Iran's Red Sea Strategy

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From the Bab al-Mandeb gateway into the Red Sea and onwards to the Suez Canal, the Red Sea maritime route has always been a key economic and political strategic region. With nearly 30% of the world’s oil supply passes through the Red Sea, Iran’s recent growing relations with the sea’s bordering states arises from both pragmatic necessity and its need for ideological support in political arenas amidst domestic economic burdens.

Historically, the Persian Empire and the Horn region of Africa have had contact for centuries, both before and after the rise of Islam in the Middle East. Persian influence extended as far south as present-day Mozambique. A triangular route between the Persian Empire, India, and the Horn produced exchanges of goods like spices, people (slaves), and even religion (with Islam and Baha’i faiths at the forefront). Remnants of early Persian-African contact, for example, can be readily seen in places such as (Tanzania’s) Zanzibar archipelago, Kenya, and Somalia. Even today in Iranian-Horn of Africa relations, religion and ideological-based bridges form the foundation of bi-regional relations within the greater Middle East.

The importance of the Middle East’s sea routes once again made headlines in late 2011 with Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz drove the United States to consider military action should the key oil gateway become blocked. The Hormuz strait, at 34 kilometers long, carries nearly 20% of the world’s oil supply. Coupled with Iranian submarine sighting in the Red Sea region, major world oil consumers immediately became anxious, taking notice of how critical such routes are to world commerce. The Red Sea’s “Hormuz” is the Bab al-Mandeb gateway between Djibouti and Yemen, which at 29 kilometers wide, has become another regional focus for strategic power. If Bab al-Mandeb were to be blocked, oil cargo would be forced to take the costly route of circumventing the southern tip of Africa to reach their most common destinations. Taking the 1956 Suez Canal crisis (and the resulting 1967 Six-Day War) as an example, ensuring the safe and smooth operations of these energy routes is of paramount importance for oil-dependent nations. However, the Red Sea lies within a conflict zone, including a three nations currently struggling with internal conflicts (Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia). However, the continual instability of the Horn and its questionable regional leadership has drawn concern in the Middle East and abroad, as the Red Sea shipping lane is critical to regional and global trade sectors.


Timing is Everything: Why now, Iran?

Within the past five years, Iranian-African relations in general have ramped up to new levels, with bilateral agreements signed with various countries throughout the continent. While their effectiveness is questionable, Iranian embassies have still managed to open in many countries, including several along Africa’s eastern coast (Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan). Talks of opening an embassy in Somalia’s Mogadishu have also been held, once the capital has seen sufficient stability for diplomatic operations to take place. Iranian (Red Crescent) humanitarian aid and newly funded hospitals were critical in alleviating Somalia’s recent food crisis, for example. More bilateral agreements with Sudan and Eritrea have also been penned since 2008. However, the most recent impetus to Iranian interest in the Red Sea region is due to new alliances being formed within the Arab League, namely the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which aims at creating a sub-union of sorts. (1) While the Iranian-Saudi rivalry has always set a tone in Iranian-GCC relations, the ‘GCC Union’ idea born from the 14th GCC summit threatens an economically weakening Iran. While Iran cannot compete wealth-wise with the GCC (and its investments abroad), it has nevertheless sought to reign in the GCC’s strength and regional influence. Competition between the two entities has never hindered, although maritime security is a priority for both (as highlighted in the devastating economic outcome of the 1988 Iran-Iraqi war). (2) Iran has long been dismayed by the GCC’s willingness to host foreign troops, such as the U.S. military bases present in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Its on-again, off-again relations with ‘frenemy’ Turkey (in addition to a cold shoulder from Yemen’s fighting factions, a rebuilding Iraq, and an inflamed Syria) has left Iran somewhat politically isolated in the Middle East. Coupled with its tense GCC relationship and the economic burden of multiple sanctions (imposed by the U.S., the U.N.’s Security Council, and the European Union), Iran has been forced to look for other allies in the region, and new markets for Iranian oil and goods. This outreach can be seen in Iran’s warming relations with South American countries like Brazil and Venezuela, but given the proximity and securitization matters of the Red Sea, Iran’s outreach to Red Sea states is part of its pragmatic economic survival solution.

Competing with the purchasing power of the GCC will be difficult, as the GCC’s strength outspends Iran easily. In terms of foreign direct investments, the east African region has been the region with the least investment, and the Horn ranks as the 2nd least prioritized region in Africa for the GCC. (3) However, the GCC’s problems with food security necessitate its relationship with heavily agricultural-based African economies, whereas the situation differs for Iran. Aside from needing new markets to supplement those Iranian industries affected by the Western sanctions cocktail, Iran has used cultural and ideological links to attempt to sway Red Sea states into cementing maritime security in their favor. Iran has instead founded its Red Sea relationships based on shared theological ‘Western hegemonic resistance’ grounds, in the leadership of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Eritrea’s Isaias Afeworki. Therefore, reaching out to Red Sea non-Western aligned states falls in line with this pragmatism. Iran has shown fairly practical state behavior in the last few months, as can be exhibited in the late 2011 (now dissipated) uproar over Israel’s claims that Iran was ready to launch nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Israel’s warm relations with both Ethiopia and (Red Sea state) Eritrea has also worried Iran. (4) Ironically, Iran’s utilitarian Red Sea approach is very much similar to Israel’s strategy of reaching out to the Balkans and Africa in times of political isolation.

