In late November, Iran made an unusual announcement: it said it was planning to build naval bases in Syria and Yemen, which, as a state-run paper later posited, “could be ten times more efficient than nuclear power.” Although Iran has long striven to establish itself as a leading regional power, and naval outposts have been key to reaching that goal, this was the first time Tehran officially declared its intentions to build such bases beyond its own borders.
Bases in Syria and Yemen would be particularly important to Iran. Yemen sits on the strategic shipping route of the Bab el Mandeb Strait, one of the world’s most heavily trafficked waterways, and a naval outpost there would give Tehran unfettered access to the Red Sea and put it in a more advantageous position to threaten its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia. A base in Yemen would also enable Iran to better support the Houthi rebels, one of its proxies, who took over Sanaa in September 2014. The Saudi-led blockade on Yemen has prevented Iran from accessing Yemen’s shores. And in late October, Iranian ships carrying supplies to the Houthis were forced to turn back after U.S. warships intercepted them—Iran’s fifth shipment of weaponry to the Houthis that the United States has blocked in the past year and a half. This has forced Iran to reroute its smuggling operations through Oman. An Iranian base in Yemen would resolve that problem, to some extent.
Recent clashes in the Bab el Mandeb Strait have highlighted the importance of the naval dimension of the war in Yemen. On October 1, the Houthis fired Iranian-supplied missiles at a ship from the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has created a naval blockade around Yemen. Several days later, the Houthis fired missiles at a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Mason, which, according to the White House, was in the region to “conduct routine operations.” The assault prompted the