On June 22, 2020, the Commander of the IRG Naval Forces, Ali Reza Tungsiri, announced that Iran intends to establish a permanent naval base in the Indian Ocean to be completed by March 2021,1 and that the motive behind this is to achieve the goals of the Supreme Leader. 2
In this regard, several questions arise, perhaps most importantly: What is the truth about the Iranian motives for establishing this base, the implications of this, the reasons for announcing this intention now, and the reason for choosing the Indian Ocean specifically for the establishment of this base, as well as the ability to actually achieve this goal?
To begin with, the Commander of the Iranian Navy stated that “Plans are in place for this purpose, and the presence will be strong and firm to improve security at the entrance to the Indian Ocean.” This means that Tehran is heading towards a new strategy to ensure “permanent presence” in the waters of the Indian Ocean after it used in the past to dispatch marine craft with specific assignments and timings.
In this context, reference can be made to several basic factors that may help, in one way or another, understand this Iranian declaration, assuming that Iran is indeed serious in its implementation and that it has the ability to do so. The most important of these factors are as follows:
1 The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean: The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world in terms of area, amounting to about 74 million km2. Its waters cover about 20% of the Earth’s surfce, and overlook about 37 countries.(3) It includes three of the most critical waterways for international trade, namely: Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal; the Strait of Hormuz to the Arabian Gulf, and the Malacca Strait to the South China Sea. These straits control the movement of trade, maritime transport, and the traffic of ships that transport energy, including oil and gas, from the Middle East to the West, or from West to the Far East, especially China and Japan.(4) This ocean contains more than half of the world’s reserves of hydrocarbons and uranium, more than three quarters of the diamond’s resources, and about half of the gold and gas reserves. It is worth noting that about 40% of the oil transported by sea in the world passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has long threatened to close in the event of any confrontation with the United States of America. (5)
2 The impact on international shipping routes: The Iranian military presence in the Indian Ocean places Iran in a position of influence on international shipping lines, on the one hand, and oil transport lines of some Arab Gulf states, on the other hand. As such, it has leverage to pressure and blackmail, especially after the decline of its ability to blackmail the Gulf States and the world through the Strait of Hormuz, in light of the increasing trend of the countries in the region to find alternative ways to export their oil through the Indian Ocean, away from Hormuz.
Even Iran itself is working to find ports on the Indian Ocean to export its oil. This is clear from the statement of President Hassan Rouhani in 2018 that his country seeks to build a 1,000-km pipeline from the Ghor region near the Ghenawa port in the northern Arabian Gulf to the Jask port on the coast of the Sea of Oman. About 404 km of this pipeline has already been implemented to “keep Iran away from Hormuz and the American influence there.” (6)
3 Facing the Diego Garcia base: The United States has a heavy military presence at the Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean, which is 4842 km from Iran, with about 3000-5000 US troops there. This base is of critical strategic importance in any possible war with Iran, given that it was the starting point for all US military operations in the Middle East, including the campaign against Afghanistan in 2001, and the war in Iraq in 2003.
Hence, Iran may try to find an Iranian military base to serve as a counter to this base, in any future war, with the support and assistance of China. For the Diego Garcia base is a fuel station for the American war planes flying south of the China Sea. (7)
4 An attempt to respond to the American pressure: As for the timing, this announcement comes in the midst of interlocking regional developments. The “Caesar” law that imposes sanctions on the countries and groups supporting the Syrian regime has entered into force. Moreover, the US administration is seeking to extend the arms embargo to Iran, which will end in October 2020,(8) following a period of tensions between the two sides since Donald Trump announced in May 2018 his country’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
Tension in relations increased after the joint naval exercises that took place between Iran, Russia and China in the northern Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman at the end of December last year. The exercises reflected Iran’s desire to display power and show that it has allies that support it in the region.(9)
Tensions surged in the wake of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the Iranian Quds Force, in Baghdad in early January, in a drone attack.(10) Iran responded to this by missile strikes targeting two US bases in Iraq,(11) which prompted the Pentagon to deploy strategic B52 bombers outside the range of Iranian ballistic missiles to reinforce its forces in Diego Garcia.
Added to this is Iran’s test of launching new-generation cruise missiles with a range of 280 km in the first military exercises of its kind in the northern Indian Ocean.(12)
Some analysts also add to this the results of the formation of the new Iraqi government, which started a strategic dialogue with the United States, including in one of its clauses ways to protect the US forces from Iranian-backed militia attacks. This put new pressure on the Iranian side, pushing it to respond.
Given all of the above, Iran has sought to employ its naval base building issue to demonstrate its power in the region and show that it is capable of facing American pressure.
