Australia/Israel Review

Cyprus and the Hezbollah maritime threat

Jul 4, 2024 | David Schenker, Farzin Nadimi, Hanin Ghaddar

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah: Threatening not only Cyprus but all maritime activity in the Eastern Mediterranean (Image: X/Twitter)
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah: Threatening not only Cyprus but all maritime activity in the Eastern Mediterranean (Image: X/Twitter)

When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech on June 19 commemorating a senior commander killed by Israel, his remarks were noteworthy for both their exceptionally menacing tone and their focus on the East Mediterranean. The headline from Nasrallah’s address was his threat to strike Cyprus if it allows Israel to use the island’s air bases or other military facilities during a future war in Lebanon – an understandable point of media focus given the republic’s status as a European Union member state. Just as important, however, he indicated that Hezbollah would attack Mediterranean targets belonging to Israel – a scenario that could put other countries’ vessels and assets at risk.

Exactly what Hezbollah might do is uncertain – during the 2006 war in Lebanon, the group surprised Israel by hitting its naval corvette Hanit with an antiship missile while it was patrolling waters near Beirut, killing several crew members. At minimum, a future war would likely see Hezbollah target Israeli military and commercial shipping in the East Mediterranean, along with the country’s lucrative offshore natural gas facilities. Other countries could face threats as well, from foreign ships that call at Israeli ports to US Navy vessels deployed to help defend the country against missile attacks from Lebanon or Iran. 


Why Cyprus?

Nasrallah’s threat to Cyprus was not random – the republic has long maintained close ties with Israel, much to Hezbollah’s irritation. In recent years, the island has hosted multiple joint air defence drills and annual special forces exercises with Israel focused on potential threats from Hezbollah and Iran. The group has also (falsely) accused the British military of launching air defence missiles from its bases in Cyprus to counter drones launched at Israel during Iran’s major April 13 assault. 

Nasrallah’s threat should also be viewed in the context of wartime statements by Iran and its proxies about disrupting vital shipping lanes to Israel through the East Mediterranean. As early as Nov. 1, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for a joint Islamic effort to block oil and food shipments to Israel in response to the Gaza war. Since then, the Houthis, Iraqi Shi’ite militias, and other members of Teheran’s so-called “axis of resistance” have threatened Israeli ports and shipping and launched attacks in their direction. For example, several Iraqi militia drones downed over the Golan Heights were believed to be headed for Haifa port.

In January, the Cypriot Government affirmed its neutrality and non-involvement in any foreign military operations after aircraft launched from the British base at Akrotiri participated in counter-strikes against the Houthis. According to the 1960 Treaty of Establishment, the Cypriot government has no control over the activities of sovereign British bases on its territory. 

The island’s EU membership could technically require other member states to join in its defence if it is attacked. 

At present, Cyprus and its environs are not protected by a robust, multilayered air and missile defence network. The government reportedly reached a tentative agreement in 2022 to purchase Iron Dome systems from Israel, though it is unclear if and when they will be delivered. The island could therefore be vulnerable to Hezbollah missiles absent the deployment of British or NATO guided-missile destroyers. This scenario should be particularly troubling to Washington given the large allied military presence in Cyprus, which includes a few thousand British troops, more than a hundred US Air Force personnel, and a detachment of U-2 surveillance aircraft from the 1st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. 


Hezbollah Capabilities and Intentions

Hezbollah has a range of options to back up Nasrallah’s threat. The group is believed to possess a large arsenal of highly accurate surface-to-surface missiles mainly of the Iranian-made Fateh family, which cover ranges from 250 to 1,000 kilometres while carrying a 450-kilo high-explosive warhead. It also likely has anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles similar in quality and quantity to what the Houthis have used against international vessels in the Red Sea region since November – including the advanced Russian Yakhont, a supersonic weapon with a range of 300 km. 

Hezbollah would therefore have little problem targeting Britain’s Akrotiri air base, its nearby PLUTO II over-the-horizon surveillance radar, or its Troodos radar and signals intelligence collection station. 

Like the recent Houthi attacks against Israel, the vast majority of any future Hezbollah missile and drone launches against Cyprus could be intercepted with the help of well-coordinated air and missile defence warships, patrolling fighter jets, and timely intelligence – assuming such assets were already deployed in the area. Overwhelming these assets and the island’s other land- and sea-based defences would require a very large number of missiles and drones, which Hezbollah may be reticent to devote for fear of depleting the arsenal it would simultaneously be using against Israel. 

Indeed, it is unclear if Nasrallah is truly willing to follow through on his tough talk against Cyprus, not least given the risk of drawing more EU countries into a potential conflict. 


Policy Implications

Nasrallah’s threat highlights the very real prospect of the Hezbollah-Israel conflict broadening into the Mediterranean. If a wider war erupts, Israeli military and commercial traffic at sea would certainly be at risk. Israel’s offshore energy assets would be at risk as well, including property owned by the US corporation Chevron. Beyond Israel, commercial shipping in the East Mediterranean could be directly threatened or caught in the crossfire, including humanitarian aid shipments from Cyprus to Gaza. Even the Houthis could conceivably launch solidarity attacks at targets in these distant waters given their long-range suicide drones and missiles. 

The Biden Administration has devoted great efforts to preventing further escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, recently deploying the USS Eisenhower carrier strike group to the East Mediterranean in a bid to deter the group. Publicly standing with Israel and Cyprus is an important step in this time of crisis. Notably, Nasrallah’s speech came just one day after the US State Department hosted the island’s foreign minister and announced the first-ever strategic dialogue between the two countries.

Now that Europe has been directly threatened by Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Washington should also urge the EU and all its member states to denounce Hezbollah’s brazen threats and designate it as a terrorist organisation, as many other countries around the world have already done. 

Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Senior Fellow in The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Rubin Program on Arab Politics. Farzin Nadimi is a senior fellow with the Institute. David Schenker is the Institute’s Taube Senior Fellow. © Washington Institute (, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.


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