2011's great cascade of Arab rebellions continues, and even China's oligarchs are feeling its effects. Libya may be next. Meanwhile, back in Iran, the rebellions have energized the opposition Green Movement. Iran's Khomeinist dictators have placed its leaders under house arrest.
As this astonishing spring proceeds, Iran's clerical tyrants have also ordered an Iranian naval task force to sail the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
On Feb. 22, the task force, consisting of two warships -- the frigate Alvand and support ship Kharg -- entered the Suez Canal. Iran maintains its warships are training their crews to protect Iranian ships from Somali pirates -- but their destination is Syria.
What does Iran intend to do with its Great Fright Fleet?
If sending the fleet through Suez is supposed to probe Egypt's post-Mubarak relationship with Israel, so far the result is very murky. As a diplomatic maneuver signaling Iran's commitment to its Syrian or Lebanese Hezbollah clients, the fleet's cruise is gutsy, but its technology is feeble. Iran can show its flag, but its flag flies from the masts of rust-buckets. The warships do not present a meaningful threat to shipping. The frigate carries anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. Its life expectancy in a naval engagement with Israeli or NATO air-sea forces is desperately short.
Tehran regularly threatens Israel with the holocaust of nuclear destruction. The Israelis allegedly deploy submarines in waters near Iran. The Iranian task force sends the message that Iran might eventually place vessels carrying missiles with nuclear or chemical warheads in the Med -- which would complicate Israeli missile defense efforts.
Delivering weapons to Syria or to Lebanon's Hezbollah is a grim possibility. An Israeli intelligence website (Debkafile) claims the Kharg's cargo includes weapons for Hezbollah.
Hezbollah rocket attacks kicked off the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, so more rockets present a genuine threat to Israel. If the Kharg offloads weapons, and the Israelis don't respond, Hezbollah gets munitions. If the Israelis do respond, the world will be swamped with headlines accusing the Israelis of aggression.
The global television news orgasm will last at least a couple of weeks. Iran will portray itself as the frontline Muslim state confronting Israel. Here's Tehran's big message: Let's forget about this democracy ruckus and create a united front (led by the Khomeinists, of course) to defeat the Israelis, our common enemy.
In this respect, Iran's Great Fright Fleet is an attempt to change the subject. The warships are an information warfare task force. Their mission is strategic information diversion.
By baiting Israel into launching a military attack -- in front of television cameras -- the Khomeinists seek to divert attention from the Arab democratic rebellions. They also seek to affect the course of those rebellions by providing militant Islamists with an immensely powerful propaganda weapon and emotionally inflammatory imagery. They also see a domestic payoff. An Israeli attack on an Iranian warship would ignite Iranian nationalists. This would stymie (at least temporarily) the regime's internal opposition.
Those are the Khomeinists' goals. The results, however, are not guaranteed -- not in the extraordinary spring of 2011.
Still, the Israelis face a predicament. Given the regional unrest, just observing the fleet's Syrian and Lebanese activities may be the wisest of bad choices. Offloaded rockets can be dealt with later.
That's not the case if the fleet chooses a riskier port of call: Gaza. If the Khomeinists really want to bait the Israelis into reacting, the fleet could reprise the May 2010 Gaza aid flotilla gambit, this time upping the ante by employing warships.
Would the Israelis stop a Gaza foray by Iranian naval vessels?
The outcome? Iran will get headlines. As for the crews of the Alvand and the Kharg? Khomeinists will tout them as martyrs. Old salts will be more pragmatic: They got a permanent trip to Davy Jones' locker.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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