5 Diverting the attention of the Iranian people away from their problems: Iran faces a difficult internal situation in light of the complex economic conditions that produce great public anger, both due to the spread of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the repercussions of the US sanctions. This would prompt it to take steps of this kind, first to raise the morale of the Iranian people which has been affected by the setbacks they have been exposed to, especially following the death of Qassem Soleimani, or to divert the Iranian people to external matters away from their difficult economic conditions. (13)
6 Escalating Coordination with China: It is not possible to separate Iran’s announcement to establish a naval base in the Indian Ocean from its approval, on the same day, of the final draft of a comprehensive 25-year cooperation program(14) with China, the United States rival. The program is based on a previous agreement signed between the two countries in 2016, which Khamenei agreed in early July 2020 to expand so as to include full military, maritime and air cooperation between China and Iran.(15)
Hence the growing importance of the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait, which witnesses the passage of more than 80% of Chinese hydrocarbon imports. Besides, the Chinese economy depends – in the field of energy security – on maritime routes, in addition to China’s desire to increase its influence in the region,(16) in many ways, including cooperation with its allies, especially Iran.
7 Iran’s self-awareness: It is not possible to separate the talk about the military base in the Indian Ocean from Iran’s self-awareness, regardless of the limits of realism in such awareness. Studies indicate that Iran’s leaders and collective conscience are dominated by a belief that Iran must have a greater regional and global role than its surroundings because the Iranians are “of an Aryan strain that is superior to any Arab strain.” Therefore, the restoration of the glories of the “Persian Empire” is an Iranian goal since the era of the Shah, which is similar to Erdogan’s pursuit in Turkey to restore the glories of the Ottoman Empire.(17)
Can It Manage, Or It Is Just Propaganda?
Iran’s constant problem, however, is that its potential are much less than its ambitions, and that its self-awareness and role recognition in the region and the world at large is not consistent with reality and capabilities. Therefore, the important question here is: Will Iran be able to actually achieve its naval base? Here we can point out several obstacles that could transform the Iranian announcement into mere propaganda, mainly:
1 Iran’s economic downturn due to the international sanctions and the severe financial crisis due to the diminishing returns from the sale of oil and gas and to the Coronavirus pandemic crisis. This is demonstrated by its inability to develop the port of Chabahar on the Indian Ocean due to its lack of sufficient financial capacity.
2 Iran does not have its own logistical facilities that enable it to build a naval base far from its coasts, since this requires the availability of an island or the use of giant ships, both of which are not available to Tehran.(18)
3 India’s entry into the equation of accounts after the American-Indian partnership was announced in February 2020 during Trump’s visit to India and the agreement to conclude a trade agreement as well as cooperation in the areas of security, defence and energy.
4 NATO also entered the equation regarding the security of navigation in the Gulf when the Secretary-General of NATO declared, in the wake of the attack on Aramco’s oil installations, that “Iran is destabilizing the entire region and that NATO is very concerned about this escalation”.(19)
Sources and references
IRG to Establish a Permanent Naval Base in the Indian Ocean – Al Arab Newspaper – London – July 23, 2020.
IRG to Establish a Permanent Naval Base in the Indian Ocean – Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies – Iraq – June 22, 2020.
Salem Al Noaimi – Struggle for the Indian Ocean – Al Ittihad Newspaper – UAE – April 20, 2015.
The Army Magazine – The Official website of the Lebanese Army – Issue # 288 – June 2009.
Samar Saleh – US Getts Ready to Face Iran from Diego Garcia – Al Watan Newspaper – Egypt – January 7, 2020.
Banda Yousuf – Why Iran Overrides the Export of its Oil through the Strait of Hormuz – Roya News Net – June 28, 2020.
Jocelyn Haddad Al-Dibs – Why Does Iran Establish a Permanent Military Base in the Indian Ocean?” – Beirut Institute – June 24 2020..
Yahya Al-Taleedi – Extension of Arms Embargo on Iran is a Pressing Need – Al Ain Newspaper – UAE – July 4, 2020.
They were the first of their kind, What Are the Objectives of Iran, Russia and China Exercises in the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman.
Suha Salah – The Mulla Regime Tries to Invent Crises in the Gulf of Oman – Ahl Misr Newspaper, June 26, 2020.
Washington Deploys Another Strategic Bomer to its Air Base jn the Indian Ocean – bawaba.org – January 21, 2020.
Iran Intends to Establish a Permanent Naval Base in the Indian Ocean –July 10, 2020.
Jocelyn Haddad, op.cit.
Iran Approves the Comprehensive Cooperation Program with China – Al Manar Channel Website – June 22, 2020.
Tareq Al-Shami – The Next China’s Step That Worries the US: A Military Base in Iran – Arabic Independent Newspaper – July 9, 2020.
Thomas Marley Dinoville – Will the Indian Ocean Turn Into A Global Geopolitical Center of Gravity? – noonpost website – February 7, 2019.
Jocelyn Haddad, op.cit
Hisham Rashad – A Permanent Naval Base in the Indian Ocean: An Iranian Propaganda Destined to Fail – Al Ain Newspaper – UAE – June 24, 2020.
Ashraf Kishk – On the establishment of an Iranian Naval Base in the Indian Ocean – – Akhbar Al Khaleej Newspaper – Bahrain – July 16, 2020.
» By: Sahar Saleh (Researcher in strategic affairs)