French troops based in (fellow Red Sea state) Djibouti adds to Iran’s worries about who exactly controls the Red Sea route. With the addition of U.S. naval troops in Djibouti's Camp Lemonnier executing military operations throughout Africa and the Gulf, Iran’s fears of an AFRICOM-like military base established in strategic Red Sea zone are justified, but unlikely to happen in full force, as the establishment of such as base is also inconsistent with many African countries’ domestic views of securitization. In Yemen, Iran has lent closed-door support to the (predominantly Shi’ite) Houthi rebels of the north, much to the dismay of the (Sunni) southern region of the country which wants to return to a two-state Yemen. (5) Turkey and Israel’s recent investments in African countries has awakened Iran to what possibilities new African markets may hold for stabilizing Iran’s crippled rial (IRR). With six of the twelve fastest growing economies located in Africa, another incoming of foreign (often formerly colonial) powers has many Africans wary, but the investment is needed and driving growth in many countries.

Investment Stumbling Blocks: Problems with Iran’s African Forays

However, Iran may encounter problems of allegiance along the Red Sea, as Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia are Arab League (AL) nations, with Eritrea being an AL observer. While common religious ties has opened diplomatic talks with the Red Sea states, Iran’s brand of conservative Shi’ite Islam may not also bode well in the fairly relaxed (Sunni and Sufistic) Horn countries. Therefore, Iran must be rather secular in terms of sectarian-based rhetoric towards in its investments and aid assistance in the region. Iran’s strategy into Africa as a whole has been rather sloppy, having already been diplomatically cut off from both Senegal and Gambia under suspicion of shipping arms to rebels and sharing sensitive state information with neighboring African countries. An estimated 300 contracts that have been signed between Iran and various African countries have yet to be implemented, not giving a great first impression of a new and trustworthy trading partner in Iran. (6) Sanctions on Iran have also crippled Iran’s ability to gain international influence, and the lack of project implementation often stems from funding issues on the Iranian side to general instability in Red Sea states (Yemen’s civil war, Sudan’s threatening of civil war with South Sudan, and Somalia’s fight with terrorism). Foreign Policy’s controversial ‘Failed State Index 2011’ lists six out of seven Red Sea states as “critical” or “in danger,” with Iran itself ranked in the latter category.(7)

New Strategy Needed

As of late, Iran’s endeavors in Africa have been hit-or-miss, highlighting the need to revamp its’ re-entry into an Africa swamped by renewed foreign interest. With the bulk of foreign direct investment directed towards the north, west, and southern regions of Africa, Iran must carefully craft its steps in the Horn, and in particular, Red Sea states in the region. Iran’s energy investments in uranium-rich African countries like Niger, Zimbabwe, and Namibia may bode well for bi-lateral relations, but further detriment Iran’s motives and movements throughout the continent with both regional leaders and in the West. While Red Sea nations are generally not as energy-enriched as other African nations, Iran will need to promote humanitarian and infrastructure projects in these countries with hopes of improving their influence over this important maritime route. Iran currently has preferred trading partner status with the African Union, therefore developing stronger multifaceted ties with the Horn’s Djibouti-based IGAD union (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) must be further initiated and used efficiently. Iran must be able to effectively show the various leaders of Red Sea states that its recent ventures into the region are not solely to compete with Chinese, Turkish, and Israeli activities in the region. Offers of mediation in Somalia’s political woes, and investments into the country’s infrastructure, would have long-term kickback effects of securing the Gulf of Aden route, for example. Positive political engagement with a neighboring state such as Somalia would also help Iran be viewed in a better light among Red Sea states that could see potential for further progressive Iranian involvement in the region.

Another factor Iran must avoid in Red Sea state relations is its proxy support of sectarian politics, as seen in Iran’s support of (Shi’ite) sectarian factors in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, in addition to past support of similar actions in Iraq. Given the current political instability along the Red Sea coast lines, these nations cannot risk potential added conflict to the region. Yemen, a non-GCC state, and other fellow bordering states along sea must be sure of Iranian intentions in the region before Iran can hope to gain a foothold in the area, and any residual influence over the Red Sea.


1. GCC countries are comprised of: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
2. Anthony, John Duke. “Strategic Dynamics of Iran-GCC Relations.” “Industrialization in the Gulf: A socioeconomic Revolution.” Eds. Jean-Francois Seznec and Mimi Kirk. Georgetown University, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies; Routledge, 2010. Page 95.
3. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Report 2011. Page 40.
4. Blanche, Ed. “Israel Seeks New Friends.” The Middle East, March 2012: Current Affairs. Pages 12-16.
5. Abdul-Ahad, Ghaith. “Yemenis Choose Jihad Over Iranian Support.” May 10th, 2012. The Guardian (UK).
Accessed May 14, 2012. <
6. Gilani, Ebrahim [London-based Iranian journalist, foreign policy analyst; pseudonym]. “Iran’s African Misadventures.” March 6th, 2011. Accessed May 15, 2012.
7. The Failed State Index 2011. Foreign <

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