In an extraordinary development, Iran deployed submarines to the Red Sea last week, prompting fears that the Islamic Republic is engaging in another brazen show of strength. Although Tehran has long been convinced of its regional supremacy, this is the first time that Iranian submarines have been sent into the Red Sea -- previously off-limits to Iranian naval ships. Reports suggest the submarines are accompanying warships of the Iranian navy's 14th Fleet, with the ostensible purpose of their mission to collect data in international waters and carry out surveillance against suspicious activity. But there might be more to the deployment than meets the eye.
Iran's naval forces have become visibly proactive in recent months. Its warships have ventured outside the Persian Gulf and well beyond Tehran's traditional maritime sphere of influence. In February, two Iranian warships, the frigate Alvand and the tanker Kharg, sailed through the Suez Canal on an unprecedented visit to Syria, provoking a sharp reaction from Israel. Egypt, keen to signal a shift in policy in the post-Mubarak era, allowed the warships to pass through the waterway -- a move widely interpreted as reflecting Cairo's desire to re-establish ties with Tehran severed 30 years ago.
Traditionally, Iran's naval surveillance and reconnaissance activity has been directed against the Israeli Defense Forces navy and ships of the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. Maintaining a presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden allows Tehran to keep an eye on Israeli navy activities, which it believes are aimed singularly at undermining Iranian interests. Indeed, there have been reports in the recent past of attempts by the Israeli navy to prevent the smuggling of arms from Iran to the Gaza Strip. Israel also frequently employs operational and intelligence assets to prevent Iranian ships from supplying arms and contraband goods to its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. Many of these missions have resulted in the interception of maritime convoys in the Red Sea, en route from Sudan to Egypt, as well as the seizure of contraband in the form of weapons destined for Syria or Hamas.