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As Iran Builds Naval Power, It Looks To Oman As The Big Prize

18 August 2015

By Amir Taheri

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.

Iran's big return

In the early 18th century, Iran returned to the region in a big way. Nader Shah bought four warships from the European powers and hired the British seafarer Captain Cook as naval adviser. His admiral, Latif Khan, launched a series of naval raids that ended with the capture of Bahrain, the crushing of pirate tribes, and a brief conquest of Muscat. However Nader Shah's naval adventure didn't last long. His assassination replunged Iran into civil war and chaos, deviating attention from tis southern waters. It took almost two centuries for Iran to return to its southern waters under Reza Shah who built a navy with help from Germany and Italy in the 1930s. In 1941, the British sunk the Shah's navy when they, together with the Russians, invaded and occupied Iran in the name of the Allies fighting the German-led Axis.

Fast forward to the 1960s, the new Shah relaunched the Iranian navy in anticipation of the British policy of withdrawal East of Suez. By 1979, when the Shah was forced into exile, the Iranian navy was the only credible regional force in the southern waters. The Shah's ambitions included the creation of a blue-water navy, meaning a navy that is capable of operating far from its home bases. In 1975 and 76, the new Iranian navy showed the flag with symbolic visits to the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

In a seminar held in Tehran in 1976, chaired by former Foreign Minister Nasrallah Entezam, the building or expansion of aero-naval bases on the Jask Peninsula, Pasabandar, on the Mokran Coast, and Gawadar next to the Pakistani border were highlighted. Also discussed was the building of a fleet of submarines prowling the northern parts of the Indian Ocean. In all the discussions Oman was cited as a major factor in helping Iran realize its maritime ambitions.

In a sense, Oman is like an island because, with the exception of a link to a thinly inhabited fringe of southern Yemen, it is sealed off from the interior of the Arabian Peninsula by the uplands of the Batinah and the Rub Al-Khali, and surrounded by water on the remaining three sides. In geopolitical terms, Oman is a top prize for anyone who wishes to project naval power in the Indian Ocean.

Right now Iran is trying to implement some of the Shah's plans for building a blue-water navy with Oman as an important mooring facility across over 400 kilometers.

According to Rear Admiral Zamani, in 2012, Iran started designing and building nuclear-propulsion systems for submarines.

"Since we have peaceful nuclear technology, we can put on the agenda the building of engine systems for nuclear submarines. Any country has the right to use peaceful nuclear technology namely for the propulsion system of vessels," Zamani said.

Iran started building submarines in 2011 to give its military "the most advanced arms" and maintain security in the Strait of Hormuz.

"Our aim isn't aggression but if someone attacks us we will defend ourselves," Zamani said.
The Iranian Navy has 26 submarines, including three Russian Kilo-class attack vessels, and 12 midget submarines, according to Tehran sources.

In his Moscow visit last month, Rear Admiral Sayyari praised Iran's success in repairing heavy submarines, saying the country's "outstanding capabilities and mastery of the hi-tech used in naval vessels display the failure of enemy sanctions and pressures."

Sayyari claimed Iran was among the few countries which could carry out full or partial repairs of submarines.

It is not surprising that Oman features prominently in Iran's long-term planning for naval projection of power. Omanis think they owe Iran a debt of gratitude for having helped them crush the Communist challenge launched from South Yemen in the 1970s.

In a gesture of friendship to the Sultan of Oman, in 1970s Iran rejected a demand by the sheikhs of Khassab and Diba, in the Mussandam Peninsula where the Shihuh and Kamzari tribes, speaking an Iranian language, once ruled, to secede from Oman and set up independent mini-states.

Oman has always tried to project a distinct political profile. In the 1971 celebration of the foundation of the Persian Empire, Sultan Qaboos was the only Arab head of state present. (Others sent lower-ranking representatives, protesting against Iran's occupation of three islands under British protection but claimed by Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah). Oman was also the only Arab country to side with Egypt over the Camp David peace accords with Israel.

Courting Oman is part of a broader policy of the Islamic Republic to Finlandize the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, by persuading and/or threatening them not to take sides in any conflict between Iran and tis regional or extra-regional rivals.

So far, Oman has managed to pursue a "zero problems" foreign policy. But how long that could last depends on how far Tehran wishes to push its regional ambitions.

A friendly Oman is a big asset for Iran's national security let alone its regional ambitions. A hostile Oman could force Tehran strategists to think twice before they bite more than they can chew.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.  



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