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Elizabeth Leoce, Giorgio Tiberio, CENTCOM

Deepankar Patil, Editor; Hannah Norton, Senior Editor

September 11, 2022

Iran Map[1]

Geographical Area | Red Sea and Persian Gulf

Countries Affected | USA, Iran

On September 2, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) ship, Jamaran, seized two US sea drones in the Red Sea before returning them to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. Iranian media reported that the seized sea drones were endangering international waterways, but the US Navy said the sea drones were unarmed.[2] This event comes after the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) attempted to capture a Saildrone Explorer USV in the Persian Gulf on August 29.[3] Iran will very likely use its naval position to increase aggression against its adversaries, like the US, almost certainly using its attempted US drone seizure as a reason to deploy more naval vessels. A greater Iranian presence in the Red Sea will very likely lead to sustaining the proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, which will likely lead to expanding Iranian influence along the East African coast and the Arabian Peninsula. Iranian military activity in the Red Sea will very likely affect the shipping industry, almost certainly raising oil prices, and will likely raise suspicion of illicit smuggling of weapons in Iranian ships.[4] Security cooperation among those who have an interest in the Red Sea, like the US and UAE, will almost certainly be needed to protect maritime traffic.

Security Risk Level:

Areas of High Security Concern: Iran’s hostile maritime actions in the Red Sea will likely threaten international shipping and regional stability. Any hostile interaction with US Navy vessels, including US drones, will likely weaken the viability of a revived nuclear deal, as Iran will very likely use such interactions to strengthen its stance. Recent Iranian maritime activity almost certainly raises concerns about increased weapons smuggling to proxy militants in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, very likely indicating that Iran is using the Red Sea as an arms trade route. Eritrea, Iran’s ally in East Africa, will likely benefit from Iran’s maritime presence as weapons supply will likely reach its ports, likely fueling proxy wars and further decreasing regional stability. Any military disruption in the Red Sea will likely hurt global energy supplies, which will very likely raise energy prices that could destabilize the region.

Current Claims: USA; Iran; Syria; Lebanon; Yemen; Eritrea; UAE

Groups Involved in Conflict: United States Navy; Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN); Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN); Houthis; United Nations Peacekeepers

Current Conflicts: Iran attempted to seize US Saildrones in international maritime waters.[5] This was the first time Iran’s Navy has carried out a military operation in the Red Sea.[6] Iran’s maritime forces, the IRIN and the IRGCN, continue to patrol the southern regions of the Red Sea.[7]

Major Capital Industries: Commercial shipping; energy supply; humanitarian workers; private maritime security

Potential Industry Concerns: Iran’s hostile use of international waters will almost certainly undermine maritime security. Military activity in the Red Sea will very likely disrupt the shipping industry, as illicit weapons smuggling and cash transfers are likely being transported in Iranian ships. Increased Iranian naval ships will very likely hurt European energy supplies, as ships will very likely be delayed by taking different routes to avoid conflict. Hostile Iranian actions in the Red Sea will almost certainly attract pirates toward attacking merchant ships, likely compromising anti-piracy security services operating in the Red Sea. Safety concerns for United Nations Peacekeepers and civilians positioned in Eritrea or Syria will almost certainly be heightened, as buffer zones are likely to be threatened by Iranian military activity.

Areas of Caution:

  • Geopolitical: Since 2011, Iran has routinely sent naval forces to the Red Sea as part of its Syrian war effort.[8] It has used the Red Sea as a shipping route for illicit weapons to its proxies in the Levant.[9] Iran has previously been accused of providing arms to Yemen’s Houthi rebels but has denied such claims, despite evidence of an Iranian ship anchored for years in the Red Sea near Yemen.[10] As Iranian naval forces demonstrate their capabilities through the recent drone seizure, it is expected that Iran will deploy more naval ships in order to monitor the sea movement of its adversaries, like the US. More naval ships in the Red Sea will allow Iran to reach ports where they can buy and exchange food, oil, and weapons, avoiding international sanctions.

  • Military: Iranian maritime activity in the Red Sea threatens Egypt's Suez Canal and the strait between Yemen and Djibouti known as the Bab-el-Mandab.[11] Military activity in the Red Sea can cause these waterways to close, eliminating open sea lines of communication and access to ports, adding to transit time and cost.[12] Historically, the Iranian regime has fractured international shipping by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz to maritime traffic in response to US naval activity.[13] Iran’s recent encounter with the US in the Red Sea indicates that threats toward closing the Suez Canal or the Bab al-Mandab chokepoints are possible. Iran’s efforts to expand its military footprint are expected to expand around these waterways, provoking the US and other international rivals, such as the UK.[14]

