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Wed. October 17, 2018
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Iran’s Overseas Ambitions: Signs of a Naval Conundrum
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The Middle East is on the verge of witnessing a naval conundrum. Iran’s claims of considering a revisit to its naval policy through the establishment of naval bases closer to Yemen and Syria are indicative of worsening the already disturbed military equations in the region. Tehran’s intent is quite unwelcoming for its rivals across the region, particularly the US and its allies, which necessarily include Saudi Arabia. If materialized, the move happens to be capable of offering additional leverage to Iran who already enjoys an upper hand in the volatile West Asian environment through the alleged support for non-state actors such as Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Tehran’s Naval Outreach Imperative

Iran’s ambitions are inspired strictly by the strategic and tactical prospects that an overseas military outpost can provide. The naval dimension to the so called ambitions has earned more acceptance by virtue of geopolitical advantages. This was emphatically embodied in a press release of November 2016 by General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, the Chief of Naval Staff of Iran. His statement on this proposed naval outreach and the consequent opportunities for deterrence reflected an analogy to a nuclear program as it stands no less than the latter. As far as the naval deployment is concerned, General Bagheri’s view was also indicative of a preference towards mobile sea basing platforms in lieu of immovable naval facilities in the regions of interest.

The Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah is militarily engaged in the Syrian crisis by upholding a pro-Assad approach. Neither Houthis lag behind in the conflict scenario given the security context in Yemen. An immediate apprehension is that the regional stakeholders are exposed to the transfer of weapons and ammunitions to Hezbollah and Houthi rebels by Tehran, generally of the sophisticated and high-end nature, ranging from guns to anti-ship missiles. Precedents in terms of the application of anti-ship missiles by these proxy groups undoubtedly support the fear. Besides, a naval outreach near to the Syrian and Yemeni coast can successfully substitute the present regime of logistics-smuggling between Iran and its proxy outfits with a direct and undisturbed discourse of weapons-delivery. Such a possible military posture aggravates the risk of intensifying the complications at the conflict-struck Yemen and Syria.

Strait of Mandeb and the Eastern Mediterranean: The Game Changers

Along similar lines, in the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranian Navy’s leverage in the region can further be multiplied with the exploitation of the Strait of Mandeb. The strategic importance of the latter lies in Tehran’s ability to facilitate naval blockades in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa. The Saudi Royalty would be vulnerable to the Iranian presence in both the Straits of Hormuz and Mandeb, given the former’s flawless sea-based weapons support towards the Yemeni government can be interrupted. By proscribing Saudi Arabia in terms of denying access to both the Straits, Iran can ensure considerable control in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. A naval establishment in the Syrian coast, across the Eastern Mediterranean, can go well beyond the tactical implications. The first and foremost casualty in such an event would be the energy-exports of Riyadh, oil in particular, heading from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. Nevertheless, such a strategy can obviously lead to a full-scale war, which is why it renders the Shiite Iran with a strong deterrence against the Sunni Arab world.

The possibilities of Tehran’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean/Syrian Coast are likely to be factorized given the strategic proximity between Russia and Iran. Moscow might be willing to offer the port of Tartus in Syria, which is mostly managed by Russia, for the Tehran’s use in a reciprocal gesture, as the Russian combat aircrafts are allowed access to the Iranian airbases at present. The repercussions of such a move are not restricted to the Arab states, but rather extended to the NATO allied European states in the Mediterranean region. Israel’s security might also be at stake as the Iranian naval footprint near the Syrian coast can significantly ease the Hezbollah’s operations from Lebanon.

Conclusion

Iran’s tendency to capitalize in the foreign naval realm has been under process even before the recent press release by the Navy Chief. There have been instances where the Iranian ships have undergone voyages beyond the domestic waters. Tehran’s claims appear to be more or less a similar strategy which has been adopted by the US for decades in the region. The presence of the US’ afloat forward staging bases in the Persian Gulf can be attributed as one such orientation to which the Iranian Navy might be looking forward. It is yet to be known how the other players in the regional naval corridor would respond to Iran’s propositions. Tehran cannot expect a similar treatment as subscribed by Washington towards the naval expansionist measures by Russia and China. The White House’s approach has invariably been harsh in dealing with Iran. Hence, the same could be anticipated in this direction, if Iran chooses to follow its naval pursuits abroad. Moreover, the protection of the interests of its allies, both from the NATO and Non-NATO parlance, is important for the U.S. Dubiety stands nowhere in the fact that Tehran enjoys the financial capacity to facilitate its desired strategies. As it is uncertain whether Iran would actually go ahead with its overseas naval ambitions, the only consensus that can be derived at this point is that an accurate maritime forecast seems impossible.

 

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