Iran tests the water

Manal Lotfy , Saturday 10 Jun 2023

Iran is testing the water of the region’s security architecture with a proposed new naval alliance with the Gulf states.

Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Shahram Irani
Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Shahram Irani


Are there new security arrangements taking shape in the Middle East? And are these security arrangements no longer dependent on the US umbrella?

From Iran’s point of view, the answer to both questions is yes.

It has been only a few weeks since the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the reopening of the two countries’ embassies in Riyadh and Tehran, yet there have been many intriguing developments.

Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Shahram Irani announced this week that his country and Saudi Arabia, as well as other regional powers, plan to form a naval alliance.

The move, if it materialises, would be a blow to US influence in the region and a nail in the coffin of plans to isolate Iran through the formation of a regional alliance led by Washington.

“The countries of the region have realised that the security of the region can be established through the synergy and cooperation of the regional states. Almost all countries of the North Indian Ocean region have come to the understanding that they should stand by the Islamic Republic of Iran and jointly establish security with significant synergies,” the semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency cited Irani as saying on Saturday.

Irani said the countries that would take part in the proposed alliance include Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Pakistan, and India. He added that the new alliance would be formed soon, without elaborating on its aims, timetable, or when it would become operative. 

The proposed alliance would help Iran to counter the US in the region, give it a stronger deterrent against any potential attack, and help Tehran to protect its shipping. But the main goal, from Tehran’s perspective, would be to improve relations with the Gulf states and rearrange the region’s security architecture.

But there are some challenges to forming such alliances, among them suspicions, mistrust, regional rivalries, and differing interests that could complicate efforts to form a naval alliance between regional foes. 

Overcoming these challenges would be a major geopolitical shift in the region. No statements were issued by Gulf capitals confirming or denying the Iranian announcement.

The Iranian announcement came a few days after the UAE announced its withdrawal from the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) tasked with securing Gulf waterways that are vital to the global oil trade.

The Emirati Foreign Ministry announced in a statement that the country “withdrew its participation.”

“As a result of our ongoing evaluation of effective security cooperation with all partners, two months ago the UAE withdrew its participation in the Combined Maritime Forces,” it said.

“The UAE remains committed to responsibly ensuring the safety of navigation in its seas,” it added, emphasising that the country is “committed to peaceful dialogue and diplomatic engagement”.

The UAE, a member of the CMF since 2004, did not give reasons for its decision, but analysts believe that officials were not satisfied with the performance of the CMF.

In late April and early May, Iran seized two tankers and one empty ship travelling between the UAE ports of Dubai and Fujairah. 

The US said earlier this month that it was sending reinforcements to the Gulf to counter what it called “increasing harassment by Iran.” Tehran responded by saying it was capable of ensuring the safety of Gulf waters in cooperation with neighbouring countries.

The CMF, headquartered at the US naval base in Bahrain, is a multinational maritime partnership that undertakes counterterrorism, counter-piracy, and regional cooperation. It was established in 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and it currently has 38 member nations.

A spokesperson for the US 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces said the UAE remained a partner nation, despite its putting its participation on hold. “The CMF still includes 38 partner nations, of which the UAE is one,” Commander Timothy Hawkins told the French news agency AFP.

“It defies reason that Iran, the number one cause of regional instability, claims it wants to form a naval security alliance to protect the very waters it threatens,” he told Breaking Defense, a digital news outlet.

There are several possible reasons for Abu Dhabi’s withdrawal from the CMF. One possibility is that it is unhappy with the way the CMF has been handling the situation in the Gulf. The UAE has been critical of the CMF’s failure to prevent Iran from seizing two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman in January 2023. 

Another possibility is that Abu Dhabi is looking to reduce its dependence on the US in order to strengthen its strategic autonomy and diversify its security partnerships.

It is also possible that the UAE is looking to save money. The withdrawal from the CMF could save the country millions of dollars each year, which could be used for other military and defence projects. 

Strategic shifts in the region may also have played a role in Abu Dhabi’s decision. The US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan has led to a view that the US is no longer a reliable partner for many countries in the region and its ability to project power has been diminished.

On the other hand, relations between Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have witnessed significant improvements.

Iran plans to reopen its diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia this week, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Monday,

“To implement the agreement [restoring diplomatic relations] Iran’s Embassy in Riyadh, our Consulate General in Jeddah, and our office to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation will be officially reopened on Tuesday and Wednesday,” Spokesman Nasser Kanaani said.

Last month, Tehran named Alireza Enayati as its ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The UAE resumed formal relations with Iran last year. It is widely believed that Bahrain and Iran will announce the return of their ambassadors soon.

In another sign of the improvement in the political atmosphere, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said this week that he would welcome the return of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Cairo.

There are indications of a steady improvement in relations between Egypt and Iran, and several rounds of talks have taken place, mediated by Iraq, to remove obstacles to the resumption of diplomatic relations and the return of ambassadors.

Nevertheless, resetting the region’s security and political arrangements is still a long way off. Building trust will take time, and Iran’s military expansionism could increase worries over Tehran’s long-term plans.

On Tuesday, Iran presented what officials described as its first domestically made hypersonic ballistic missile, the official IRNA News Agency reported.

Iranian state media published pictures of the missile named “Fattah” at a ceremony attended by President Ebrahim Raisi and commanders of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“The precision-guided Fattah hypersonic missile has a range of 1,400 km and is capable of penetrating all defence shields,” Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the guards’ aerospace force, was quoted as saying by Iranian state media. 

The announcement is likely to heighten concerns about Tehran’s missile capabilities. Hypersonic missiles can fly at least five times the speed of sound and on a complex trajectory that makes them difficult to intercept.

The accuracy of the Iranian announcement cannot be independently validated, and Western military analysts say Tehran exaggerates its missile capabilities. 

Iran’s message on the missiles is mainly directed at the US and Israel, but Tehran knows that every regional power will also take notice.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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