Iran and Saudi Arabia’s struggle for power in the Middle East and North Africa has led to many states becoming involved in their proxy wars. Some states have been left open to their intervention due to a power vacuum, and Yemen is no exception. Since the Houthi rebels’ overthrow of the Saudi allied leader Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, both states have become involved (Malsin 2016). Since their revolution in 2011, the country has suffered from famine as well as airstrikes that have led to high casualty counts, particularly of civilians.
The Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict is often characterized as a religious divide between Shia and Sunni sects of Islam. However, when talking about the conflict in Yemen, it is most important to examine its location and strategic value to each of these states. Both states seek to gain ideological dominance and regional hegemony. This is due to many factors including their oil wealth, relative stability in the region as well as both of their religious sects and being seen as the leader of these sects. While religion is a factor for the conflict, particularly for Iran supporting the Shia Houthi rebels, this conflict is primarily centralized around Yemen’s strategic value for both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is of particular strategic value for both states. For Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s proximity makes it concerned about border security. The Saudi-Yemen border is susceptible to infiltration from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a large terrorist group (Reardon 2015). This is one of the main reasons for their concern over the stability of the Yemeni government. This issue has led to their contribution toward propping up the government using ground support and airstrikes (Reardon 2015). But Yemen also sits along vital shipping lanes for Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea (“The Sunni…” 2016). Given that the Saudi economy relies heavily on oil and the safety of these routes, its interests rely heavily on the security of trade and its borders.
Additionally, they see Yemen as an easy target for Iran to take hold of in the Gulf region (Reardon 2015). Saudi Arabia currently holds hegemonic power in the Gulf region and it is concerned about the loss of this soft power given its intervention in states like Yemen and Bahrain. However, Yemen can be considered more easily controlled given its extreme instability. Iran has an easy path into the role of Yemen through common faith with the Houthi rebels. Iran seeks to find a solid foothold in the Gulf and Yemen is a good candidate because of the rebels’ strength. By propping up the rebels and joining with them based on their common sect of Islam they could potentially hold ground close to Saudi Arabia and use it as a bargaining chip in the future.
Religion certainly does still play a role in this conflict and is fuel for the fire but it is not the only source of tension. The Houthis are a Zaydi Shia militia and while this is not Iran’s brand of Shia Islam, they have chosen to align themselves with this group (“The Sunni…” 2016). Although this link is less strong than the Saudi’s pledge to the Yemeni government, both states have chosen opposing sides. Iran may be less involved in the conflict, financially and militarily, but more importantly, Saudi Arabia believes that Iran is backing the rebels to secure Shia hegemony and so prompts much of their involvement (“The Sunni…” 2016). While both countries are linked to the conflict by religion, they both have more stakes in the country than just these ties. Without other strategic value in Yemen, it is likely that these states would not be involved or less involved. Yemen’s location and strategic significance has likely prompted most of the conflict.
Due to Iran’s tenuous connection to the rebels, many have argued that their involvement is minimal and therefore Yemen’s conflict cannot be classified as a proxy war. Even though their connection is not heavily supported financially there is clear ideological support and since Iran’s involvement there has been more support for Iran in the region, threatening Saudi control and prompting their further involvement (“The Sunni…” 2016). Additionally, many have said that Yemen has primarily been a revolution of people given its beginning in 2011 during the Arab spring. Despite this, it was certainly a revolution against Saudi Arabia because of its support of the previous president and Saudi Arabia is keen on maintaining control over this strategic state. Iran saw this revolution as an opportunity to gain another ally in the Gulf and used their connection to the Shia rebels to gain access.
To the outside viewer religion may seem like the primary motivation for both states involvements. In the landscape next to Iran and Saudi Arabia’s various other conflicts, Yemen could be seen as another proxy war between the two rivals. However, Yemen is unique given its strategic location for trade and its vulnerable border shared with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s involvement clearly lies in its interest in keeping the Yemeni allied government in power for these reasons while Iran saw the weak state as an opportunity to gain advantage over Saudi Arabia in yet another conflict and used its Shia ties to the revolutionaries to gain access. Therefore, while the religious divide has certainly fueled the desire of both states to be involved in the conflict, each has chosen to be a part of the conflict in Yemen because of its strategic geographic significance in the region.
Rose Cote attends Syracuse University, where she majors in International Relations and Economics. She did a semester abroad in Morocco to study Arabic, and will be joining the Peace Corps to work in Namibia after graduation.
