Iranian Navy Conducts Expansive Drills in Vital Sea-lane

Iran is now including the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in its military exercises.

JERUSALEM—Iran was conducting a large-scale naval exercise in the northern Indian Ocean on Sunday. Operation Velayat 95, which runs from February 13 to March 1, includes drills operating in an area of nearly 800,000 square miles from the Strait of Hormuz leading into the Persian Gulf, around the Saudi Peninsula to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait leading into the Red Sea.

Both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait are choke points for world shipping. Thirty percent of seaborne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which is only 33 miles wide, and most of that shipping continues through the 20-mile-wide Bab el-Mandeb en route to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Controlling these sea gates means controlling the passage of the precious commodity into Europe.

According to the Press tv, an Iranian news source, the exercises will be far-reaching:

Surface and subsea vessels and naval helicopters have been deployed in operational formations to carry out missions across the waters.The drill also involves special forces stationed across the Makran coastal strip on the Sea of Oman to rehearse defending Iranian waters.Additionally, reconnaissance patrol aircraft, hovercraft and drones are on the lookout, monitoring the movements of foreign troops.

During the second day of the exercises, Iran successfully test-fired its Dehlaviyeh antiship missile for the first time. This laser-guided missile system created by Iranian technicians is designed to fire from land and target passing ships. Such a weapon puts at risk shipping traffic navigating the narrow sea passages of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. See the video below:

The naval exercises are the first of this kind since United States President Donald Trump was inaugurated. Iran has also conducted land-based exercises in the past three weeks. Harvard scholar Dr. Majid Rafizadeh told the Associated Press that the exercises are a message to Mr. Trump:

“The reformists, moderates and hard-liners believe that this is a tactically and strategically intelligent move,” Rafizadeh said. “Iran is sending a message to the Trump administration and regional powers that it will not alter the core pillars of its foreign and regional policy even if there is a new administration in Washington.” …”Tehran is also sensing a signal that it holds power over Strait of Hormuz where a third of all oil traded by sea goes through. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has previously harassed U.S. navy ships in this area. Finally, by acting tough, Iran’s military is attempting to set the tone with the Trump administration in an attempt to intimidate and push the U.S. and its allies into pursuing appeasement policies with Tehran.”

Traditionally, the United States 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain inside the Persian Gulf has ensured the freedom of maritime traffic through the Strait of Hormuz and others in the surrounding area. Three weeks ago, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Australia conducted exercises in these same waters, including live fire drills. With these exercises, Iran is sending the message that it is prepared to counter the U.S. and allies, and that it can project power outside the Persian Gulf and into the Red Sea.

The huge geographic area covered in the games also speaks to Iran’s desire to assert its future control over these choke points. In 2011, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry warned that Iran had a strategy to control these waterways. Since that time, the Trumpet has watched Iran take over western Yemen through its backing of the Houthi militia and, through that connection, destabilize shipping through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. When the Houthis took over the capital of Yemen in January 2015, Mr. Flurry wrote:

The Houthi takeover in Yemen proves that Iran is implementing a bold strategy to control the vital sea-lane from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

Confirming this Iranian strategy, Jacob Shapiro wrote for Geopolitical Futures that the inclusion of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in this year’s exercise is an addition that “offers a window into Iran’s strategy.” He wrote,

Iran’s recent naval exercises indicate that Iran could be preparing to take advantage of a distracted United States should conflict in the South China Sea or elsewhere take place. If the U.S. does not have the resources necessary to prevent Iran from projecting power in the region, Iran wants to be sufficiently prepared to take advantage of the situation. Therefore, we can conclude that Iran considers the Bab el-Mandeb important enough to increase its capabilities to project force in that region. …Iran is adding the Bab el-Mandeb to the theaters in which the country feels it must be capable of operating. There are no precise details on what Iran has deployed, but in this case the specifics of the deployment are less important than observing that Iran now considers the Bab el-Mandeb part of its immediate strategic environment.

Already, the Iranian-backed militia has jeopardized naval traffic in the Red Sea through numerous attacks. In 2016, the frequency of the attacks picked up and included targeting both Saudi and American naval vessels.

After the attack on the Saudi frigate earlier this year, the Trumpet wrote, “Now with the Houthis controlling virtually all of Yemen’s western coast, the Iranians have shifted their focus off the land and into the Red Sea.” These naval exercises confirm that shift. While the drills may look symbolic in nature, Iran is conducting a valuable reconnaissance mission in those waters. The information it gains will be used in the future.

If you would like to understand Iran’s goal in dominating this sea-lane, read Mr. Flurry’s article “Iran Gets a Stranglehold on the Middle East.”