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Israel Threatens To Use Force If Iran Blocks Strategic Waterway To Red Sea
Pro-government forces patrol the port of the western Yemeni coastal town of Mokha as they try to drive the Shiite Houthi rebels away from the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait last year. (Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel Threatens To Use Force If Iran Blocks Strategic Waterway To Red Sea

Meanwhile, rhetoric heats up over a possible U.S.-Iranian confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz

Israel has indicated it will join efforts by other countries to forcibly reopen the narrow Bab al-Mandab Strait at the mouth of the Red Sea should Iran try to seal off the strategic waterway, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Wednesday.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony for naval officers in Haifa, Netanyahu said that last week, “Iran’s proxies tried to sabotage international shipping in the strait.”

He was referring to Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis who attacked two Saudi oil tankers sailing through the strait on July 25. The attack, however, did not result in casualties, and one ship suffered minor damages. Following the incident, Saudi Arabia suspended oil shipments through the waterway, an unexpected concession to the rebels that sent shock waves through world oil markets.

“If Iran tries to block the Bab al-Mandab waterway,” Netanyahu continued in the speech, “I am convinced it will find itself against an international coalition determined to prevent that. This coalition will include the State of Israel and all of its branches.”

The Bab al-Mandab Strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean is a vital sea lane for oil transport to the West and Asia. At its narrowest point, a mere 29 kilometers (18 miles) separates Yemen on its eastern side and Eritrea and Djibouti to its west. Analysts believe that a naval blockade of the strait would halt the transport of nearly 5 million barrels of crude and refined oil per day.

Meanwhile, another strategic waterway has been at the source of tensions with Iran. In recent weeks, U.S. military officials have noted an increase in Iranian military activities in the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow sea lane between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

The strait—its narrowest point is 54 kilometers (34 miles) wide—is considered one of the world’s most strategically vital choke points, mainly for the transport of oil. About a third of all oil traded on the seas passes through it.

U.S. officials believe that Iran will hold a large military exercise—involving land and sea forces—in the strait in the following days. In the past, Iran has threatened to block it, a move that would cause havoc to markets and oil transport worldwide.

William Urban, chief spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told CNN on Wednesday that the U.S. military is closely monitoring Iranian troop movements in the area. “We will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways,” Urban added.

U.S. officials believe that the timing of the drill is Iran’s way of sending a message to Washington. Iranian leaders have been furious over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year. The rogue state is bracing for the re-imposition of economic sanctions that will go into effect on August 7. With the renewal of crippling economic sanctions, as well as failed diplomatic negotiations with European powers to renew the pact, some analysts believe Iran’s back is to the wall.

Iranian officials have issued warnings that the country will not sit by idly as the U.S. choked off its vital oil exports.

The country is also under pressure from internal dissenters. As Iran’s currency plummeted to new depths this week, protesters across the country have taken to the streets. They are upset about high prices, lack of water, power cuts and alleged corruption.

With all of these mounting pressures, it appears that Israel is setting clear red lines in the event of an escalation. Indeed, this was the first time Netanyahu has publicly declared that Israel would act forcibly to secure the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

Speaking at the same graduation ceremony, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that in the event of a confrontation—especially a multi-front one—“Israel will be less selective, and the damage to our enemies will be more difficult. I hope they will take this into account.”

Former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon, who also served as commander-in-chief of the Israeli Navy, told The Media Line that it is important to keep in mind that Iran is a major power trying to achieve regional dominance.

“This means that Israel is not the only—probably not even the first—target for Iran,” Ayalon said. “So, we have to find a way not to create, but to be part of a coalition against the terror that Iran is using in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, and against the proliferation of nuclear technology.”

He explained that Israel should be prepared to act alone as self-determinacy is a well-established principle of Israel’s security.

“On the other hand, we shouldn’t shout that we are Iran’s only target, as the prime minister does. I think Netanyahu is right to see Iran as a major security threat, but he is using it as a tool to retain political power. This is crossing the line in my eyes. Yes, we have to be prepared, but we don’t have to speak about it as loudly as we are every day.”

But, he added, Netanyahu’s tactical approach in this case is the right one. “This coalition, which we hope will be created and Israel can be part of, is in the interest of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and many other regional players.”

“But in the eyes of the Arab street—in Amman, Cairo or Riyadh—Israel is not seen as an honest player. We can be a legitimate partner in this coalition only when show progress on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center, told The Media Line that Netanyahu’s declaration is not only a show of support for Arab states confronting the Iranian threat, it also highlights Israel’s key economic interests.

“The strait is also important for the movement of Israeli merchandise. So, it is obvious why Israel is committed to ensuring free passage through it.”

What is different about the latest Iranian sabre-rattling, Kuperwasser explained, is that the Islamic Republic is being pushed into a corner.

“We see the Iranian rial plummeting, growing unrest in Iran over its demise. And the Iranians are trying to send a message of ‘don’t mess with us’ by raising tension around the Middle East wherever their forces or proxies are deployed.”

But, he concluded, “the Iranians know that their real power is limited, and they would not be able to counter a broad international coalition, involving the U.S., Arab states, and maybe Israel.

“The problem now for the Iranians is to accept some sort of arrangement that will be much less than what they got from former U.S. president Barack Obama. But they do not have any real alternative here. The Iranians act unreasonably, but there is no reasonable way for them out of a situation they’ve locked themselves in.”

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