Neighbors Concerned over Iran’s Naval Expansion Plan

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Views from the Region

Reports that Iran has expressed an interest in acquiring naval bases in Yemen and Syria has sent regional observers abuzz. Though many doubt that Iran has the resources to make good on any significant expansion, the mere announcement of intent has affected the mood in the region. Iran’s actions are not taking place in a vacuum; recent reports indicate that intercepted dhows off the coast of Yemen allegedly contained Iranian weapons en route to Houthi rebels in Yemen, and eleven Arab nations, led by the UAE, circulated a letter at the UN General Assembly officially accusing Iran of sponsoring terrorism. For many, the natural answer to an emboldened Iran rests with a counterbalancing alliance headed by Saudi Arabia. Few seem to be looking to the United States for help, even as the election of Donald Trump has reopened the possibility of revisiting the nuclear deal with Iran.

Arab dailies have been emphatic about the danger inherent in Iran’s acquiring naval bases in the region. This sentiment is made clear in a recent Gulf News editorial: “Iran’s interest in acquiring naval bases in Yemen and Syria [is] dangerous. It is a gross expansion of Iran’s constitutional aim to export its revolution around the world, and it would be a significant strategic threat to the region. There would be no problem with Iran building a larger peaceful maritime presence outside its borders, but it is very wrong that it is seeking a great naval presence in the region….Iran should never be allowed to expand its naval presence in the region. Its ability to wreak mischief and destruction would be much expanded if Iran could add naval power to its gory repertoire. It could challenge shipping, enforce blockades and land troops wherever it wished….Imagine if the Iranian leadership found some perceived slight and suddenly decided to attack all shipping heading for Greece or Saudi Arabia, for example. It is important that all parties realize the folly of entertaining anything to do with this Iranian idea, and condemn it utterly.”

For Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, the proposed naval expansion is a statement of intent on the part of the Iranian leadership, as well as a demonstration of its aggressive posture: “Although I do not believe that Iran possesses the military power for such a costly expansion, it is clear that Iran has taken two strategic decisions; to increase its foreign military capability and revive the Shah’s old dream to be the police force of the Gulf. Currently, Iran wants to become the police force of the area from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. This orientation will create more tension in our already troubled region and lead to parties resorting to using military power as a political tool….Iran’s wide-ranging military operations in Iraq and Syria confirm that fighting wars has become Iran’s new policy and that strengthening its military capabilities is a key pillar of its foreign policy….Iran has been trying to become a dominating power by expanding geographically, on land and by sea. This may mean that we are facing a decade of a regional arms race and more military adventures in the region.”

News that Iraq’s parliament has just passed a law intended to provide legal cover for Iranian-trained Shiite militias have increased fears over Tehran’s influence. The National (UAE) reports: “Iraq’s parliament approved a law on Saturday that will transform an Iran-backed coalition of Shiite militias into a legal and separate military corps. The Popular Mobilization forces, or Hashed Al Shaabi, has been accused of abuses against Sunni civilians in towns and villages retaken from ISIL….The vote comes as the government is waging a major campaign to dislodge ISIL from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the last major urban center still controlled by the extremist group….They have played a key role in checking the advance of ISIL on Baghdad and the Shiite Shrine cities of Samarra and Karbala in the summer of 2014 and later helped retake ISIL-held areas to the south, north-east and north of Baghdad.”

The legalization of the Shiite militias is seen with suspicion by many in the region, including Diana Moukalled, who, in a recent op-ed for Arab News drew comparisons “between Iraq’s People’s Mobilization Units (PMU) and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Hezbollah’s ability to weaken the central state and implement a policy that does not recognize borders is a model that Iran seeks to replicate in several places in light of the Hezbollah model allowing an extremely dangerous Iranian penetration in Lebanon….The beginning of PMU’s existence in Iraq is very similar to Hezbollah’s existence in Lebanon; both have a legacy of violations and crimes. However, this existence is not all inclusive; it is the predominance of one party over the other in the sectarian-political equation in the two countries….The so-called fighting against Daesh and terrorism in Mosul and northern Syria is merely a pretext for making demographic changes and forming a sectarian group that will make us pay dearly for years to come.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, for many the counterbalance to Tehran’s growing influence lies with Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. For example, in an op-ed for the Saudi Gazette, Samar Fatany argues that many countries in the region look to Saudi Arabia to “play a significant, global and regional role to bring about peace and defeat Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) and all other terrorist organizations. It commands the religious authority to promote moderate Islam and expose the distorted and extremist ideology that is being propagated by the barbaric and un-Islamic terrorists….Political analysts maintain that Arab countries are challenged today to find a new balance of policies that can meet security needs and national expectations. This requires a rethinking of the approach to national security and stability….Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries can play a significant role in the post-conflict reconstruction of war-torn countries with help from the international community and multilateral institutions like the World Bank. Regional experts urge Arab and Muslim leaders in the region to muster the political will to collaborate and to avoid drowning in the abyss of destruction and to work toward lasting stability and a more prosperous future for the whole region.”

Gulf Arab opinions on Iran have hardened since the signing of an international deal restricting its nuclear program. To what degree the election of Donald Trump in the United States will disturb the status quo remains to be seen. But as Khaleej Timess Ellie Geranmayeh points out, the other parties to the deal may stop Trump from fulfilling his promise to renegotiate it: “There are not many issues on which Europe, Russia and China all agree, but there is one: ensuring that President-elect Donald J. Trump does not undermine the Iran nuclear deal….As Trump decides in what direction he will take his Iran policy, countries that have until now partnered with the United States on Iran must draw a line. They should firmly tell the president-elect that as long as Iran continues to meet its obligations under the deal, they will do so as well. They should also make clear that if either Congress or the American president unravels the deal, other world powers will go their own way with Iran…. In all these scenarios, the United States will be seen as undermining the deal and provoking Iran to walk away from its obligations. The sympathy of the rest of the world in this case will be with the Iranians.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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