Reports in late December 2020 that an Israeli submarine is making its way towards Iran through the Suez Canal represent one of the strongest messages yet that Israel has sent to deter Tehran from increasing tensions in the region. It comes in the wake of a massive air defense drill that saw Israel's multi-layered integrated air defense systems practice against drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missile threats.
Israel's Kan network reported on Monday, December 21, that a submarine had been sent toward Iran through Egypt's Suez canal. The report was based on "Arab intelligence sources," because Israeli media generally relies on foreign sources for sensitive reports like these that otherwise are tightly controlled by the government. This was interpreted as a warning to Iran in Israel. The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to the reports. Egypt approved the submarine crossing, the Israeli media reported.
The submarine report comes as a U.S. nuclear submarine is also entering the Strait of Hormuz off Iran. This puts it in the confined and crowded waters off the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. naval base in Bahrain. The nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine USS Georgia was accompanied by two U.S. warships, the USS Port Royal and USS Philippine Sea. It moved into the area on December 21, the U.S. Navy said. The Georgia was launched in 1982 and is one of the Ohio-class submarines. Some of the largest submarines in the world, the Georgia was converted in the early 2000s to carry cruise missiles for attack on land. It joins several other submarines of its class in this configuration and another dozen of the similar class.
Israel has five submarines in its Dolphin class, a group built after 1999 in Germany and a second group that put to sea in the last ten years also from Germany. A sixth is expected to come online soon and several more are on order, a controversial expansion of the submarine arm of the navy that has led to questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to order more. Compared to the behemoth like the USS Georgia, Israel's submarines are less than half the length of their American counterpart. Israel also recently took delivery of a new Sa'ar 6 class corvette, which will be packed with Israel's latest missile and air defense technology, greatly increasing the power of Israel's navy.
The tensions with Iran are multi-fold in the region. Tehran blamed Israel for the killing of one of the key figures behind its nuclear program in November. Iranian-backed Hezbollah claims Israel killed one of its members in Syria in July. Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria in the last ten years, demanding Iran stop weapons trafficking in Syria that threatens Jerusalem. Meanwhile Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are blamed for a recent attack on the U.S. embassy, one of dozens of rocket attacks this year against U.S. facilities. Since May 2019 tensions rose between the United States and Iran in the region. Iran carried out a cruise missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia last August and Iranian-linked groups in Syria have fired missiles at Israel.
"We are hearing more and more threats against Israel coming from Iran," Israel's Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said on December 21. He said Iran would pay a heavy price for any attack. According to the media reports the submarine story is a message to Iran and it appears to dovetail with the same message from Washington. In November, the United States sent B-52s back to the Middle East as well.
The tensions also come amid new Israel relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Some 50,000 Israelis visited Dubai since November 26, packing up to ten flights a day that now operate from Tel Aviv. New coronavirus concerns are reducing that rate of travel, but overall it forms part of the picture of a region in which economic success and new partnerships underpin the Israel-UAE relationship, while Iran continues to release warnings against Israel. Iran and Turkey have both opposed Israel's new peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain. On December 22, the first Israeli flight took off for Morocco, another country that is normalizing relations with Israel.
Israel is pioneering a number of new technologies for navies in recent years. Israel's Elta Systems partnered with the German firm Hensoldt to develop a technology for submarine masts that combines optics and communications. It helps maintain the submarine's stealth capabilities by reducing the number of protruding shapes with harsh angles. Furthermore, the German partnership makes sense for Israel because so many of its naval vessels are built in German shipyards. Israel is generally tight-lipped on any further details about its submarine fleet, which is considered an elite part of the navy and requires years of training and commitment to serve in. That makes the reports on December 21 all the more surprising and illustrates the seriousness with which the Iranian tensions are being taken in the region.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.