Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has once again slammed Iran’s presence in Syria, this time claiming that Tehran has a plan to base aircraft in the country, dock its submarines on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and directly threaten Israeli waters.
“They want to bring their air force there, right next to Israel,” Netanyahu declared in November 2017. “They want to bring Shia and Iranian divisions right next to Israel, they want to bring submarines and military vessels into the Mediterranean, right next to Israel. So we will not let that happen; we will resist it.”
Netanyahu’s claim that Iran intends to deploy aircraft to Syria is not necessarily new. In late 2015 there were reports in the Israeli press speculating that Iran had plans to send warplanes to Syria in support of embattled Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad. This never materialized.
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Netanyahu’s own former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror said at the time that it wasn’t necessary for Israel “to respond” to such a deployment “so long as the Iranian jets don’t interfere with us,” in which case Israel would not have hesitated to shoot them down.
However, Netanyahu’s comment about Iranian submarines is peculiar. To be sure, Tehran does possess a small fleet of diesel-powered attack submarines. Aside from three diesel-electric Kilo-class attack submarines, purchased from Russia in the 1990s, Tehran has an estimated 21 domestically-built Ghadir-class midget subs based on the North Korean Yono class.
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The Kilos could certainly operate thousands of miles away from home for weeks before needing to be refueled. The Ghadirs, however, are designed prowl in the waters of the Persian Gulf near Iranian shores.
Iranian naval activity near Israeli waters are not unprecedented. In February 2011, Iranian warships crossed through the Suez Canal for the first time since the Iranian Revolution to undergo training exercises in Syria. However, were Iran to actually deploy its fleet of Kilo submarines in the Mediterranean near Israel’s coast it would likely amount to a symbolic projection of power and little more.
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Israel has a fleet of five German-built Dolphin-class submarines, with a sixth on the way, along with a small, but formidable, array of surface vessels which possess substantial anti-submarine sensors and weapons – including sub-hunting robots – capable of countering the few vessels Iran could conceivably deploy. Iran’s Kilos would most likely to stick to the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea to lay mines — 24 each per submarine — and to threaten the Bab El Mandeb strait.
Netanyahu’s comments convey a more general concern in Israel regarding Iran’s growing power in the Levant. Another Israeli war with Hezbollah in Lebanon — a highly-skilled militia and the recipient of Iranian weapons and training — will doubtlessly prove much tougher and riskier than the last major clash between the two in 2006. Hezbollah’s experience, coupled with new overland resupply routes stretching directly from Iran itself, could potentially allow Hezbollah to fight much longer than it hitherto could, wearing down the Israeli army.
Since at least January 2013, Israeli warplanes have sporadically bombed Syrian arms convoys and depots to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring sophisticated weapons. In one incident in July 2013 an arms depot in the Syrian port city of Latakia exploded, destroying 50 Russian-made Takhont P-800 anti-ship missiles.
Initial reports suggested an Israeli aircraft carried out the raid. The Sunday Times, however, reported that Israel’s submarines launched the attack , likely through the usage of their long-range Popeye cruise missiles — which can strike targets from a range of more than 900 miles away.
Israel’s determination to keep Iranian weapons out of Hezbollah’s arsenal stems back to its last war with the group in summer 2006. Hezbollah took Israel by surprise by successfully knocking the Israeli Sa’ar 5-class corvette INS Hanit out of action with a Chinese C-802 missile and destroying several Merkava tanks with Kornet anti-tank missiles.
The militia fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel during the war. A future clash could mean a Hezbollah with far more, deadlier and longer-range rockets and missiles – and anti-aircraft weapons which could undermine the technological edge Israel has striven to maintain.
Netanyahu’s suggestion that Iran will station its submarines in the Mediterranean comes after he has sought to expand his own country’s submarine fleet to as many as nine Dolphin-class subs, which would constitute an enormous underwater fleet for a country the size of Israel. His government has sought to justify the procurement of an additional three more of these submarines from Germany, at a cost of €1.2 billion, as necessary insurance against the Iran threat.
Ironically, Iran owns an estimated 4.5 percent of the shares of the German company ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems that makes the Dolphins and may even profit from the very same deal.