for unease
1. The US and the West are compelled by radical regional events to re-center their most vital security and strategic concerns on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. He enumerated the expanding war in Yemen and Al Qaida's growing strength there, the bogging down of the Somali crisis and the Shiite ferment in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.
2. Neither the West nor any Gulf emirate has taken aim at Iran's meddling hands in these conflicts – even as Iranian arms flow to the rebellious Yemeni Houthis arms and its agents stir up Shiite unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. This inaction has boosted Tehran's self-confidence to the point of certainty that it can get away with grabbing new ground and subverting victims without hindrance for as long as it likes.
3. Iran's continuous naval buildup in the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal has indeed gone forward unchallenged since February. Its fleet has reached proportions sizeable enough to menace the region's oil fields and pipelines and counter the Western military presence in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the Red Sea's southern outlet, the Suez Canal outlet to the Mediterranean and the Strait of Hormuz chokepoint on the world's main oil export highway out of the Persian Gulf.
4. The 1,400-mile long Red Sea is not only plagued by Somali pirates but is especially sensitive in terms of maritime security as the link between the Mediterranean in the north and the Indian Ocean at the point where the Bab el-Mandeb Straits connect to the Gulf of Aden. The 3.3 million barrels of Persian Gulf oil passing through this strait every day on their way to Suez and Europe float by these days under the watchful eyes of the Iranian navy.
Israel concentrates naval and air strength in the Red Sea
5. On the Red Sea, Israel maintains a fleet of missile corvettes and Dolphin submarines for monitoring the movements of Iranian warships and submarines. They are on standby for orders to sail northwest towards the Suez Canal or on to the Mediterranean if needed. Israel has concentrated a substantial air reconnaissance fleet over these waters to scan them for weapons smugglers plying the Red Sea routes to Egypt and Sinai.
Defense Secretary Panetta explained to Obama that an Israeli strike against Iranian naval forces in the Mediterranean would be just the ticket for redressing America's strategic imbalance with Iran on that part of the world.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that Panetta managed to win the president round to his view. Obama decided to use his arguments as the cue for a fundamental rethink of America's policy on Iran.
Up until now the United States shunned military action despite Iran's many provocations, including its hand in attacking and killing American troops in Iraq. Washington also held Israel and Saudi Arabia back from hitting Iran's nuclear sites and other targets arguing that multinational diplomatic engagement and sanctions were the answer.
Leon Panetta has turned this policy on its head. (See the article opening this issue)
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are as yet reluctant to take advantage of the new go-ahead from Washington for two reasons:
First, Israel's hands are tied against any confrontation with Iran before the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is home and safe as a result of the prisoner exchange deal with Hamas brokered by the US and Egypt this week to rescue him from more than five years in captivity.
(Read how the Shalit deal was integral to the US gambit against Iran in a separate article of this issue)
Iran reacts by flaunting its fleet
That is what Netanyahu meant when he asked the ministers convened in Jerusalem Tuesday night, Oct. 11 to endorse the deal because it was "a window of opportunity" for freeing Shalit which might be closed forever by the storms buffeting the region. If that happens, "we may never get to see him alive."
Behind his words was that knowledge that a fight with Iran while the soldier was still in Hamas' hands might lead to his captors executing him as an act of retaliation in Iran's name.
The deal was indeed endorsed by a majority of 26 ministers to three.
Second, although Shalit's release expected to take place in the middle of next week would free Israeli hands to challenge Iran. Netanyahu and Barak need first to gauge the depth of the Obama administration's commitment to standing firm against the Islamic Republic before sticking Israel's neck out.
They are anxious to avoid having Washington pull the rug out from under them in mid-operation. More than once during Obama's tenure, Israel discovered at a delicate moment of certain covert or military operations, that the administration had used them as a springboard for renewing Washington's dialogue with Tehran.
Alert to the prospect of an Israeli attack on its Red Sea naval vessels – but also alive to Israel's uncertainties – DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that Tehran embarked on two steps:
The Iranian fleet flaunted its presence in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea in open defiance of any plans of attack.
Sunday, Oct. 9, the Iranian 15th Naval Group returned to port at Bandar Abbas, fleet headquarters of the Revolutionary Guards Navy, after 83 days at sea in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
The group was comprised of Alvand and Bushehr destroyers.
A few hours after the ceremonial welcome for ships returning to home port, the 16th Naval Group, comprising the Jamaran destroyer and Bandar Abbas frigate, set sail from the same port for the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
More Iranian bravado
Iran knows that a two-vessel flotilla is vulnerable and can't defend itself against attack, even if the submarines heavily concealed nearby join the battle. It has always been Revolutionary Iran's way to shift its responses and reprisals to arenas where it enjoys a tactical advantage.
In a show of bravado aimed at the United States, Iran's naval commander Admiral Habibullah Siyari on Sept. 27 announced his ships would soon deploy in the Atlantic Ocean near US territorial waters. They would be armed with long-range Noor cruise missiles so that "just as the US has a military presence near Iran's naval border, it will have a powerful presence of naval forces near America's naval border."
On October 2, an Iranian web site charted the route the Iranian flotilla would follow on its way to America: through the Suez Canal, past the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean and up to the shores of Cuba and Central and South America.
The site described the mission as feasible although never before have Iranian vessels operated as far as 15,000 kilometers from their borders.