Last month, the chief of staff of the Iranian military publicly stated his government’s intention to set up naval bases abroad, possibly in Syria and Yemen. Although it is difficult to know the extent to which this statement is bluster, a reflection of an actual plan, or an indication of a project already underway, Ephraim Kam argues that it would behoove Israel and the U.S. to take it seriously:
The [chief of staff’s] remarks . . . derive primarily from Iran’s fundamental hegemonic aspirations in the Middle East and, in some respects, beyond. . . . Although the Iranian naval fleet still uses partially outdated equipment, it poses a significant threat to its rivals in the Gulf region, due to its rocket and mine-laying capabilities and due to Iran’s complete control over the entire length of the eastern shore of the Gulf. . . . The prevailing assessment is that the Iranian fleet is incapable of blocking navigation in the Gulf over an extended period, due to United States capabilities in breaking through any Iranian obstacle, but Iran is capable of disrupting marine traffic in the Gulf with rockets, mines, and shore-to-ship artillery fire. . . .
If . . . Iran succeeds in establishing naval bases on the shores of Syria and Yemen, this will have troubling implications, mainly for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, as well as for Egypt and Turkey. It is unclear whether Iran is thinking in terms of establishing a permanent base—as per the chief of staff’s remarks—or whether at issue is a temporary and limited presence and the receipt of port services. The worst-case scenario is the construction of a permanent base in Syria, which connotes a permanent naval arm in the Mediterranean Sea and an Iranian military presence in proximity to Israel, while creating a threat to, and establishing deterrence against, Israel.
Moreover, the establishment of a naval base in Syria will enable Iran to transport regular supplies and other assistance to Hizballah, without being dependent upon overland convoys or aerial transport through Syria, Iraq, and/or Turkey, and will serve its intelligence-collection needs. The establishment of a naval base in Yemen will exacerbate the Iranian threat from the south against Saudi Arabia, and will provide Iran with the ability to pose a threat at the entrance to the Red Sea as well as a capacity to affect the navigation of ships toward the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Eilat in the event of a confrontation. . . .
The establishment of the naval bases relatively close to Israel gives the Jewish state the possibility of destroying them if necessary, for example, in retaliation for an Iranian provocation. At the same time, any military operation against an Iranian naval base in Syria—whether overt or covert—is liable to trigger an Iranian response, either directly or through Hizballah.