It is one of Dyer’s Axioms that a nation doesn’t change its naval posture because it is content with the status quo. Iran continues to validate the axiom, and the latest announcement from her busy naval leadership is that the Islamic Republic will deploy a naval task force to the Atlantic in the near future as “part of a program to ply international waters.”
The development is not surprising, considering that Iran has maintained an antipiracy task force presence off Somalia for nearly three years now, sent a two-ship task force on an expedition to Syria earlier this year, and announced the deployment of a submarine to the Red Sea in June.
Granted, the Iranian navy hasn’t precisely bolstered its credibility with a near-simultaneous Pyongyang-style announcement that “enemies are dazed (amazed/surprised) by Iran’s huge naval achievements.” But an Atlantic deployment will be no particular stretch for the seamanship or technical capabilities of the navy (Iranian civil mariners ply all the world’s oceans anyway). Iran can get a three-ship task force – two warships and an auxiliary – over to the Atlantic without exhausting her capacities. The question about this deployment, assuming the political leadership remains constant, is not “if” but “when.”
There is another question about the deployment, however, and that is what the waypoints will be. To begin with, Iran will have a choice of going through the Suez Canal versus going around Africa. The task force may very well go around Africa – not because of any real concerns Iran would have about the Suez Canal or the Mediterranean, but because her navy is likely to find a readier welcome in sub-Saharan African ports along the way.
With Syria and Libya in turmoil, Iran’s (previous) most-likely port-call stops in the Mediterranean are effectively out of the running. The Mediterranean, while perfectly safe for a non-stop transit, is not a hospitable route for a show-the-flag progress to the Atlantic. On the East coast of Africa, on the other hand, Iran probably has a choice among Kenya and Tanzania, at the very least, and possibly Mozambique and South Africa, as ports of call for refueling, military-relations events, flag-waving, and R&R.
Iran has been cultivating these and other African nations intensively in the last several years: with Kenya, for example, Iran has signed a number of cooperation agreements (including one on maritime cooperation and sea routes) since 2008, and exchanged several high-level visits with Prime Minister Raila Odinga (yes, the socialist radical whom Obama campaigned for in 2006, and who signed an agreement with Islamic leaders before his election to establish shari’a law). With Tanzania Iran has centuries-old ethnic and Shi’a religious ties, but in the full-court press since 2008, Tehran has concluded plenty of new agreements with Dar Es-Salaam, including a defense cooperation agreement signed in 2009. As with neighboring (landlocked) Zimbabwe, Iran plans to buy uranium from Tanzania; it remains to be seen if Iran will establish a helicopter repair “base” in Tanzania like the ongoing project in Zimbabwe, or train Tanzanian security forces under an agreement like that with the Mugabe regime.
With South Africa, Iran has had long and intensifying ties. Tehran’s ties with Africa as a whole are extensive and growing. To ensure port call and refueling opportunities, the Iranians are likely to route a naval task force around Africa to get to the Atlantic.
If they cross the Atlantic, which seems likely, they will probably make stops in Venezuela and Cuba at a minimum. To visit Ecuador, another of Iran’s BFFs in Latin America, the task force would have to transit the Panama Canal, an expense Tehran won’t necessarily want to go to. Another potential stop, however, particularly since it has a maritime “hook,” is Nicaragua, where Iran has been eyeing a joint project to develop a port and a cross-isthmus transportation infrastructure (a putative “rival” to the Panama Canal). The two nations professed continued enthusiasm for their interhemispheric romance last month. (For more on Iran in Latin America, see here and here.)
That an Iranian naval task force wouldn’t be able to “do” very much, naval-power-projection-wise, isn’t actually the point with a deployment like this. An embarked helicopter, a few naval guns, a few anti-ship missiles and torpedoes – these weapon systems don’t amount to much in an order-of-battle comparison with the Navy. But the important point is that Iran won’t be venturing out into friendless waters. The geopolitical infrastructure is there to make a deployment like this look like any other major naval power’s task force deployment: with port calls, politicians, pierside ceremonies, bilateral exercises, and youth outreach activities all along the way.
The path may not lie through the Mediterranean, but it is there. That’s what has changed – and from a strategic point of view, it sends an even more powerful message to Europe and North America if Iran approaches the Atlantic by another route.