Reuters One of two Iranian navy warships arrives to dock at Port Sudan, December 8, 2012.

Iran's Growing Naval Ambitions

Why It Wants Naval Bases in Syria and Yemen

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 United States to engage in “limited self-defense” retaliatory strikes on the Houthi maritime radar facilities involved in the attack.

A base in Syria, if it ever materializes, would stretch Iran's naval arm to the Mediterranean and strengthen the Iranian military presence near Europe’s shores. It would also help Tehran’s allies in Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria—Hezbollah, Hamas, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, respectively. A naval base in Syria would enable Iran to transport regular supplies and provide other assistance to Hezbollah without being dependent on overland convoys or aerial transport through Iraq or Turkey. The base would also make Iran less dependent on Sudan. Although Sudan has long served as a port of entry for Iranian weapons into the Mediterranean and Africa, Tehran’s African ally has been changing its policy in recent years and has moved closer to wealthy Saudi Arabia. (The latest report of Iranian vessels docking in Port Sudan was in May 2014.) Khartoum, hungry for Saudi financial investment, has apparently closed its ports to the Iranian navy, making it difficult for Iran to smuggle arms to Hezbollah and Hamas. Furthermore, in the regional battle under way between Iran, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other, the latter two have gained an advantage, seizing control of the Red Sea arena with the opening of naval bases in Djibouti and Eritrea. An Iranian base in Syria could help redress this power imbalance.

The two bases would fit into Iran’s larger plan to expand its reach both regionally and beyond. Tehran is in the process of building up its presence along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, a policy that it also announced in November. “We are building two naval zones and three naval bases on the Makran coasts,” said Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian navy, at a press conference in Tehran. “This is in line with our policy of making a return to the sea.” Sayyari highlighted plans to equip the Iranian navy with homegrown surface-to-surface missiles, sea-based drones, and intercept radars.

Sayyari also made mention, and not for the first time, of Iran’s goals outside its regional waters. “Beyond a doubt,” he said, “our naval fleets will, in the near future, circle Africa and cross the Atlantic.” He referred to the waters of East Asia as well. To further this goal, Iran is conducting visits to and joint naval exercises with countries in Africa and Asia. In May 2013, Iran’s navy paid a visit to the Chinese port of Zhangjiagang, and later that year, it sent two warships and a submarine to Colombo, Sri Lanka. In 2014, China reciprocated by sending, for the first time, two ships to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to conduct joint naval exercises, ostensibly focused on antipiracy operations. And in January of this year, Tehran dispatched an Iranian navy destroyer to the Indian port of Visakhapatnam, also to conduct joint naval drills.

“The Indian Ocean is of high significance to the world and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said Sayyari at the time, “and its security is very important to us and the globe. Therefore, we have announced that we are capable of ensuring security in the north of the Indian Ocean to prevent any insecurity there.” A month later, Iran sent naval ships to Karachi, Pakistan, and discussed maritime collaboration with Islamabad. Finally, in November, two Iranian vessels sailed to the South African port of Durban after docking in the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam. Sayyari later announced that Iran had “for the first time … succeeded in circling the African continent and has sailed into the Atlantic Ocean.” (But Durban is located along the Indian Ocean, and it is unclear if the Iranian ships later sailed eastward past Cape Agulhas and actually into the Atlantic.)

As former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently noted, the greatest challenge for the Middle East is the “potential domination of the region by an Iran that is both imperial and jihadist.” He went on to explain that Washington must “make it clear that we are opposed to a further territorial expansion of Iran and what we are asking of the Iranians is to act like a nation, and not like crusaders.” But Iran’s latest remarks, at least in the short term, are mostly political posturing—a sort of gunboat diplomacy aimed at a domestic audience. The timing of Tehran’s November statement might also suggest that the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president has put the Iranians on edge. After all, Iran does not currently possess the military capabilities or financial resources for such expansions—its blue-water navy still uses outdated equipment from the shah era, for instance—and it is wary of Trump, who has called the Iran nuclear deal “horrible.” 

Nonetheless, the expansion of Iran’s navy is picking up enough speed that it is worrying the country’s neighbors. In 2009, Iran began conducting independent operations near the Gulf of Aden, claiming that it was fighting piracy, and in 2011, it sent two ships through the Suez Canal while en route to the Syrian port of Latakia. The latter move so alarmed the region that Saudi Arabia proposed forming a joint Arab naval force that would be initially led by Riyadh; the plan was brought up again in 2014 and 2015 but has been stymied, apparently, by disagreements among the 11 countries involved about the force’s composition and tasks.

If left unchecked, Iran could potentially develop the capacity to threaten crucial shipping lanes in the Caspian Sea and the Indian Ocean. As a result, Iran’s recent announcements of its plans to expand its regional presence to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean could spur cooperation between Israel, which is also seeking to curb Iranian influence, and the Arab world. For its part, the United States under President Barack Obama has shied away from confrontation with Iran in almost all instances. The U.S. Navy has chosen not to counter the increasing provocations in the Persian Gulf by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. As of September 2016, there had been 31 “unsafe encounters” with Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf, up from 23 in 2015, according to the U.S. Navy. The lack of action is costing Washington its credibility as a counterforce to Tehran. 

The incoming Trump administration should do more to counter the threat posed by Iran, particularly in the naval arena, where the United States enjoys clear superiority. It should draw firm “redlines” around Iranian naval actions—to ensure that Iran’s provocations won't be left unanswered and to demonstrate Washington’s resolve. Back in 2015, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, said that Iran’s naval power was the optimal means “for powerfully confronting enemies” and “effectively cooperating with friends,” adding that in its prerevolutionary days, Iran had failed to grasp the “sensitivity of the sea.” Judging by Tehran’s recent comments alone, Iran is indeed changing its course at sea, and the Trump administration should respond by developing a more comprehensive Iran policy that pushes back against Iranian ambitions.

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