The United States Navy said on Saturday 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 following escalating tensions between Iran and Israel, according to a U.S. Navy spokesman.
U.S. military and Israeli intelligence agencies said that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force 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 Guards 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 Guards in March.
U.S. officials said the deployment of the submarine, the U.S.S. 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 on Thursday and began transiting the Suez Canal on Friday, according to a U.S. Navy spokesman.
“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 spokesman 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.
More on U.S. Armed Forces
- Stripping Confederate Ties: In the first of nine scheduled redesignations aimed at purging the symbols of the Confederacy from the military, Fort Pickett in Virginia became Fort Barfoot in honor of Col. Van Barfoot, a Medal of Honor recipient.
- Feeding the War Machine: The Pentagon’s deliveries of weapons to help Ukraine hold off Russia have exposed a worrisome lack of production capacity in the United States that has its roots in the aftermath of the Cold War.
- In Africa: With terrorists moving south across the Sahel and threatening the coastal states of West Africa, the focus of the Pentagon’s annual Flintlock exercise was on helping participants see their broader role in counterterrorist actions.
In another sign of tensions rising in the region, the Pentagon last 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 one another’s ships in open waters since March 2021.
Israel’s minister of defense, Yoav Gallant, spoke on Saturday with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, according to a spokeswoman for Israel’s Ministry of Defense.
In a statement on 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 Guards 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 Guards said in a statement announcing the men’s deaths. The spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani, said on 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 that the Guards were 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 counter-strikes 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 the Gaza-based Palestinian militia Hamas. The rocket attacks came in response to clashes between Arab worshipers and the Israeli police at the 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.
On Saturday there was no sign of tensions abating. The Israeli military said three rockets were launched from southern Syria toward the Golan Heights area of Israel and that one landed in Israeli territory near the town of Meitsar. One fell inside Syria, the military said.
The rocket attacks targeting Israel are typically from militia forces that are part of a so-called “axis of resistance” that is supported, armed and funded by Iran to sustain a unified regional fight against Israel.