Ighani, Helia. “Managing the Saudi-Iran Rivalry.” October 25, 2016. Council of Foreign Relations. Accessed March 31, 2017. file:///Users/rcote/Downloads/Workshop_Report_CPA_Saudi_Iran_Rivalry_OR.pdf
Malsin, Jared. “Yemen Is the Latest Victim of the Increase in Iran-Saudi Arabia Tension.” TIME. January 11, 2016. http://time.com/4174837/yemen-analysis/
Reardon, Martin. “Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen.” Al Jazeera. March 26, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/saudi-arabia-iran-great-game-ye-201492984846324440.html
“The Sunni Shia Divide.” February 2014. Council of Foreign Relations. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.cfr.org/peace-conflict-and-human-rights/sunni-shia-divide/p33176#!/?cid=otr-marketing_url-sunni_shia_infoguide
Yeranian, Edward. “Yemen Proxy War Adds to Tensions Among US, Iran, Saudi Arabia.” February 6, 2017. VOA News. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.voanews.com/a/proxy-war-in-yemen-adds-to-tensions-among-us-iran-saudi-arabia/3707893.html
Featured Image: Shi’ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa Shi’ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2015. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
International attention has focused on the possibilities of an Iranian closure of the Straits of Hormuz, and the catastrophic effect a blockade would likely have on global energy supplies. Even a temporary closure or military disruption in the waterway would cause energy prices to soar and could politically destabilize the Persian Gulf region. Far less attention has been paid to Iranian activity in the Red Sea, however, despite the crucial importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to world oil shipments. In 2013, an estimated combined total of 8.3 million barrels of oil passed through Bab-el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal at either ends of the Red Sea, making it the world’s third-busiest maritime oil transit chokepoint.1 A limited military conflict in the Sea or the presence of naval mines would cause major disruption to European energy supplies and would force oil tankers to take the much longer southern route around the Cape of Good Hope. In this event, oil prices would likely rise dramatically and remain high until security in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait was restored.
Iran has regularly deployed naval forces to the Red Sea since 2011. Although Iranian naval doctrine has typically concentrated on closing the Straits of Hormuz using asymmetric forces, more recent efforts by Iran’s naval leadership to project naval power beyond the Persian Gulf have resulted in a frequent Iranian naval presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Red Sea remains an important route for Iranian weapons smuggling to militants in Gaza and Syria,2 and senior Iranian naval officers have announced plans to maintain a permanent maritime presence in the region.3 At present, Iran does not possess the same level of naval capability in the Red Sea and the Gulf as it does in its coastal waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Nevertheless, given the importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to global oil shipments, it would appear that more research is needed to assess Iran’s ability to disrupt shipping from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.
This article aims to outline Iran’s military capabilities in the Red Sea and the southern approach to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. It relies principally on open-source information published on the Islamic Republic’s naval forces, and attempts to make realistic projections about Iran’s ability to intercept the Suez shipping line, which remains limited at present. Even in the case of the much more heavily-guarded Strait of Hormuz, it is generally acknowledged that Iranian forces could only hope to close the waterway for a matter of days or, at best, a few weeks, given its crucial importance for Western oil supplies.4 Attacks on oil shipments to Western Europe and North America in the Red Sea would risk triggering a devastating Western response, and it is not clear whether the Iranians would be prepared to do so. Moreover, in the event of a conflict with Iran, clashes would almost certainly be primarily focused on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea would likely be a secondary theatre. This analysis therefore attempts to understand what forces Iran would be able to deploy to the area in the event of conflict, and how effective they might be in closing the strait.
This essay begins with a review of recent Iranian involvement in the Red Sea beginning in 2011, as well as its current naval policy towards the region. It will then give a brief overview of Iran’s current naval forces at Iran’s disposal, and will discuss the types of vessels and weapons Iran is capable of deploying to the Red Sea. In so doing, this article will attempt to give a broad summary of Iran’s likely present military capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the kinds of threats which ships in the Red Sea could expect to face in the event of a conflict.
