Iran Ups Ante With Naval Mines in Critical Sea Choke Point

Iran Ups Ante With Naval Mines in Critical Sea Choke Point

KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images
Another sign Iran is becoming the gatekeeper of the Red Sea

JERUSALEM–A Yemeni Coast Guard vessel exploded on Friday, hitting a naval mine planted in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia.

Yemeni military sources revealed to Al-Arabiya that the explosion occurred as the vessel was undertaking a surveillance tour in the region. Two Coast Guard officers were killed, and eight others are currently being treated in the southern Yemeni city of Aden.

The deaths come just one week after the United States Office of Naval Intelligence (oni) warned that the Iranian-backed Houthi militia operating in western Yemen had deployed the naval mines in the strait. The oni report warned commercial ships of the danger of mines planted by the Houthis near the Mokha port at the entrance to the Bab el-Mandeb.

The placing of mines in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is the latest in a host of signs that Iran is implementing a strategy to control shipping through this critical sea-lane.

At the end of February, Iran conducted its annual naval exercise from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea. Included this year for the first time was the area in question—the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

At the time, 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 Iranian strategy.

However, back in 2011, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry warned that Iran had a strategy to control these waterways. Since 2011, the Trumpet observed 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.

After the Houthi suicide boat attack on a 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.” The naval exercises as well as the mining of the Bab el-Mandeb confirm that shift.

Just how important is the Bab el-Mandeb Strait?

As Mr. Flurry explained in an article in an April 2015 article:

In order to reach the Mediterranean Sea from the Indian Ocean, a lot of seafaring trade—including 3.8 million barrels of oil per day—passes through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the southern gate of the Red Sea. Measuring just 18 miles across, this channel is the closest point between the two landmasses of Central Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The northeast edge of the strait is in Yemeni territory.

The strategic importance of controlling this passage is equal to controlling the Suez Canal, since both are part of the same thoroughfare.

Consider the global ramifications: Nearly 10 percent of global seaborne oil supplies passes through the gates of the Red Sea. Roughly 20,000 ships pass through the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb each year—an average of 55 per day. About 15 percent of global maritime trade travels through the Red Sea.

As James Holmes wrote in a Foreign Policy piece last year:

If a coastal foe can menace shipping transiting this narrow seaway, it would disrupt the shortest, most convenient sea route connecting Europe with South and East Asia. Doing so would carry significant economic and military repercussions.

… Houthi antics could drive insurance rates sky-high for merchant shipping, prompting shippers to bypass the danger zone …. In a sense, then, the Houthis could conscript insurance firm Lloyd’s of London as an ally—magnifying their influence while distorting patterns of trade and military operations.

In November 2016, Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hossein Bagheri said, “One day, we may need [naval] bases on the coasts of Yemen and Syria.” Clearly, Iran has designs for this waterway and is right now in the process of making its intentions known.

But how serious are Iran’s intentions in the Red Sea? Would it really close the Red Sea to international shipping? And if it did, which nations would be willing to counteract it. The answers to these questions and others concerning Iran’s rise in the Middle East can be found in Gerald Flurry’s booklet The King of the South.