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Israel 'dramatically' upgrades naval fleet with new advanced warship

Ships are planned as deterrent against potential Iran-backed attacks from Hezbollah against Israel's Mediterranean gas rigs, as regional tensions increase
Israel's President Rivlin takes part in ceremony marking arrival of first of four new German-built Saar 6 vessels at naval base near northern city Haifa on 2 December (AFP)

Israel on Wednesday received the first of an advanced new fleet of missile warships from Germany to bolster the defences of its vulnerable Mediterranean gas rigs as tensions with Iran soar.

The German-made ship, dubbed the "Shield",  has arrived in Haifa port, with three more expected to follow next year. 

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The Saar-6 corvettes will bring to 15 the number of missile boats deployed by the Israeli navy, which, while small, carries out missions as distant as the Red Sea and the Gulf. Israel is also expecting a shipment of three German-made submarines to add to its fleet, AFP reported. 

A top naval officer told the news agency that the naval upgrade is set to "dramatically" improve the country's ability to counter regional rivals, including Iran.

The upgraded fleet will also reinforce the navy's capacity to defend offshore natural gas assets from groups including Lebanon's Hezbollah, which receives backing from Iran.

"The welcome discovery of the gas fields off Israel's shore made it necessary to create a plan that will provide a protective envelope," Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said during a ceremony at the port on Wednesday, as quoted by Reuters. 

Concerns over Hezbollah 

Unlike earlier models of Israeli missile boats, the Saar-6 will be fitted with both electronic countermeasures for cruise missiles, which have a flat trajectory, and a maritime version of the Iron Dome system for shooting down high-angle rockets.

These additions, a senior naval officer told AFP, are precautions against Soviet-designed Yakhont cruise missiles and Iranian-made Khalij Fars rockets - believed by Israel to be among Hezbollah's arsenal.

Israel has been particularly concerned over Hezbollah's proximity to Mediterranean gas rigs since Tehran vowed to retaliate for Friday's assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which it blamed on Israel. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations. 

"The Iranians are looking for 'prestige' targets like these, that can be hit with low casualties, meaning - they may hope - less chance of escalation," an Israeli security official told Reuters. "The question is whether Hezbollah would strike now."

Though Hezbollah has previously threatened the gas rigs, it said responding to Fakhrizadeh's death was in Iran's hands. Beirut has urged "all parties" to show restraint.

Still, Israel's head of naval operations, Rear Admiral Eyal Harel, has said that the country's offshore rigs "are the main objective on the Hezbollah target list for the next war", AFP reported. 

Waiting for Biden?

Tensions have continued to rise in the region, particularly given last week's assasination of Fakhrizadeh, but Iran is also weighing its changing fortunes with next month's US presidential handover from outgoing President Donald Trump to the more diplomacy-minded President-elect Joe Biden.

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has emphasised that Iran will seek its revenge in "due time" and will not be rushed into a "trap".

Earlier on Wednesday, Biden reaffirmed that his incoming administration would seek a return to the multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran if the Islamic Republic also restores its compliance with the pact. 

Iran stopped complying with the nuclear deal after Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018. Trump's withdrawal set off a series of events that brought the two countries to what many described as "the brink of war".

This week, officials told the Daily Beast that Trump had given Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a green light to hammer Iran - as long as it does not "start World War III".

One White House official said Trump was largely "checked out" on what has been one of the biggest foreign policy issues of his administration, causing more uncertainty in the region.