  • Economic: The Bab-el-Mandab Strait is the world’s third busiest maritime oil transit checkpoint.[15] The closure of the strait can cause oil prices to rise and security to be compromised.[16] Iran has bilateral ties with East African countries, such as Eritrea, which has the strategically important ports of Massawa and Assab.[17] Iran’s naval presence in the Red Sea indicates its increased interest in trade, allowing the Iranian regime to broaden its economic ties outside its traditional ‘sphere of influence’ in the Middle East.[18] Iran’s expansion of economic ties facilitates infrastructure production, creating greater regional integration in countries like Eritrea or Somalia.[19] Countries surrounding the Red Sea, such as Eritrea, could witness Iran try to re-establish a naval base in Assab, allowing Iran to position itself in the global economy.[20]

Map of the Red Sea; the Suez Canal (top) and Bab-el-Mandab Strait (bottom)[21]

Predictive Analysis:

  • Who: Iran and the US will almost certainly be involved in future clashes over the seizure of sea drones. An escalation of clashes between both is very likely to affect the traffic of oil over the Bab-el-Mandab and Suez Canal, key sea lines of communications. A halt in the traffic of oil through these key sea lines of communication is almost certain to provoke an oil shock, worsening global energy shortages. Clashes are very likely to impact maritime security companies operating in the Red Sea as response time to situations is likely to be hindered. Hostile Iranian action will very likely hinder security efforts of maritime security companies, almost certainly affecting the shipping industry.

  • What: Iran very likely seeks to influence the region’s maritime routes by increasing its presence in international waters. Security threats will very likely include attempts to seize other US USVs, likely to counter the US Navy’s SIGINT collection capabilities. This will very likely threaten the US’s presence in the Red Sea, likely facilitating international weapon smuggling by Iran to its proxies in the Middle East.

  • Why: Influence struggles over the Red Sea between Iran and the US Navy very likely explains both sides' conflict over drones. SIGINT in the US Navy’s USVs almost certainly makes drone seizure a priority for Iran to gain an advantage in expanding its naval presence in the Red Sea. Iran is very likely to copy the SIGINT capabilities of US Navy Saildrones to develop its own USVs.

  • When: Incidents between the US Navy and Iran are very likely to continue and have a roughly even chance of worsening if talks over reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal either stall or break down in the short term. In the mid-term, it is almost certain that the SIGINT capabilities of the USV Saildrones will very likely result in Iran seizing US drones in the Red Sea. Relations between the US and Iran will almost certainly worsen in the long term, very likely resulting in more clashes in the Red Sea.

  • How: The continuation of the war in Yemen is very likely to result in Iran reinforcing its presence in the Red Sea to continue supplying the Houthi rebels with arms. The Houthis are almost certainly going to benefit from increased Iranian naval presence in the Red Sea, especially more ease in getting weapons to expand its control of Yemen. The Houthis will very likely aim to control the Bab-al-Mandab strait, almost certainly to facilitate its access to weapons by Iran.

The Counterterrorism Group’s CENTCOM Team recommends that the US Navy remains on high alert against attempts by the IRIN and IRGCN to seize naval drones when using them on the Red Sea, not using excessive force to recover them. Shipping companies are advised to keep track of vessels going through the Red Sea, regularly checking their position and monitoring their passage over the Bab-al-Mandab strait and the Red Sea to prevent them from getting caught in incidents between the US Navy, IRIN, or IRGCN. Ships going through the Red Sea should update themselves on the latest clashes to evaluate if it is safe to navigate the Bab-al-Mandab strait and the Gulf of Aden, increasing security measures to prevent confrontations. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) works to detect, deter, and defeat terrorism and will continue to monitor this incident for future developments. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crimes, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H) Officers will monitor future incidents in the Red Sea between the US Navy and IRIN or IRGCN for their potential impact on naval traffic.


[1] Iran by Google Maps

[2] Iran briefly seizes 2 US sea drones in Red Sea amid tensions, Associated Press, September 2022,

[3] Ibid

[4] Illegal Iranian Flow of Weapons to Yemen, U.S. Department of State, December 2021,

[6] Ibid

[7] Iranian Naval Capabilities in the Red Sea, The Maritime Executive, April 2022,

[8] The Case for a Holistic U.S. Policy Toward the Emerging Red Sea Region, The Washington Institute, April 202,

[9] Ibid

[10] Iran ship said to be Red Sea troop base off Yemen attacked, Associated Press, April 2021,

[11] Red Sea geopolitics: Six plotlines to watch, Brookings, December 2019,

[12] Ibid

[13] The growing Iranian threat around the Strait of Hormuz, Critical Threats, September 2020,

[14] Ibid

[15] Iranian Naval Capabilities in the Red Sea, The Maritime Executive, April 2022,

[16] Ibid

[17] Amid Red Sea Rivalries, Eritrea Plays for Independence, United States Institute of Peace, March 2020,

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] How Tehran is using Red Sea naval bases to encircle Saudi Arabia, Global Village Space, February 2017,

[21] Elizabeth Leoce via Google Maps


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