Iran is doing enough damage in the Middle East through unconventional methods without requiring a robust navy. That is why an idea floated by a key Iranian military leader to build naval bases in Yemen and Syria makes absolutely no sense.
Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of Iran’s armed forces general staff, suggested last month that Tehran was interested in, “at some point,” establishing naval bases in Yemen and Syria. While such a move would reflect the Islamic Republic’s goal of dominating the region, constructing highly visible and defensible bases far from Iranian shores is not realistic.
Indeed, it is more in line with the typical hyperbole often voiced by Tehran’s military elite. More importantly, such a move seems unnecessary given Iran’s relative success at power projection in the region using unconventional means, such as arms proliferation and funding proxies.
Conventional force projection and foreign basing are currently not among Iran’s strengths. Since 1979, Iran has sent warships to the Mediterranean only on two occasions, in 2011 and 2012, to pay brief visits to Syrian ports as a show of force after the eruption of the Syrian civil war. More recently, Tehran sent a naval flotilla to the Gulf of Aden consisting of a frigate and support vessel, both of which never reached Yemeni shores nor challenged the existing blockade by Saudi and coalition forces. These limited deployments, coupled with repeated but unfulfilled claims that Tehran will dispatch warships to the Atlantic, belie the fact that the capabilities of Iran’s blue water navy are lagging. They are no competition to the U.S., NATO and Israeli maritime capabilities in the region.
What Iran does best is facilitate the supply of arms, fighters, and funding to local partners and proxies engaged in their own domestic struggles – principally through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qods Force. By engaging in covert intervention and weapons transfers, Tehran has skirted longstanding arms bans and benefited from a measure of deniability. Working with local partners and proxies, these groups provide Iran a foothold in an alarming number of Middle Eastern countries without the costly conventional deployment of its own forces. They also act as foreign legions that Tehran can utilize for its own goals.
Iran’s arming and training of Shiite militias in Iraq provide Tehran leverage over Baghdad, just as much as Iran’s backing of Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad impede the peace process. The most successful example is Hezbollah in Lebanon, where Iran has enjoyed power projection since the Lebanese Civil War of the 1980s, eventually paving the way to political dominance.
Today, Iran continues arming and equipping Hezbollah, positioning the group as a counterweight to Israel. To further buttress its strategic interests, Iran has dispatched Hezbollah fighting units to Syria as well as Hezbollah advisors and trainers to Iraq and possibly Yemen.
However, Hezbollah’s forces are not enough to successfully defend Iran’s interests in far-flung battlefields. That’s why Iran is attempting to replicate its proxy model amid the chaos that has engulfed Syria and Yemen. In defense of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Iran has marshalled zealous Shiites – including those from non-Arab communities like Afghanistan and Pakistan – and dispatched them as organized militias to supplement Russian airpower. With Yemen’s Houthis, Iran has earned their partnership by providing the group with cheap but effective weaponry, including anti-tank guided missiles, such as Russian-made Kornets, and domestic variants, like the Towsan-1 and Toophan, which have been used on the battlefield against Saudi Arabia and coalition forces. In both instances, Tehran has sought to minimize its footprint and use unconventional or covert methods to bolster its surrogates and project power.
That light footprint is crucial in Yemen, where any attempt to establish a base to support conventional naval operations runs the risk of detection – and destruction – by the Saudi-led coalition’s air or maritime forces blockading Yemen. While covert methods such as small boats and dhows can slip (and have slipped) past this blockade, U.S. and allied maritime naval power deters larger Iranian vessels and warships from reaching Yemen’s major ports. On more than one occasion, Iranian weapons shipments have been intercepted by the naval blockade.
Current Iranian workarounds to this involve over-the-border weapons smuggling from Oman and illicit networks in jurisdictions of weak central authority, like Somalia, to transfer weapons using existing maritime smuggling routes. U.S. officials have reportedly expressed their concern to Muscat, but Tehran’s smuggling techniques continue to prove adaptable. The Houthis are well-armed and the Saudi-led coalition continues to struggle to gain the upper hand. In other words, Iran need not resort to overseas basing to influence events on the ground.
This is also the case in Syria, where Tehran is institutionalizing its presence within the Syrian security services. Its budding relationship with Russia, the deployment of Hezbollah and Iraqi militia groups, and the formation of several Syrian militias have provided a crucial shot in the arm to the Syrian Arab Army in the wake of a manpower shortage. These fighters have not only stabilized the war for Assad. They have given Iran substantial influence and leverage over the course of the ongoing civil war – and potentially what comes after it.
All that Iran requires now is a constant flow of new fighters and light munitions provided by regular flights between Iran and Syria. This critical air bridge has been able to operate in plain sight without interruption, using Iranian and Syrian-owned commercial aircraft such as Mahan Air.
In the end, however, Iran is projecting far more capability into the waters along the Levant than its dated fleet could ever do. By transferring shore-based anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah, Iran has significantly changed the security environment along the Israeli, Lebanese, and Syrian coastlines. The 2006 attack on the Israeli corvette INS Hanit and reports that Hezbollah may have acquired Russian-made Yakhont missiles (far more deadly the existing C-802s in Hezbollah’s arsenal) mark a lethal ability to threaten vessels and off-shore infrastructure as far as 300 km (186 miles) into the Mediterranean. The October’s attack on the USS Mason off the Yemeni coast suggests Iran may now be projecting the same capability into the Red Sea.
Iranian officials continue to talk a big game about their naval capabilities and desires. But these attempts to deploy force through overt conventional naval means is only a distraction from Tehran’s existing ability to shape the region’s maritime environment through unconventional methods.
Patrick Megahan is a research analyst focusing on military affairs at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst.
This article originally appeared in The Cipher Brief.