Navy officer: We have to push back against Iranian presence

Israel, UAE, Bahrain, US hold major Red Sea drill ‘to counter Iran’s aggression’

Naval exercise represents first public military cooperation between Jerusalem and Manama; comes amid growing tensions with Tehran at sea

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Ilustrative: A US Navy Martin UAV drone flies over the Gulf waters as the Royal Bahrain Naval Force (RBNF) Abdulrahman Al Fadhel takes part in a joint naval exercise between the US 5th Fleet Command and Bahraini forces, on October 26, 2021. (Mazen Mahdi/AFP)
Illustrative. A US Navy Martin UAV drone flies over the Gulf waters as the Royal Bahrain Naval Force (RBNF) Abdulrahman Al Fadhel takes part in a joint naval exercise between the US 5th Fleet Command and Bahraini forces, on October 26, 2021. (Mazen Mahdi/AFP)

The navies of Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain launched a joint exercise in the Red Sea this week, in response to their shared adversary Iran’s presence and aggression in the waters of the Middle East, a senior Israeli naval official said.

“This [Iranian] presence is something that we need to push back as much as possible from the State of Israel, from the Red Sea, from the areas that harm our freedom to sail… In order to do that, we need to make our partnerships tighter,” the senior officer told reporters on Thursday evening, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Here the goal is to extend the range of the navy’s operations — for the good of the State of Israel and the IDF — to extend our ability to detect [threats], to extend our sailing range, to prevent naval terror and also to retaliate, when we must, when it’s needed, against what the Iranians are doing,” the officer said.

Since February, 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.

The officer said that unlike much of its efforts in the region, which are conducted through proxies, Iran is more “independent” at sea, conducting operations with its own forces.

Earlier on Thursday, the US Central Command’s 5th Fleet announced that it had launched an exercise in the Red Sea the day before with the navies of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, focusing on “visit, board, search and seizure tactics.”

“It is exciting to see US forces training with regional partners to enhance our collective maritime security capabilities,” Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of the 5th Fleet, said in a statement.

The Israeli naval officer said the exercise would focus on these somewhat simpler strategies and would not include things like missile launches, nor would advanced equipment like submarines take part in it, though he said the drill was also meant to allow the participants to get to know one another.

The exercise, one of the first Israel has held with the 5th Fleet, came just over a year after Israel normalized ties with the UAE and Bahrain under the Abraham Accords and a few months after Israel moved into the area of responsibility of the US military’s Middle East-focused Central Command.

Though Israel has conducted exercises alongside the UAE in the past, the drill represents the first-ever public military cooperation between Israel and Bahrain.

“This is the first time — at sea — that we’re swapping know-how with Bahrain, with the Emirates, about professional, operational techniques,” the officer said.

“It’s more comfortable to work together at sea. You’re far from the viewing eye, you can’t be photographed from shore, people don’t always know that it’s even happening. It’s taking place in a ‘gray zone.’ I believe it will open further doors for us, maybe slowly, maybe quickly,” he said.

According to the senior naval official, this exercise is one of several that Israel and the 5th Fleet plan to conduct in the coming year.

“This exercise is part of a work plan, and you will see more of them in the coming year. They won’t just be bilateral with the Americans. Since the 5th Fleet works with countries that are part of the Abraham Accords, in this exercise, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are taking part,” he said.

In his statement, Cooper reiterated the importance of this multi-national cooperation.

“Maritime collaboration helps safeguard freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade, which are essential to regional security and stability,” he said.

The drill is being led by the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which operates throughout the Middle East, and it will be held in the northern Red Sea, keeping a wide berth from Iran, which maintains proxies in Yemen and regularly has ships located around the Bab al-Mandab Strait between the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

“We have an interest in Bab al-Mandab, which affects the freedom of movement of the State of Israel, and we need to push back Iran’s presence [from there], and there are other countries that are also partners to this threat,” the officer said.

In addition to the portions of the exercise that are being held at sea, US Marines from the 5th Fleet are also in Israel, training with the IDF on urban warfare techniques, as part of the drill, the Israeli officer said.

Recent months have seen a significant increase in apparent shows of force by the US, Israel and countries in the Persian Gulf on one side and Iran on the other.

Earlier this week, Tehran launched a major naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman, which Iran’s deputy army chief said was meant to “[warn] the enemies that any act of aggression against Iran will draw a crushing response from the army.”

Twice over the past month, the US has flown B-1 heavy bombers through the region, and Israel hosted a massive multinational aerial exercise, Blue Flag.

Tensions have been particularly high with Iran in recent months as the Islamic Republic has stalled indirect talks with the United States in Vienna regarding a mutual return to the 2015 nuclear deal. The talks have now been scheduled to resume at the end of November, though US officials have indicated uncertainty about how seriously they believe the Iranians will take them.

Israeli and American officials have increasingly threatened military action against Iran’s nuclear program should those negotiations fail.

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