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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US sends attack submarine to Middle East as tensions rise between Iran and Israel

Mourners reach out to touch the flag-draped coffin of Milad Heidari, one of two members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard who were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Syria last week, in Tehran on Tuesday morning, April 4, 2023.

By Farnaz Fassihi, Ronen Bergman and Eric Schmitt

The U.S. Navy said over the weekend that it had deployed a guided missile submarine to the Middle East, a day after the U.S. 5th Fleet and its partners released a warning advising all ships to proceed with caution after tensions escalated between Iran and Israel, according to a Navy spokesperson.

U.S. military and Israeli intelligence agencies said the aerospace force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was preparing a drone attack against Israeli-owned civilian merchant vessels sailing in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, according to two Western senior intelligence officials with knowledge of the threats who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

An Iranian political strategist close to the Guard said Iran was considering attacks on Israeli-owned ships in the region as one means of retaliating against Israeli airstrikes in Syria that killed two members of the Guard in March.

U.S. officials said the deployment of the submarine, the USS Florida, was meant to deter Iran and maintain the stability of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, in which millions of dollars in commercial goods, oil and gas are transported every day.

The Florida, which has the capacity to carry 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, entered the region Thursday and began transiting the Suez Canal on Friday, according to a Navy spokesperson.

“Recent events, including the strikes in Syria and public threats made by Iran against merchant vessels, prompted us to remind regional mariners to remain vigilant,” said Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, a spokesperson for the 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain.

The public statement announcing the location and presence of the submarine was highly unusual because the U.S. military does not typically acknowledge the presence of its submarines anywhere, unlike ships and planes, which can be tracked.

In another sign of tensions rising in the region, the Pentagon this past week announced it was extending the tour of the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush in the eastern Mediterranean and speeding up the deployment of Air Force A-10 attack planes to a base in the Middle East.

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a yearslong shadow war that has extended to land, air, cyber and sea. They have been targeting each other’s ships in open waters since March 2021.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant spoke Saturday with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, according to a spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Defense.

In a statement Saturday, the ministry called Iran “the greatest destabilizing force in the region.”

“As Israel faces a range of attacks on all fronts,” the statement added, “our defense establishment is prepared and we will not tolerate any threat to our citizens and troops.”

Israel intensified its airstrikes on Iran-affiliated targets in Syria in March, killing two Iranian Guard members, including the commander of a cyber unit. Iran declared the two men martyrs and held a public funeral procession for them, and senior military commanders vowed to take revenge against Israel.

“The Zionist regime will undoubtedly receive a response for this crime,” the Guard said in a statement announcing the men’s deaths. The spokesperson of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani, said Sunday that Iran reserves the right to respond to the killing of its troops by Israel “at the right time and the right place.”

By Wednesday, the United Kingdom Marine Trade Operation, which monitors maritime security, had issued an “increased threat” warning to all vessels transiting the northern Indian Ocean because it had detected unusual activity.

By Thursday, the U.S. 5th Fleet had warned Israel’s defense establishment about an imminent threat from Iran against Israeli ships and said the Guard was in a position to strike, according to two Western intelligence officials.

Israeli shipping companies were warned by the U.S. 5th Fleet on Thursday, according to a senior employee of an Israeli shipping company who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the record. Past Iranian attacks on commercial vessels, he said, had been carried out against ships that previously belonged to Israelis, or that were only partially owned by Israelis, in what appeared to be cases of misidentification.

Israeli ships were advised to turn off their transponders, sail as close as possible to the coast of Oman and away from the Iranian coast, and to routinely report their whereabouts and any suspicious activity.

Tensions in the Middle East have flared the past few weeks on multiple fronts, including strikes and counterstrikes in Syria and clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian militias with fighters in Lebanon.

Israel carried out airstrikes in southern Lebanon and in Gaza on Friday in response to an unusually heavy rocket barrage from Lebanon that the Israeli military blamed on a branch of Gaza-based Palestinian militia Hamas. The rocket attacks came in response to clashes between Arab worshippers and Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem the day before.

A senior U.S. military official said the deployment of the submarine to the region was significant because it marked the first time in 19 months that U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East and some nearby regions, has taken operational control of a U.S. attack submarine. Usually, submarines transit the Middle East region, but the Navy’s public statement suggested this one would remain in the area for a while.

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