Iran's quest for foreign naval bases

Iran's quest for foreign naval bases
Comment: A wide-ranging analysis of potential overseas Iranian assets shows Tehran's capabilities may not match its ambitions - yet, writes Naveed Ahmad.
7 min read
24 Jan, 2017
Iran is attempting to expand its naval reach [AFP]
Iran is laying bare its grand strategy, step by step. As if boasting of extending the frontier of the "Islamic" revolution to Aleppo was not enough, Tehran is now eyeing off-shore military bases.

"We need distant bases, and it may become possible one day to have bases on the shores of Yemen or Syria, or bases on islands or floating (bases)," Reuters quoted Iranian General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri as saying to a gathering of naval commanders.

The wire service referred to the Shargh Daily newspaper, which reported him further, saying: "Is having distant bases less important than nuclear technology? I say it is worth dozens of times more."

Bagheri's speech can't be set aside as merely morale-boosting rhetoric, for he is chairman of the Armed Forces' General Staff (AFGS) and Ayatollah Khamenei's military adviser.

Before delving deep into the stratagem, it's important to understand the general who is spelling it out. General Bagheri succeeds Hassan Firouzabadi, who held the post for 27 years. Khamenei has given Bagheri the mandate to "oversee an upgrade to (Iran's) military and security capabilities and the readiness of its armed forces".

Bagheri was among the 1979 coup plotters who seized the US embassy. As a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he participated in covert campaigns against Kurdish insurgents and later Iraq. His late brother Hassan set up the IRGC's military intelligence branch in 1980.

Bagheri is a strategic mastermind and a strong believer in robust deterrence against perceived foreign threats

With a doctorate in political geography, Bagheri is a strategic mastermind and a strong believer in robust deterrence against perceived foreign threats. He fancies active military presence on the high seas, "even as far away as the South Pole". Under Bagheri, Iran's eastern neighbourhood and the Red Sea states are of enormous strategic significance.

In November, Iran's Naval chief Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari stated that the country's 44th flotilla of warships had entered the Atlantic ocean for the first time. After "terrorism", piracy is another excuse on which Iran has been increasingly relying to justify its offshore military presence including in international waters.

Since March, Iranian naval vessels have paid friendly port visits to Pakistan, India, Oman, Tanzania and Azerbaijan. Next in line include South Africa, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and other key Indian Ocean rim ports.

Iran's eastern frontiers are landlocked by Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is itself on the path to a swift modernisation of its significant naval muscle. Tehran has been trying to neutralise Islamabad's cordial military ties with Saudi Arabia and other GCC members.

In the short and medium term, the Red Sea is of enormous significance to Iran

Like Pakistan, Oman has also joined the Saudi-led Islamic countries' military alliance, thus ruining Iran's prospects of deepening naval ties. However, Muscat and Tehran continue to maintain closer political ties since the times of Shah whose assistance was vital in combatting the Dhofar Rebellion of 1962 to 1976.

In the short and medium term, the Red Sea is of enormous significance to Iran. The geostrategic temptation of encircling Saudi Arabia from all sides is driving Tehran's naval outreach to the African coast stretching from Djibouti to the Suez Canal. The waterway is at its narrowest (30 kilometres) at Bab al-Mandab, from Ras Menheli in Yemen to Ras Siyyan in Djibouti.

For years, Iran has been supporting Houthi tribesmen, adhering to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam, for absolute control over Yemen. Not content with merely draining Saudi military and financial strength with the civil war in Yemen, Iranian military strategists brag about establishing a multipurpose base on its coast.

Responding to General Hossein Bagheri's remarks, Saleh al-Samad, the political council chief for the Houthi militias, stated on Facebook: "Not an inch of Yemen's land or waters will be forfeited to any foreign party, friend or foe alike."

Aware of the challenges in realising a hegemonic fantasy, Iran has been investing vital political capital across the Red Sea.

