Sitting Pretty on Hormuz, Iran is Ready to Grab the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb Too
In a little noticed comment, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon disclosed Tuesday, June 9, that since Iran gained control of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, a struggle is on for the Red Sea’s Strait of Bab el-Mandeb.
He spoke during the five-day farewell visit Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff paid to Israel’s military and defense establishments ahead of his retirement in October.
The minister was in fact replying to an assertion on June 7 by Iran’s Navy Commander Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, who said that Iran’s naval forces had “successfully fought pirates and escorted 2,600 merchant ships and tankers in such sensitive regions as the Gulf of Aden, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea.”
The Iranian navy planned to enhance its strategic strength, Sayyari added: “We will not hesitate to protect the country’s interests and ensure security more strongly than ever,” he said.
The Iranian admiral did not mention the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil passes, because Tehran’s control of that waterway is an accomplished fact.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that President Barack Obama virtually abdicated responsibility for the strategic Hormuz to the two littoral nations, Iran and Oman. The latter was rewarded for five years of brokering US backdoor contacts with Iran on a variety of ticklish subjects – from the nuclear issue to the Yemen conflict.
US refrains from slapping down Iranian naval aggression
To flesh out this concession, Washington discreetly instructed the commander of the Gulf-based US Fifth Fleet to avoid tangling with Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
This whetted the appetite of the Iranian navy for sending its 34th flotilla, which consists of the Bushehr logistic vessel and the Alborz destroyer, to establish its mastery in the Gulf of Aden, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, to boot.
Of course, this extraordinary state of affairs would change in a trice if challenged by the US President with an order to the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier and its strike group to take charge. But such an order would be out of character for Obama, considering his kid-gloves handling of Tehran’s doings in the Middle East for the sake of his overriding pursuit of a nuclear deal.
Iran was not slapped down by Washington, even when on Feb. 25, the Revolutionary Guards Navy commander Adm. Ali Fadavi launched the Great Prophet Nine exercise with this scornful statement: “American aircraft carriers are very big ammunition depots housing a lot of missiles, rockets, torpedoes and everything else. And so,” he told state television, “hitting a carrier with just one missile could trigger “a large secondary explosion that would destroy the ship.”
US Navy escorts of commercial ships are invisible
Obama’s indulgence of every Iranian naval outrage was especially conspicuous on April 28 when Revolutionary Guards warships attacked the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris cargo container. The US defense treaty obligation with this territory was not invoked. All that happened was a Pentagon announcement two days later that US Navy ships will begin accompanying US commercial ships in transit through the Strait of Hormuyz, to ensure they encounter no interference from Iran.
But no US Navy ships were actually visible.
Then on May 14, the Singaporean-flagged oil products tanker Alpine Eternity was fired on by several Iranian coastal patrol boats as it sailed through the Strait of Hormuz. The United Arab Emirates finally intervened, sending its naval vessels to escort the tanker to safety.
Since Tehran climbed down from the piece of theater staged last month over the Shahed “humanitarian relief” vessel for Yemen, by redirecting the ship to Djibouti, nothing more has been heard of Iranian attempts to ship weapons to the Houthi rebels of Yemen.
But it turns out that Iran lost only one round and won the game.
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu remarked to his American visitor, Gen. Dempsey this week that Iran continues to deliver arms to the Houthis by sea. They are clearly going through without US interference.
International shipping costs spike over Insecurity
So how safe is international shipping today as it navigates one of the world’s great sea routes connecting the ports of eastern Libya, the Egyptian Delta, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden? Has the Obama administration washed its hands of shipping security?
The specter of marine terrorism already hangs over the Mediterranean – especially opposite Libyan shores. Sabotage awaits marine logistic and energy infrastructure; Hizballah, Iran’s surrogate, threatens Israel’s offshore oil and gas platforms; Egyptian ports were more than once shut down by riots and the ships docked there were in danger.
All these incidents impair shipping stability in the region, pushing up the cost of sea transport, insurance premiums and charter fees. Security at harbor facilities is getting more expensive.
This trend is well illustrated recently by the high cost of sending a SUEZMAX oil freighter through the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb. DEBKA Weekly learned from shipping sources that the cost of sending 140,000mt crude oil cargoes from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean has soared to a six-month high, and rates on the routes from the Persian Gulf to the West were still rising sharply on Tuesday, June 9.
The soaring cost of shipping in the region and the scarcity of available vessels are a measure of the industry’s trust in Rear Adm. Sayyari’s pledge to “secure security more strongly than ever.” The same credence is meted out to the Pentagon’s promise to accompany commercial ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz.