Why Does Iran Want to be Present in the Mediterranean Sea?

With the victory of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the new government emphasized and paid attention to exporting the revolution to other countries. Although this issue was brought up with ideological motives, it also considered geopolitical dimensions in order to expand ‘strategic depth.’

Regional events in the Middle East since the 1990s, exacerbated by the Western military interventions in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), have facilitated Iran’s ability to emerge as a regional power. The rapid fall of the two hostile regimes on Iran’s borders (the militant Sunni Taliban regime and the Sunni Arab nationalist Baathist regime) provided a vast breathing space and geopolitical opportunity for Tehran to consolidate its regional partnerships (in Lebanon and Syria) and to be present in and expand in Palestine. 

By guaranteeing its presence in the Persian Gulf and taking into account that Iraq had come under the control of a friendly Shiite government after 2003, Iran has strengthened its role and influence in the Levant by partnering with Syria. The military influence of Hezbollah and Hamas as two non-governmental actors present in the ‘Axis of Resistance’ provided Iran with the opportunity to transform ‘Shia ideology’ into ‘Shia geopolitics’ in order to confront Israel in a new dimension, especially by the expansion of Iran’s nuclear and missile program. Although this issue has caused security concerns for the actors present in the Eastern Mediterranean, it has also brought security implications for Europe.

The Eastern Mediterranean has a high percentage of Shia population, which creates a privileged position for Iran. Indeed, from the perspective of the Islamic Republic of Iran, such a situation can help in achieving its strategic goals and promoting regional power with proper exploitation.

On the other hand, the Eastern Mediterranean is also the center of competition between the three regional powers of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Iran has focused on the Eastern Mediterranean since the 1979 Revolution, and this region is one of its primary centers of influence. The three countries of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine are the main geopolitical core of Iran in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This region has an important geopolitical position in Iran’s territorialization in Southwest Asia and, ultimately, its leadership over the Islamic world. The importance of the Eastern Mediterranean for Tehran is defined by its location on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, its proximity to the Straits of Gibraltar and Suez, the existence of Shiite minorities in Syria and Lebanon – countries close to Iran in adopting regional and global policies, as well as the geopolitical complement of Iran in dominating the center of the Islamic world, the transition route of energy from Iran to Iraq and Europe and finally Iran’s embankment against Israel.

Based on this premise, Iran has followed the creation of a land corridor that can connect the Axis of Resistance. The presence of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, the Syrian government, and the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq have provided a land connection to the Eastern Mediterranean, making it possible for Iran to increase its influence.

The usefulness of this corridor is based on three goals: on the one hand, it provides a cheap shipping route for transporting arms to the Mediterranean Sea for its partners. Also, if any of the airports that the Iranians rely on for their supply chain are bombed, this will be an alternative route for the Iranian air bridge in the region. Ultimately, this will help reaffirm the Shia identity in the entire region through a communication channel to exchange a variety of products and link related communities scattered throughout the Middle East.

Accordingly, this corridor is viewed at the cost of creating an existential threat to other actors in the region, such as the Arab or Kurdish population of the Middle East and Israel.

On the other hand, the discovery of gas on the eastern Mediterranean coast will cause competition with Russia in the European market. If the Russians succeed in limiting Turkey’s influence to the south, they can prevent the Turks from controlling energy products in the Mediterranean, as they clearly compete in Libya. For this purpose, the creation of Iran’s land bridge would strengthen Russia’s presence and give its Iranian and Syrian partners more power at Turkey’s loss.

Furthermore, the power of the Yemeni Houthis in the Gaza war and the disruption of international shipping on the route leading to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean have also demonstrated Iran and its allies‘ influence in the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. In particular, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) is not only considered as a macro strategy by America and its allies, but it would also increase Israel’s position in the Mediterranean. A plan that, despite the Houthi attacks and being presented as a threat, has been used experimentally by providing aid to Gaza through Cyprus.

Based on the regional and global developments and despite the fact that Iran has never had a direct intervention or military presence in the Mediterranean, talks of military intervention in this region have been raised by Iranian military officials.

Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the deputy coordinator of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) following the Gaza war, has announced: “With the continuation of the crimes, America and its allies must wait for the birth of new powers of resistance and the closing of the rest of the roads and roads to themselves. Yesterday, the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz became a nightmare for them, and today, the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea have trapped them, and with the continuation of these crimes, they will soon have to wait for the closure of the Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar, and other waterways.”

At the same time, Former IRGC commander and top aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Yahya Rahim-Safavi, announced: “The Islamic Republic of Iran has no choice but to deepen its national defense and security. Our strategic defense depth is the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. From Iran, we must develop our strategic defense depth of five thousand kilometers. The naval and air and space forces of the IRGC should be focused on these points because the future wars are sea-based and air-based.”

Expanding the strategic depth to a radius of 5,000 km would mean full coverage of the Mediterranean Sea. However, many experts believe that this aim is not achievable in the short or medium term.

It is clear that Iran seeks to expand the presence of its naval forces and activities beyond the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean and seeks these goals in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. In the past months, Iran has sent its ships to the port of Sudan – in the Red Sea – several times, which has provided meaningful messages for Israel.