Iranian Involvement in the Sea
Between 1979 and 2011, there was no confirmed Iranian naval activity in the Red Sea. Iran was suspected to have supported a terrorist group which in 1984 claimed it had laid nearly 200 naval mines in the sea, but Tehran denied any involvement.5In February 2011, however, a small flotilla of Iranian warships was dispatched on a mission to Syria, marking the first time that Iranian vessels had entered the Red Sea and transited the Suez Canal since the 1979 Revolution.6 Several months later, in July the Iranian government announced its intention to deploy one of its submarines on a patrol of the Red Sea. After completing its cruise, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian navy, declared that the Kilo-class submarine “could finish its 68-day mission in international waters with full preparation despite all sanctions and through the effort of domestic specialists.”7Subsequently, at the end of 2011, Iran held naval exercises in the Arabian Sea, with units deployed in the Gulf of Aden as far as the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The purpose of this exercise, declared Tehran, was to show “Iran’s military prowess and defense capabilities in the international waters, convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries, and to test the newest military equipment.”8
After a year-long hiatus, Iran once again deployed units to the Red Sea in January 2013. The Iranian government reported that it would be sending its 24th Fleet on a three-month patrol of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea before transiting the Suez Canal for the Mediterranean.9Citing the need to protect its vessels from pirate attacks, Iran established its own small anti-piracy task force in the Gulf, and in March 2014 purportedly defended an Iranian tanker from an attack in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.10In 2015, Iranian-backed Houthi fighters captured the strategic island of Perim in the Strait, and Sayyari announced that “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Navy has deployed in the North of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and this presence will continue forever.”11
These moves came as part of a wider Iranian drive to expand its regional influence by developing its blue-water capabilities. Iranian warships entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time in the Navy’s history in 2013, and dispatched a vessel to South Africa in 2014.12The Iranian naval leadership has placed particular effort on projecting naval power onto sea lanes in the Arabian Sea,13 and as a report produced by the American intelligence firm Stratfor concluded, “Iran’s navy cannot project enough power to control key shipping lanes, but Tehran has emphasized its presence around Bab-el-Mandeb as a possible means of disrupting global trade in the event of an attack on Iran and a key point for negotiations in the future.”14
Stratfor’s report also highlighted Iran’s use of the Red Sea as an important shipment route to provide arms to its proxies and allied militant organizations in Gaza and Syria. Rockets bound for Hamas fighters, for example, were discovered in a ship on course for Port Sudan, where they were due to be unloaded and shipped across the Egyptian border to Gaza.15Israeli aircraft have attacked alleged weapons convoys travelling from Sudan to Gaza, and the Red Sea forms a crucial link in this illicit supply line.16Iran’s overt involvement in the ongoing Yemeni civil war has further increased the importance of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to Tehran’s strategic aims.17
In addition to using Sudan to supply weapons to its proxies, Iran has been cultivating good relations with Eritrea, which controls the remaining two large ports in the Red Sea.18Iranian ships frequently dock in Massawa and Assab, and Iran is believed to be concentrating on building its regional influence with key East African states.19 Indeed, as early as 2008, rumors surfaced that Iran had secretly established a naval base in Assab. Whilst there is some satellite evidence suggesting that Iran has established a permanent naval facility in the port, these rumors cannot be confirmed.20
Iran’s Naval Forces
The Iranian fleet is divided between the regular Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval Forces (IRGCNF). 18,000 sailors are enlisted in the regular navy, whilst the IRGCNF is comprised of 20,000 sailors and 5,000 marines.21Iran has seven frigates and 32 fast-attack missile craft designed for green-water service which form the core of its surface fleet, all armed with the C-802 Noor long-range anti-ship missile.22Iran has also invested in a large flotilla of small craft, ranging from offshore patrol boats to armed motorboats and dhows, intended for coastal service and for mounting swarm attacks in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has a squadron of five minelayers, as well as several mine countermeasures vessels, which can be supplemented by its small craft in laying naval mines in the Strait.23The Iranian submarine service is made up of a total of 29 submarines, divided between the IRIN and IRGCNF.24Five of these submarines are capable of operating in blue water, and the rest appear to be designed for service in the Persian Gulf. A number of ships and submarines are currently under construction, although information about these vessels remains limited.
The IRGCNF is tasked primarily with defending the Iranian coast and for interdicting shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. IRGCNF controls Iran’s asymmetric capability force, including its small attack craft, suicide vessels, and batteries of relatively short-ranged anti-ship missiles. IRGCNF bases are located in the Persian Gulf, and as its focus is limited to Iran’s littoral zone, its vessels are constrained by a smaller operating radius than the regular surface fleet. The IRGCNF also commands over 17 Qadir-class and Nahang–class midget submarines, the majority of Iran’s submarine force, which are designed for service exclusively in the Persian Gulf.
