Iran-Sudan naval cooperation expands

Reuters

One of two Iranian navy warships arrives to dock at Port Sudan in the Red Sea state December 8, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • As the Iranian Navy has expanded its operational reach, Tehran has increasingly courted Khartoum.

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  • While Sudan has never been known for its navy, it has for a half century maintained a small force to patrol its Red Sea coast.

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  • Establishing a more permanent relationship with Sudan might allow Iran to utilize Port Sudan.

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In 2007 Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ground forces underwent a massive reorganization. Rather than gear its forces toward external enemies, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the new IRGC commander, sought to have the IRGC ground forces orient themselves against internal challenges, and so put one unit in every province and two in Tehran. Both the Navy and the IRGC Navy therefore took the mantle of external operations, not only facing down enemies in the Persian Gulf but increasingly also in the Sea of Oman. As the Iranian Navy has expanded its operational reach, Tehran has increasingly courted Khartoum. In October 2012 the Iranian Navy’s 22nd fleet docked at Port Sudan on the Red Sea and, two months later, the 23rd Fleet followed suit. (Each Iranian fleet consisted of a destroyer and a helicopter carrier.) Establishing a more permanent relationship with Sudan might allow Iran to utilize Port Sudan—Sudan’s third largest city and largest port—which would enable Iran to expand its presence in the Red Sea and off the Horn of Africa.

While Sudanese officials warned against reading too much into last year’s port visits by Iranian ships, the excerpted comments from a 9 May meeting between the heads of the Iranian and Sudanese Navies suggest that the two countries’ bilateral military relationship continues to develop. While Sudan has never been known for its navy, it has for a half century maintained a small force to patrol its Red Sea coast. The Iranian willingness to train Sudanese naval forces raises questions of what capabilities Sudan seeks to acquire. Not only might this provide Tehran with needed hard currency should Khartoum purchase Iranian ships, but it might also enhance the Islamic Republic’s desire to export revolution by proxy. In the past the Islamic Republic has tried to leverage those whom it has trained—for example, Bahraini and Lebanese militiamen in the early 1980s—into revolutionary violence. Should such training occur—perhaps accompanied by an exchange of personnel—the Sudanese Navy might begin to replicate tactics used by Iranian small boats in the Persian Gulf in the Red Sea and near the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This would enable Iran to establish leverage over a second strategic maritime chokepoint and expand Tehran’s ability to threaten the international energy trade.

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  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


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