Iran's designs on exploiting its naval base in Assab, Eritrea, met a serious setback in 2015 when Asmara and Riyadh struck a deal over ending the sanction-hit country's isolation and provision of financial aid in return for it switching sides in Yemen's civil war. More than 400 Eritrean troops are said to be fighting alongside Saudi allies in Yemen against the Houthis.

  Read more: GCC: military bases important, but alone can't deter foes

For years, Iran's relations with Eritrea have been a source of Gulf anguish, after it had used the Assab naval base to funnel arms across Africa and the Middle East. Interestingly, Asmara also provides a listening facility to Israel at Mount Amba Sawara, and docks in the Dahlak Archipelago, just off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

The Iranians had made inroads by exploiting Eritrea's conflicts with Somalia and Ethiopia. After the initial warming of ties after its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, America saw Eritrea as a pariah due to its role in Somalia.

The western approach to Eritrea provided a tailor-made opening to Iran, which it exploited to the maximum.

Despite observer status in the Arab League, Asmara drew closer to Iran for a political and strategic relationship in the wake of western isolation. While Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki maintains a tight grip on the country, its foreign and security policies are flexible and pragmatic. It did not believe in permanent friends, nor may it in future.

Thus, the Iranian frustration over the loss of the Assab port may be temporary, depending on how Saudi Arabia manages the bond with Asmara.

Sudan has been Iran's other key Red Sea ally which has significantly changed course of late, to Tehran's detriment. Tehran has not only reportedly been using Khartoum to traffic arms to Hizballah but also to intervene in other countries of interest in sub-Sahara and North Africa.

Saudi Arabia thus diverted military aid destined for Lebanon in 2014 to Khartoum, and bilateral relations between the two have been upbeat since. Even if Iran manages to mend and strengthen its political and strategic ties with Sudan, it is unlikely to provide Tehran with a naval base. Khartoum cannot afford to annoy the Gulf nations and Egypt, or to provoke Israel, which has targeted Iranian assets in Sudan in the past.

For years, Iran's relations with Eritrea have been a source of Gulf anguish

Somalia has also warmed its ties with Saudi Arabia, while Turkey maintains a military base in the country with UN approval. Though primarily aimed at training troops against non-state actors, it could be easily developed into a naval facility.

The relationship between Tehran and Damascus has morphed into master-client mode since the uprising started in 2011, yet Iran won't be able to establish a naval base in Syria without Russian consent.

The last thing the Kremlin will appreciate would be an assertive partner with a parallel agenda for the eastern Mediterranean states.

The Iranians are dependent on the Russian military industry for their wherewithal, while the Chinese are toiling hard to improve ties with Gulf states. Moscow will be under pressure from Ankara and Cairo alike to discourage Tehran from a permanent presence in already contested and tempestuous waters.

Senegal could have been the third and final coastal state for realising General Bagheri's dream in the Atlantic. But ever since an Iranian arms shipment routed to the country's restive region was intercepted, Dakar has taken the opposite route.

Much to Tehran's dismay, it became the first non-Arab African country to send troops Yemen.

The last thing the Kremlin will appreciate would be an assertive partner with a parallel agenda for the eastern Mediterranean states

Though Iranian grand design for a Chinese-style "string of pearls" in the sea has been relegated to its wish-list, the determination of its military chief is less likely to wither. After an overt display of hard power in Syria and Iraq, it is increasingly relying on soft power in African countries as well as in Pakistan and Turkey.

The relative success of Iranian geopolitics has resulted from three factors:

First, Tehran has effectively exploited anti-US sentiments in Muslim countries by promoting itself as bulwark against western imperialism.

Second, sanctions have been so aimlessly used as a tool of coercion or reprisal, that the emerging set of castaway nations shaped an informal bloc. Iran manipulated western and UN curbs to promote its leadership within a syndicate of outcast states.

Third, its rival Arab states never perceived likely threats emanating from post-sanctions Iran. Over-reliance on western allies and an absence of grand strategy has left a vacuum within GCC's traditional allies for the Khomeinist regime to exploit.

Naveed Ahmad is a Doha-based investigative journalist and academic with special focus on diplomacy, security and energy issues. Follow him on Twitter: @naveed360

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.