By contrast, the IRIN controls Iran’s blue-water capabilities. Although both the IRIN and IRGCNF share responsibility for protecting the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, since 2011 the IRIN has begun to focus on expanding Iran’s regional maritime reach. In the event of a conflict with the United States or with Iran’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rivals, the main Iranian effort would likely be focused on closing the Strait of Hormuz and on attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. Most of these operations would fall under the responsibility of the IRGCNF, which has the capability to interdict shipping through the Strait with its small vessels and missile batteries. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, however, falls out of the operating range of most of the IRGCNF’s vessels, and so any operations in the Red Sea or the upper Gulf of Aden would be undertaken by the IRIN.
According to IISS’ Military Balance, the core of the IRIN’s main surface fleet consists of two Jamaran-class light frigates, three Alvand-class frigates, and two Bayandor-class patrol frigates. Five of these ships date from the 1960s; the Alvand ships were bought as refitted Vosper Mark 5 frigates from the Royal Navy in 1971,25and the Bayandor ships were purchased from the U.S. between 1964 and 1969.26The Jamaran frigates are based on the basic Vosper Mk 5 design, although unlike the Alvand and Bayandor ships, they are armed with anti-air defenses. The Jamaran-class is thought only to be armed with two single SAM launchers, firing the SM-1 anti-air missile which was originally developed for the U.S. Navy in 1967.27 The lack of anti-aircraft capabilities indicates that Iran’s core surface vessels are dangerously exposed to air attack, critically limiting their ability to be deployed outside the umbrella of Iran’s coastal defense anti-air batteries.
All three classes are armed with the C-802 (CSS-N-8 Saccade) long-range anti-ship missile.28The C-802 was developed by China to upgrade its own naval surface-to-surface missile (SSM) capabilities, and it is believed to be extremely accurate.29 The missile is powered by a turbojet with a range of at least 120km and carries a 165kg warhead.30 The C-802 is sea-skimming, and a successful Hezbollah attack on an Israeli missile ship in 2006 using the C-802 seriously damaged the Israeli vessel.31
Fourteen of Iran’s smaller missile boats also carry the C-802, although the remainder are armed with the C-704 Nasr short-range SSM.32The Nasr is a domestically-manufactured missile with a range of 35km and a 150 kg warhead, capable of sinking medium-sized vessels.33Three of Iran’s frigates received upgraded fire controls to better utilize the Nasr, but the Iranian missile stockpile is thought to be quite limited and mostly concentrated in coastal batteries.34
In theory, Iran could use its surface ships to mount a blockade of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by attacking ships attempting to pass through the Red Sea. The main Iranian surface fleet clearly has the operating radius to project power into the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, and its ships are armed with sufficiently long-ranged missiles to engage tankers in the narrow confines of the southern Red Sea. However, the extreme vulnerability of these ships to air attack with their lack of air defense cover suggests it is highly unlikely that these vessels would be capable of maintaining a blockade for long, or would even be risked attempting to do so. The disastrous losses inflicted on the Iranian fleet during the 1988 tanker war by U.S. aircraft highlighted this weaknesses, and prompted Iranian strategists to focus on asymmetric forces as an alternative.35With both an American F-15 squadron based in Camp Lemonnier36and ships from EUNAVFOR Atalanta stationed in Djibouti,37 it is doubtful whether any hostile Iranian surface ships would be able to successfully interdict Red Sea shipping.
