Considerable attention is being given to Iranian threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which a large proportion of the world’s petroleum sails. The U.S Energy Information Administration estimates that “almost 17 million barrels in 2011, up from between 15.5-16.0 million bbl/d in 2009-2010,” sails past Iranian gun and missile emplacements along the coast, mine-laying ships, and Revolutionary Guard fast boats. In 2011, that amounted to “roughly 35 percent of all seaborne traded oil, or almost 20 percent of oil traded worldwide.”
Yet the recent visit of two Iranian naval vessels to the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah should draw attention to two more vital naval chokepoints—the Bab el Mandeb Strait at the southern tip of the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal located between the northern tip of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. (See this map.) More than three million barrels of oil pass through the Bab el Mandeb every day on the way to the Suez Canal and the SUMED (Suez-Mediterranean) pipeline used by tankers that are too big to traverse the Canal. Closure of the Bab el Mandeb would force ships to travel around the southern tip of Africa.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration warns, “The international energy market is dependent upon reliable transport. The blockage of a chokepoint, even temporarily, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs. In addition, chokepoints leave oil tankers vulnerable to theft from pirates, terrorist attacks, and political unrest in the form of wars or hostilities as well as shipping accidents which can lead to disastrous oil spills.”
The Iranian ships docked in Jeddah, the large supply ship (the Kharg) and the relatively small destroyer (the Shaid Kandy), are not necessarily a direct threat. But they do represent the Iranian potential for troublemaking.
Last February, the Kharg sailed through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean and paid a port call in Latakia, Syria. There it is believed to have unloaded containers of Iranian and Chinese weapons and missiles, presumably for Hamas or Hezbollah. One month later, the Gaza-bound Victoria, registered in Liberia and with 50 tons of weapons loaded in Latakia, was stopped by the Israeli Navy. Its weaponry reportedly included anti-ship missiles.
While civilian ships laden with weapons bound for those terrorist groups have been stopped and the weapons confiscated, no navy is going to stop an Iranian naval vessel in peacetime to check if it is loaded with weapons.
Presumably, Western satellites and intelligence services will be watching the Kharg to see if it continues through the Suez Canal to Syria, as it did last year. But it is also important to see if the Kharg delivers – or delivered already – containers in the Eritrean port of Assab, located precisely at the Bab el-Mandeb gateway to the Red Sea.
In late 2008 published reports claimed that Iranian ships, troops, weapons, and even submarines were seen in Assab. The Eritrean government rejected the reports as “persistent disinformation campaigns by Israeli intelligence officials.”
Nevertheless, Iranian “engineers” were seen in Assab more recently – “maintenance workers” for an oil refinery, Eritrean officials explained.
Authorities in an African port management association were queried this week about Iranian naval traffic in Assab. This was their response: “As you may be aware the Eritrean Government is strict on limiting communication with the outside world and this affects our ability to get information regarding the ports of Massawa and Assab.”
Iranian naval ships have also been patrolling in the Gulf of Aden which lays just south of the Bab el-Mandeb strait, waters known for their Somalia-based pirates. In early February, Iran claimed that its ships chased away pirates attempting to hijack an Iranian oil tanker in the area.
Iran’s growing interest in the region led it to announce plans to open embassies in Somalia and in Djibouti, another country on the Horn of Africa that borders on the Bab el Mandeb.
Turkey is funneling aid to the regime in Mogadishu to challenge to Iran’s subversive activity in Somalia, as recently detailed by Turkish analyst, Abdullah Bozkurt: “Intelligence reports detail how the Mullah regime in Iran has been providing arms and munitions to the insurgent groups in Somalia, including al-Shabaab,” Bozkurt wrote in Zaman. “Tehran has been funneling most of its aid to insurgents through the ‘Christian’ dictator of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki, who has been cozying up to Iranian regime for years.”
The recent soccer rioting in Egypt should light up more warning lights for the security of the Suez Canal chokepoint. Besides rioting in Cairo and Port Said, at the northern tip of the Canal where more than 70 people died in the soccer stadium, rioting and deaths took place in Suez City at the southern tip of the Canal.
The Canal is extremely vulnerable to terrorism, particularly as the Sinai Peninsula is becoming a lawless sanctuary for all sorts of bad guys – Bedouin smugglers, Hamas, al Qaeda and Hizbullah. In 2009, Egypt caught a Hizbullah spy network operating in Egypt and the Sinai, headed by a senior Hizbullah operative named Sami Shihab. At the time of their arrest the terrorists had been reconnoitering tourist sites and traffic in the Suez Canal.
Imagine what a few well-placed mines could do to shipping in the Canal. In 2010, more than 3,000 oil and gas tankers sailed north and south in the Canal.
Lenny Ben-David, a public affairs consultant, was deputy chief of mission of Israel’s embassy in Washington.