by Austin Bay
February 22, 2011
2011's great cascade of Arab rebellions continues, and even
China's oligarchs are feeling its effects. Libya may be next. Meanwhile, back
in Iran, the rebellions have energized the opposition Green Movement. Iran's
Khomeinist dictators have placed its leaders under house arrest.
As this astonishing spring proceeds, Iran's clerical tyrants
have also ordered an Iranian naval task force to sail the Mediterranean Sea for
the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
On Feb. 22, the task force, consisting of two warships --
the frigate Alvand and support ship Kharg -- entered the Suez Canal. Iran
maintains its warships are training their crews to protect Iranian ships from
Somali pirates -- but their destination is Syria.
What does Iran intend to do with its Great Fright Fleet?
If sending the fleet through Suez is supposed to probe
Egypt's post-Mubarak relationship with Israel, so far the result is very murky.
As a diplomatic maneuver signaling Iran's commitment to its Syrian or Lebanese
Hezbollah clients, the fleet's cruise is gutsy, but its technology is feeble.
Iran can show its flag, but its flag flies from the masts of rust-buckets. The
warships do not present a meaningful threat to shipping. The frigate carries
anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. Its life expectancy in a naval engagement
with Israeli or NATO air-sea forces is desperately short.
Tehran regularly threatens Israel with the holocaust of
nuclear destruction. The Israelis allegedly deploy submarines in waters near
Iran. The Iranian task force sends the message that Iran might eventually place
vessels carrying missiles with nuclear or chemical warheads in the Med -- which
would complicate Israeli missile defense efforts.
Delivering weapons to Syria or to Lebanon's Hezbollah is a
grim possibility. An Israeli intelligence website (Debkafile) claims the
Kharg's cargo includes weapons for Hezbollah.
Hezbollah rocket attacks kicked off the 2006
Israeli-Hezbollah war, so more rockets present a genuine threat to Israel. If
the Kharg offloads weapons, and the Israelis don't respond, Hezbollah gets
munitions. If the Israelis do respond, the world will be swamped with headlines
accusing the Israelis of aggression.
The global television news orgasm will last at least a
couple of weeks. Iran will portray itself as the frontline Muslim state
confronting Israel. Here's Tehran's big message: Let's forget about this
democracy ruckus and create a united front (led by the Khomeinists, of course)
to defeat the Israelis, our common enemy.
In this respect, Iran's Great Fright Fleet is an attempt to
change the subject. The warships are an information warfare task force. Their
mission is strategic information diversion.
By baiting Israel into launching a military attack -- in
front of television cameras -- the Khomeinists seek to divert attention from
the Arab democratic rebellions. They also seek to affect the course of those
rebellions by providing militant Islamists with an immensely powerful
propaganda weapon and emotionally inflammatory imagery. They also see a
domestic payoff. An Israeli attack on an Iranian warship would ignite Iranian
nationalists. This would stymie (at least temporarily) the regime's internal
Those are the Khomeinists' goals. The results, however, are
not guaranteed -- not in the extraordinary spring of 2011.
Still, the Israelis face a predicament. Given the regional
unrest, just observing the fleet's Syrian and Lebanese activities may be the
wisest of bad choices. Offloaded rockets can be dealt with later.
That's not the case if the fleet chooses a riskier port of
call: Gaza. If the Khomeinists really want to bait the Israelis into reacting,
the fleet could reprise the May 2010 Gaza aid flotilla gambit, this time upping
the ante by employing warships.
Would the Israelis stop a Gaza foray by Iranian naval
The outcome? Iran will get headlines. As for the crews of
the Alvand and the Kharg? Khomeinists will tout them as martyrs. Old salts will
be more pragmatic: They got a permanent trip to Davy Jones' locker.