Submarines and Mines
Since 1988, the main effort by the Iranian naval leadership has concentrated on building up Iran’s asymmetric capabilities, including acquiring a strong submarine force.38 Although most of Iran’s submarines are small or midget craft designed for operations in the shallow waters of Persian Gulf, Iran does possess at least four blue-water submarines.39
Three of these are diesel-electric Kilo-class submarines, purchased from Russia in the 1990s.40The Kilo-class was designed as a quiet attack submarine, but because they were intended for colder climates, Iran’s three Kilos do not operate well in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. For this reason, whilst they are currently based in the main Iranian naval station at Bandar Abbas in the Strait of Hormuz, a new submarine base for them is reportedly under construction at Chah Bahar on the Gulf of Oman.41Not much is yet known about the fourth submarine, the lead boat of the domestically-produced Fateh-class, but it is designed for service in blue water.42
The three Kilo submarines represent Iran’s main operating capability in the Red Sea. Whilst its surface ships are hampered by their vulnerability to air attack and small operating range, the Kilo-class submarine is designed for extended operations in open waters.43Each Kilo is thought to be armed with wake-homing torpedoes, and they can carry a total payload of 24 mines, deployable through the torpedo tubes.44A batch of 1,000 mines was included in the original purchase from Russia.45
Since then, Iran is estimated to have built up a stockpile of at least 2,000 mines, including the M-08 contact mine, the MDM-6 pressure mine, and the EM-52 smart mine.46The Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait are too deep for the M-08 contact mine, which operates at depths of up to 110 meters, but potentially within the range for both the MDM-6 and EM-52.47The EM-52 is a particularly lethal threat, as it is laid on the sea floor and is a guided, rocket-propelled warhead. It is also powerful enough to penetrate a carrier hull.48
Seafloor mines are especially challenging to detect; it took a Royal Navy minesweeper six days to detect a single Iranian smart mine in the Red Sea in the 1980s.49Caitlin Talmadge, in her analysis of Iranian capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz, calculated that a task force of 12 NATO ships managed to clear an Iraqi minefield at a rate of 1.18 mines per day, a rate that was unusually fast and done under ideal conditions.50 Given the rugged geography of the Red Sea’s floor and the proliferation of smart mines, it is not clear whether another task force would be able to clear an Iranian minefield at the same rate.
However, the Kilo class is aging, and these vessels are vulnerable to U.S. and British hunter-killer groups. The proximity of Western forces to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the strategic importance of the Red Sea to Western interests suggests that the Kilo submarines would probably only get one voyage to the Red Sea before being neutralized in the case of hostilities. If Iran deployed all three of its blue-water submarines, which is unlikely, they could sow 72 mines at most. If a naval task force was to achieve the same rate of minesweeping as in Talmadge’s analysis, it would take 61 days to clear this minefield completely. Nevertheless, it is improbable that the Iranian leadership would risk all three of its largest submarines on such a risky, possibly one-way mission, and similarly it is unlikely that minesweepers would be able to operate with the same speed in the Red Sea as in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, a rough estimate of Iran’s submarine capabilities and mine stock would indicate that a single Kilo submarine with a well-trained crew could close the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait for at least a week in an attempt to divert attention away from combat in the Persian Gulf.
Iran does not at present have any fixed-wing aircraft with sufficient range to operate from Iranian bases to the Red Sea. Besides its naval capabilities, it can only reach the Red Sea with ballistic missiles. Iran currently has nine types of missile able to reach the Red Sea; the Shahab-3, -4, -5, and -6, the Ghadr-101 and 110, the IRIS, SAJIL, and the new Emad rocket.51All of these classes have the range to strike targets in the Red Sea, and all can reach the waterway within ten minutes of being launched.52
As a general rule, Iran’s long-range missiles are extremely inaccurate and are designed to hit strategic targets, not individual ships transiting the Red Sea.53 The sole exception is the latest Iranian missile, the Emad, which was designed as Iran’s first precision strike system. The Emad is equipped with an advanced guidance system in the nose cone, and has a reported accuracy radius of 500 meters.54It also carries a 750 kg warhead with enough explosive power to cripple or sink even a heavy oil tanker.55
Whilst the Emad represents an improvement in Iran’s ballistic missile capability, it is not clear how effective it would be as an area-denial weapon in the Red Sea. It does not appear to be accurate enough to target individual ships, and it will take several years to perfect the guidance technology.56 Furthermore, in order to reach the Red Sea, a costly Emad missile would need to transit across the Arabian Peninsula through Saudi Arabia’s air defenses. The possibility of using ballistic missiles to attack Red Sea shipping is therefore remote.
Iran’s ability to interdict shipping in the Red Sea is limited by its aging surface fleet and by the small number of submarines and missiles it can deploy to the waterway. Despite Iran’s growing interest in expanding its influence into the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the southern Red Sea as a means of securing its regional power, its current naval forces are tasked primarily with shutting the Strait of Hormuz.
