Gantz: Iran’s maritime activity in Red Sea is ‘most significant’ in a decade

Defense chief reveals satellite images of 4 Iranian warships that he says are patrolling area’s waters; warns recent space tests prove Tehran capable of attacking Europe with ICBMs

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Four Iranian military vessels seen in the Red Sea in satellite images revealed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, July 5, 2022. (Defense Ministry)
Four Iranian military vessels seen in the Red Sea in satellite images revealed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, July 5, 2022. (Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday revealed satellite images he said showed the “most significant” Iranian military maritime activity in the Red Sea in a decade.

“Iran is expanding its activities in the maritime arena. Over the last year, Iran has seized international tankers and attacked vessels. Today, we can confirm that Iran is methodically basing itself in the Red Sea, with warships patrolling the southern region,” Gantz told the Economist Government Roundtable conference held in Greece.

“You can see the ships in the satellite images behind me,” he said, pointing to a slide of the four Iranian military warships, as his Greek and Cypriot counterparts — with whom he met earlier in the day — looked on.

“In the last months, we have identified the most significant Iranian military presence in the area, in the past decade. It is a direct threat to international trade, energy supply, and the global economy,” Gantz added.

“It is also a direct threat to peace and stability in the maritime arena, which may affect the Mediterranean and beyond.”

In recent years, Iran and Israel have been accused of engaging in what analysts have called a naval “shadow war,” in which vessels linked to each nation have come under attack in waters around the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in a series of tit-for-tat exchanges.

Iran has been blamed for a series of limpet mine attacks that damaged tankers in the Gulf region in 2019, as well as for a fatal drone attack on an Israeli-linked oil tanker that killed two European crew members in 2021.

Tehran denies carrying out the attacks, but a wider shadow war between Iran and the West has played out in the region’s volatile waters.

In 2021, the MV Saviz Iranian cargo ship, said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen, was struck by an explosion. Iran blamed Israel for the blast, and an American official told the New York Times that Israel called the strike a retaliation for several attacks on Israeli-owned shipping vessels.

Iranian hijackers also stormed and briefly captured a Panama-flagged asphalt tanker off the United Arab Emirates last year, as well as briefly seizing and holding a Vietnamese tanker in November. In May, Iran seized two Greek-flagged oil tankers in Gulf waters.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the Economist Government Roundtable conference, Greece, July 5, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Also at Tuesday’s conference, Gantz warned that Iran’s recent tests of a satellite launcher could be used to carry warheads. “This test demonstrates that the Iranian regime has the capabilities to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that may reach as far as the center of Europe,” he said.

“This is in addition to operational ballistic systems and UAVs that can already reach the East Med,” he added.

Turning to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Gantz said the war showed “us that each country must be able to defend itself.”

“Each country must plan ahead, investing in force build-up and coordinating between the strategic and operational levels. The war also reminds us that security cooperation is vital for regional and global stability — whether it’s in Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, or the Middle East,” he said.

“In the East Med, Israel’s defense ties with Greece and Cyprus are stronger than ever, including among other things – industrial cooperation, joint exercises, and constant dialogue,” Gantz added.

An image taken from a video showing the second launch of Iran’s satellite carrier Zuljanah on June 26, 2022. (Twitter/Sccreenshot)

Gantz said his discussion with Cypriot Defense Minister Charalambos Petrides on the sidelines of the conference “covered challenges of mutual interest in the [Eastern Mediterranean], and areas of cooperation that are critical for the security of our citizens and for peace and stability in the region.”

And after meeting Greek Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, Gantz said the two discussed “increasing cooperation between the [countries’] military industries, and additional challenges we are facing, first and foremost the Iranian threat.”

“If we look further east — over the past year, under US leadership, we have been building a groundbreaking defense alliance in the Middle East, creating a united front against mutual threats,” he said, referring to a regional air defense alliance against the threat of Iranian drones and missiles.

“In facing Iran and its proxies, global allies must stand united, and prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear umbrella and undermining stability.”

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