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As Iran builds naval power, it looks to Oman as the big prize

Mideast Iran MissileThe new Iranian warship Jamaran fires a missile, reported to be a Noor, a long-range anti-ship missile manufactured by Iran and based on the Chinese C-802, in an exercise in the southern waters of Iran, on March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/IIPA, Ebrahim Norouzi)

Iran is trying to implement some of the Shah’s plans for building a blue-water navy with Oman as an important mooring facility

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Early last month, Rear Admiral Habiballah Sayyari, the Commander of Iranian Navy, visited Russia at the head of a top-level delegation that included the navy’s Technical Commander Rear Admiral Abbas Zamani. Ostensibly, the group had come to visit the International Maritime Defense Exhibition in Moscow. However, as Russian and Iranian sources reported later, the Iranian delegation had also brought “an impressive shopping lift” for Russian hardware and software. Determined to press its claim as “the regional superpower”, the Islamic Republic has decided to develop its maritime units into a full-fledged blue-water navy.

Three events have spurred the Iranian program for projection of power. The first is US President Barack Obama’s declared intention to drawdown and eventually conclude American military presence in the Middle East. If Obama’s policies are continued by his successor, the US would leave a huge gap to be filled in the region. The Islamic Republic hopes to fill it.

The second event was the “deal” made with the so-called P5+1 group over Iran’s nuclear project. If implemented, the deal would unfreeze Iranian financial assets estimated at between 120 billion US dollars and 150 billion US dollars, providing enough resources for a massive upgrading of the navy. The new Iranian budget has, in fact, raised defense expenditure by almost 23 percent, part of it devoted to the projection of naval power.

The third event was the speedy signing by Oman, with which Iran had its longest maritime border, over 248 miles (400 kilometers), of a treaty demarcating the limits of the two neighbors’ territorial waters. Prepared by the Iranian Defense Ministry, the treaty was sent to the foreign ministry in Tehran last spring with a demand that it be negotiated and finalized with Oman over a three-year period. As it turned out, however, the Omanis did not need such lengthy negotiations and quickly ratified the treaty which was signed by Sultan Qaboos Bin Sa’id Al Sa’id in July.

Since the official text of the treaty has not been published, analysts could only speculate about its full contents and whether or not it includes classified articles. However, Iranian media have reported that the new treaty would systematize a series of arrangements that Iran had made with Oman in the early 1970s. At that time the Shah had sent an expeditionary force to crush a Communist rebellion backed by South Yemen in the Omani province of Dhofar.

At the time, the arrangements included re-supply logistics bases for the Iranian army in a number of Omani localities including Sur, Ras Al-Hadd and Mirbat, east of Salalah, the Dhofari capital.

However, the commander of the Iranian expeditionary force, General Ali Khorsand wrote a paper recommending a high profile Iranian naval presence in Oman, beyond the immediate needs of the counterinsurgency operation. That fitted well with the Shah’s ambitious plan for a “Common Market of Indian Ocean Nations”. It also reflected the Nixon Doctrine under which regional security would be ensured by the United Sates’ regional allies. Thus, mooring rights were secured for the Iranian navy in a number of Omani islands including the Daymaniyat and the Kuria-Muria archipelagos and Jazirat Al-Ghanam (or Beit-Al-Ghanam), strategically located at the southern gateway of the Strait of Hormuz.

For years, Iran has used the threat of closing the Strait of Hormuz in its game of chicken with adversaries. The strait is 54-kilomtere long body of water that connects the Arabian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and thus the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Hormuz is, in fact, cut into two channels by the 110-kilometre long Iranian island of Qeshm.

The body of water to the north of Qeshm and touching on Iranian coast is known as the Clarence Strait and is not used by international shipping. Thus it is the part to the south of Qeshm, touching on the Omani enclave of Ras Mussandam that is of strategic importance because of massive international traffic including the passage of tankers carrying more than 30 percent of global oil trade. It is this southern passage that Iran threatens to close, turning the strait into a chokepoint and shutting littoral states, such as Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, out of open seas. (Saudi Arabia will not suffer as much because it has its coastline on the Red Sea).

Defeat from the US

For years, the Iranian navy, which suffered a heavy defeat from the US Navy in April 1988, has planned for guerrilla-style warfare against the Americans inside the Gulf. Because Iran lacks aircraft carriers and heavy destroyers, it has designed its doctrine around what is known as “swarming” which consists of hundreds of small but high speed boats attacking American ships which also come under fire from Iran’s 23 islands in the Gulf. In that context, shutting the strait could be important to deny the American ships, caught in the Gulf, logistical support and re-supplies.

Two islands are of strategic importance as far as commanding the southern part of the strait is concerned. To the north of the waterway is the Iranian island of Hangam, a satellite of Qeshm, which is already highly militarized. To the south is the Omani island of Beit Al-Ghanam.

“By having a presence in both islands, Iran would control the two halves of the gate,” says Hamid Zomorrodi, a former captain of the Iranian navy. “That island and the neighboring Ras Mussandam have been important in Iranian naval planning since the time of Nader Shah in the 18th century when Iran decided, for the first time, to build a navy in its southern waters.”

Iran’s long history is often a saga of rising and falling empires. Thus the current empire-building mood in Tehran is nothing new. However, Iran which is a high plateau never developed a taste for seafaring and thus failed to build a credible navy.

The first Persian Empire did have a navy, run mainly by Greek and Phoenician mercenaries. However, commanded by Mardonius, a cousin of the King of Kings, it never made much of an impression. According to legend, Mardonius could not even swim and was sea-sick aboard a boat.

Iran’s failure to build an effective naval presence enabled far-away powers to penetrate the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, creating nests of piracy that included buccaneers from as far away as Ireland and Scandinavia. Also arriving on the scene were Portuguese, English and Dutch private or official “missions” in search of trade and domination. In the meantime, the littoral peoples were engaged in almost constant manner amongst themselves with various Arab and Iranian, or mixed-race, tribes controlling chunks of territory and building ports here and there before being driven out by new rising forces. The piracy-based state of Surat on the Indian coast of the Arabian Sea was also involved at various times.



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