Nevertheless, in spite of these limitations, the Iranians do have a narrow range of capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Although its surface fleet is unlikely to risk its assets by deploying surface vessels so close to U.S. and Saudi airbases during wartime, Iran has demonstrated that it can send submarines on extended cruises of the Red Sea. Its aging Kilo-class submarines are equipped with sophisticated mines in quantities which would take weeks to clear, and could be used to apply pressure on both the U.S. and Western Europe as well as the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf. Iran is already suspected to have laid mines in the Red Sea in the 1980s, and it is capable of doing so again – either as a means of leveraging its position in the Greater Middle East, or as a way to disrupt oil shipping and to open a new theater of operations in the event of a war with its regional rivals.
James A. Fargher works as an intelligence analyst at a political risk firm in the UK, and is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. James holds a BA from Drew University and an MA in modern history from King’s. He specializes in Imperial history and naval theory, with a particular focus on the Red Sea region.
1. Alexander Metelitsa & Megan Mercer, ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoins Critical to Global Energy Security,’ Today in Energy, US Energy Information Administration, 1 December 2014.
2. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.
3.‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.
4. Caitlin Talmadge, ‘Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz,’ International Security, 33:1 (Summer 2008), 84.
5. Gerald F. Seib and Robert S. Greenberger, ‘Iran’s Signals Mixed on Mines in the Red Sea,’ The Wall Street Journal, 8 August 1984.
6.‘Israel anger at Ian Suez Canal warship move,’ BBC News, 16 February 2011.
7. ‘Iran to send submarines to international waters – Press TV,’ BBC News, 30 July 2011.
8. ‘Iran Navy to Hold War Games Near Crucial Sea Lanes,’ The New York Times, 23 December 2011.
9. ‘Iran navy to deploy 24th fleet to Mediterranean Sea – commander,’ BBC News, 16 January 2013.
10. ‘Iran Navy counters pirate attack against oil tanker in Red Sea,’ BBC News, 4 Mach 2014.
11.‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.
12. ‘Islamic Republic of Iran Navy IRIN / Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/navy.htm.
13. Tarek Fahmi, quoted in ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.
14. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.
17. ‘Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war – sources’, Reuters, 22 March 2017.
21. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 328.
25. ‘Alvand Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/alvand.htm.
26.‘Bayandor Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/bayandor.htm
27. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 329.
The year is 2030, five years after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) officially expired, and Iran has made its move to go nuclear. As the United States and its allies attempt to militarily respond, they face a new reality: assured access and freedom of movement (FOM) is no longer guaranteed due to Russian and Chinese counter influence activities in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf Region. Should this scenario come as a surprise? The answer is no, because the Russians and Chinese are putting the pieces in position now.
Since the end of WWII, the most potent aspect of the U.S. military has been its forward posture consisting of a network of forces, footprints, and agreements. With Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran being identified as the four primary state challengers to the U.S.-led global order, the Defense Department is examining its global posture to ensure it has the means to assure allies, deter challengers, and if necessary defeat aggressors. However, Russia and China have not been sitting idle as the U.S. seeks to strengthen its position. In fact, they have studied our doctrine and are implementing their own global posture initiatives to secure their national interests and, if necessary, threaten our interests. Their focus has been around the three critical maritime chokepoints: the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz.
Russia has been the most visible in re-asserting itself in the Middle East with its military campaign to support the Assad Regime in Syria. Russia’s principal interest in Syria is ensuring its continued access to a warm water port in the Mediterranean. The U.S. and its western allies’ early attempts to prevent Russian support for Syria by denying the Russians the ability to ship helicopters in 2012 motivated Russia to reposition its naval forces in the area and build relationships with countries in the region.
Its reinforcement of advanced air-defense systems in Syria extended Russia’s Anti-Access/Anti-Denial (A2/AD) networkfrom the Baltic region to the Eastern Mediterranean. Recent reports also indicate that Russia is seeking to re-establish its military presence in Egypt at a former air base abandoned in 1972. If Russia is able to establish a foothold in Egypt, its bases in Syria along with its fleet operating in the Eastern Mediterranean would pose a significant challenge to U.S. and allied forces in a potential future conflict while attempting to conduct strikes or move through the Suez.
When it comes to China’s military expansion, most observers focus on events in the East and South China Seas and its susceptibility to the “Malacca Straits” dilemma. Like Russia, China has not been idle in developing a “globalized security posture” to secure its interests abroad. The construction of China’s first military outpost in Djibouti is a clear manifestation of China’s global outlook. This is a worrying development for the U.S., which operates from Camp Lemonier, a military base not too far from where China is establishing their base. The future danger of a Chinese base in Djibouti is demonstrated by the recent attacks against U.S. ships off the coast of Yemen. While the U.S. is capable of defending itself and responding to untrained Houthi rebels in Yemen, it may find a more competent and better equipped Chinese force threatening access to the Bab-el-Mandeb a more difficult challenge.