Iran had unsuccessfully asked Sudan to allow it to set up a naval base on its Red Sea coast.

The leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, has also emphasized increasing ‘strategic maritime depth’ and effective presence in international sea lanes and achieving the position of regional poles.

In this regard, Shahrad Kokabi Jahromi, the founder of Iran’s Marine Engineering Association, emphasized the need to maintain a solid and strategic naval force.

Ayatollah Khamenei praised the navigation of the Earth by the Iranian army’s naval fleet based on such statements.

In this mission, the Navy of Iran entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time, visited the American continent for the first time, and visited Brazil on its way.

Based on this, the Islamic Republic can be closer to the depth of Europe by being present in the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s growing potential to project its military power towards Europe, combined with its energy assets in terms of near-supply of oil and gas, is significant enough for Europe to assess Iran’s political influence in the Mediterranean.

The increase in regional tensions, which has caused the expansion of the military presence of extra-regional powers, is an indicator of the increasing military importance of the Mediterranean Sea. Strengthening NATO against Russia, creating a high capacity for quick reaction in the region (USA), maintaining the security of the sea and land route of the ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative (China), countering NATO activities (Russia), reducing vulnerability in times of surprise (Russia) are the most important reasons for the military presence of the US, China, and Russia in the Mediterranean Sea.

On the other hand, the visit of some Saudi officials to Cyprus also shows the more serious involvement of Saudi Arabia in this region. Based on this, Turkey may need to create a coalition with Russia, Iran, and possibly even the Syrian government. The European Union considers Turkey’s gas and oil discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean region a threat and believes that Turkey should not use Mediterranean resources by itself.

Also, the Mediterranean Sea should be viewed from Iran’s point of view on the faults affecting regional and global policies. According to the opinion of Former IRGC commander and top aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Yahya Rahim-Safavi, in today’s world, in the framework of the competition between land and naval strategies of the great powers and on a global scale, there are three major geostrategic faults, which threaten global and continental security. “In the Western geostrategic fault, actors such as the US and Europe as naval powers with the support of NATO in front of the power of the Russian Federation are struggling and competing. The geographical range of this fault starts from the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean and eastern Finland to the countries separated from the former Soviet Union to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean.”

From his point of view, the eastern geostrategic fault between the United States and the aligned governments in East Asia and the Pacific Ocean has been formed for the economic blockade of China and the dominance and control of the East-West maritime trade.

He considers the third geostrategic fault to be ranging from the Mediterranean to West Asia. According to this understanding, the USA, the UK, and some other Western countries have created Israel in the eastern Mediterranean.

On the other hand, according to some views close to Iran’s sovereignty, the Mediterranean Sea is considered the center of gravity of Europe’s security, and any country that dominates the Mediterranean Sea will not only enjoy security but will also dominate the two continents of Asia and Africa. This means that the importance of Israel for Europe and the USA draws more attention to the importance of the Mediterranean Sea.

In this regard, Seyed Vahid Karimi, the former diplomat of Iran in London and New York and the current expert of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, believes that “…the way out of the recent crisis in Palestine is the permanent establishment of the navy of Iran in the Mediterranean. When the Westerners come to the conclusion that Iran is behind Israel’s embankment in the Mediterranean, Israel’s position will not be important for Europe and America, and they may enter into negotiations about the Mediterranean and West Asia’s share in the Mediterranean.”

According to such rhetoric, Iran has the ability to harm European countries by cutting off energy supplies, which raises the security threshold even higher. According to Major General Hossein Salami, the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran stands on 50% of the world’s energy and can decide that Europe should spend the winter in the cold.

While such statements might be considered highly exaggerated, this issue certainly is a matter of concern for Europe, which is dependent on the energy of the Persian Gulf and is trying to free itself from its excessive dependence on Russian resources.

On the other hand, the practical cooperation of European countries with the United States after Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, which effectively ruled out the economic benefit of maintaining the agreement, has strengthened Iran’s ‘Look to the East’ foreign policy. In addition, the elimination of the reformists in Iran’s power structure who emphasized the ‘Look to the West’ and ‘balanced’ foreign policy is also considered as one of the internal factors of the presence of opponents of westward foreign policy.

Evidence for such a development was provided in February 2010, when it was confirmed that China had overtaken the European Union as Iran’s largest trading partner. In fact, since US and European Union energy companies have refused to invest in Iran’s vital oil and gas industries, China has stepped in to fill the gap by signing multi-billion-dollar contracts to develop oil and gas fields.

In addition, Iran’s relations with North African countries should also be mentioned. By supporting the Polisario Front, a Western Sahara independence movement in Morocco, Iran wants to be present on the southern borders of the Mediterranean Sea.

Moroccan officials have claimed that Iran uses Lebanese Hezbollah proxies to provide military training and support to the Polisario Front based in the Tindouf refugee camp in Algeria.

Tehran also has established and long-running economic and military relations with Algeria, and has acknowledged the sale of drones to Algeria.

However, it cannot be precisely determined whether the purpose of Iran’s actions is to penetrate Africa or the Mediterranean.

While Iran’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean remains strong, interest in Iran’s energy potential remains high, and Europe’s concerns about Iran are a security issue.