Besides Djibouti, China is reaching out to Oman for access and has established an agreement with Pakistan to use the Port of Gwadar. While the Port of Gwadar is viewed by many as a means for China to challenge India’s influence in the region, it could also be used to challenge the U.S. Navy from operating in the region as well, especially to reinforce its position near the Straits of Hormuz. In a nutshell, China in partnership with Russia and Iran, could shut down three of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world.
General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognizes the threat of Russia and China along with Iran, North Korea, and Violent Extremists in his 4+1 construct. However, our efforts to deter these actors individually could have the unfortunate consequence of drawing them closer together as an unholy alliance seeking to diminish U.S. influence. The scenario in the beginning is clearly possible if Russia and China in partnership with Iran choose to deny the U.S. assured access and freedom of movement. While the U.S. is developing numerous concepts to defeat various forms of A2/AD in the Pacific and Persian Gulf regions already, it must accept that for future operations against determined enemies who have studied our doctrine of warfare, the cost of winning will be considerably greater.
“As the United States and China become great power rivals, the direction in which India tilts could determine the course of geopolitics in Eurasia in the twenty-first century. India, in other words, looms as the ultimate pivot state.”
I remember reading these words several years ago and thinking back to my trip to India in 1998 at the height of the nuclear testing crisis by India and Pakistan. During that trip, I took the opportunity to interview several Indian scholars on India’s ascent as a nuclear power and its implications. Those interviews produce two key themes: (1) India’s nuclear weapons program was designed as a deterrent to China, not Pakistan as many claimed, since China went nuclear in the 1950s and fought a border war with India in 1962; and (2) a disbelief of U.S. relations with an Islamic military dictatorship in Pakistan and Communist China at the expense of the world’s largest democracy. In order to accept these two observations, especially if India becomes the strategic pivot nation, the U.S. must acknowledge India’s relationship with, as Seth Cropsey described in his New American Grand Strategy article, the triple hegemonic threats in the Eurasian landmass: Iran, Russia, and China.
India and Iran’s relationship dates thousands of years from when the ancient Persian Empires and Indian Empires ruled the territories from Mesopotamia to the tip of India – occasional rivals during the period of the Indian Mughal (Sunni) Empire. Modern day Afghanistan served as the buffer zone and trade route between these two civilizations. During the period of the of Colonial British-Russian Rivalry (The Great Game), the landmass between the Persians and British India served as a strategic buffer, and later provided the foundation for India’s relationship with Russia after “The Partition of 1947” that split India and Pakistan.
India’s relationship with Russia dates to the Cold War after it gained independence from the United Kingdom. Initially, India was a champion of the “Non-Aligned Movement” seeking not to get entangled between the two superpowers. The decline in U.S.-Indian relations during the Johnson administration pushed India into the Soviet sphere due to differences regarding the Vietnam War, India’s stance on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Indo-Pakistani tensions, and economic underperformance. The U.S. military relationship with Pakistan further alienated India which required India to invest heavily in Soviet armaments. India’s and Russia’s relationship has continued despite the end of the Cold War, primarily in foreign military sales and development (ex. Co-Russian and Indian joint Stealth Fighter venture).
India has expanded military relations with the United States as it sees China as a growing security challenge. Additionally, Indians prefer their cultural (Bollywood and Hollywood) and linguistic (large Indian English speaking population) similarities to the United States. In fact, C. Raja Mohan wrote a statement in his book Crossing the Rubicon by then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh issued ahead of President Clinton’s visit of ‘five wasted decades’ and his “reflection on the fact that the world’s two great democracies found it impossible to engage in any substantive cooperation-either economic or political in the country’s first fifty years.”
As the two most populous nations on earth, the unique and recent strategic rivalry between India and China, as Robert Kaplan stated, has no history behind it. They are two ancient civilizations separated by the Himalayan Mountain range that traded, passed religious and cultural knowledge back and forth in the peripheral zones (Afghan region of the Silk and Spice Route and South East Asia where we see a mixed Indian-Chinese influence among populations, linguistics, and cuisine), but have no known history of major warfare between the two save for brief conflict in 1962. What is driving the emerging competition between India and China is their re-emergence on top of the global economy. As Robyn Meredith states in her book The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What it Means for All of Us that “after a centurylong hiatus, India and China are moving back toward their historic equilibrium in the global economy, and that this is producing tectonic shifts in economics as well as in geopolitics.” It is projected that India’s population will exceed China’s and both will continue to modernize and create ever greater demand for consumer goods to meet the needs and desires of their vast populations. As a result, the Achilles Heel and source of emerging friction is the need to secure access to energy from Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to fuel their economic growth.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration(EIA), “China is the world’s second-largest consumer of oil and moved from second-largest net importer of oil to the largest in 2014.” Meanwhile, “India was the fourth-largest consumer of crude oil and petroleum products in the world in 2013, after the United States, China, and Japan. The country depends heavily on imported crude oil, mostly from the Middle East.” While much has been written of China’s activities in Africa to secure energy and mineral rights, less has been shared about India’s competition, though less successful, in the same arena. A significant lag in its competitiveness is China’s reliance on state-owned enterprises that offer better terms due to government guarantee vs. India’s reliance on its private sector and smaller state owned enterprises. Despite this, India has also been working with Central Asian States and Iran to develop the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline with recent Indian investment ventures in Iranian oil and gas fields in the range of $20 billion. To offset the competition for energy, both countries have invested heavily in renewable energy resources such as wind and solar.
India’s strategic geography provides it a long-term competitive advantage over China due to its position between the world’s key energy chokepoints. According to the IEA World Oil Transit Chokepoints Report, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit.” India’s strategic relationship with Iran and South East Asian nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia, along with its control of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, place it in a formidable position to disrupt China’s access to its energy markets in the Middle East and Africa. China has been trying to offset its‘Malacca Dilemma” by establishing economic-security ventures known as its “String of Pearls” to include expanded ventures with Pakistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka.
The ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and ‘String of Pearls” will drive each nation to invest in their missile arsenal (nuclear and non-nuclear), naval power, and airpower. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Military Balance 2016, China accounts for 41% and India for 13.5% of all defense spending in Asia. Further comparisons between the two show China spent $145 Billion (US Dollars) vs. India’s $47 Billion (US Dollars) in 2015. Analyzing their naval power, China has the edge in numbers with more submarines (61 = 4 SSBNs and 57 SSNs), more combatant ships (74 including one carrier), and mine warfare (49). India currently fields a navy with 14 submarines, 28 combatant (two carriers to China’s one), and 6 mine warfare ships. However, its ability to influence the Strait of Malacca provides India the competitive advantage, especially if its efforts are combined with U.S., Australian, Japanese, and coalition nations to offset China’s numerical superiority. Additionally, China will face its own A2/AD threat environment in the India Ocean as India expands its medium and long range missiles.
As the United States increasingly faces challenges to its global power by Iran, Russia, and China, its relationship with India will grow in strategic importance. While India may never become a true ally of the U.S. due to its strategic relations with the other three powers, its role as a strategic pivot or fulcrum can provide a source of stability and balance. Its democratic and cultural values align it with the United States and the West, but geography and history place India squarely within the context of its Eurasian neighbors.
MAJ Chad M. Pillai is a U.S. Army Strategist. He has published articles and blogs in Military Review, Small Wars Journal, Infinity Journal, The Strategy Bridge, Offizier, War on the Rocks, and CIMSEC. He received his Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2009. This article was influenced by his Asian Energy Security and South Asian International Relations courses at SAIS.
 In 1998, I took a trip to India for my adopted father’s mother’s death that coincided with the nuclear testing. As a result, I proposed an extra credit project for my ROTC instructor to study the security implications and worked on it further during my internship at the Department of State that summer semester.
 The strategic implications of the 1947 Partition continue in today’s conflict in Afghanistan as Pakistan views India’s relationship with the Afghan Government with suspicion and fears Indian encirclement if it loses its strategic maneuver space among the Afghan Pashtu regions. Recommend “The Great Defile” by Diana Preston to learn more of the British Indian (manned primarily by Punjabis – Modern Pakistanis) Army’s misadventures during the Afghan Wars of 1838-1842.
 Indians prefer to study in the United States and migrate. One current state governor and one former state governor are of Indian descent.
Featured Image: Prime Minister Modi speaks from the Red Fort in New Delhi on India’s 69th Independence Day in 2015.