Iran has been seeking to establish that it is the hegemonial power in the Middle East. Its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave an interview to the Iranian daily Ressalat on July 7, 1991, and asked a rhetorical question: “Do we look to preserve the integrity of our land, or to we look to its expansion?” He then answered his own question: “We must definitely look to expansion.” And indeed, in the years that followed, Iranian forces have been involved in regional subversion from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Khamenei’s spokesman, Hossein Shariatmadari, wrote on July 9, 2007: “Bahrain is part of Iran’s soil.” For the last 20 years, the Iranian leadership has been remarkably consistent.
Now Iran wants to demonstrate that its naval power is not just confined to the Persian Gulf, within its immediate neighborhood, but that its warships can reach as far as the Mediterranean Sea. This mission is well beyond what might be expected of the Iranian Navy. It should be remembered that the regular Iranian Navy still consists of relatively old ships from the time of the Shah, which its commanders hope to modernize with new weapons systems, particularly naval missiles. According to a report by the Office of U.S. Naval Intelligence, the Iranian Navy is preparing itself to project its power beyond the Strait of Hormuz with new naval bases in the Gulf of Oman that will be ready in 2015. Previously, Iranian warships have in fact reached Sudan and Somalia, but they have not entered the Mediterranean. Moreover, Iran’s other naval force that belongs to the Revolutionary Guards specializes in the use of small naval craft within the Persian Gulf that are being trained for “guerilla war at sea.”
The limits of Iranian naval power suggest that the dispatch of Iranian ships to the Suez Canal is political and not based on any ambitious military mission. It is a case of naval diplomacy. In short, a Mediterranean deployment was clearly premature for the Iranian Navy. What then could be the mission of the Iranian warships? What is the political message that their deployment suggests? Up until this month, Egypt led the Sunni Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which have been seeking to contain the spread of Iranian power. However, with Egypt neutralized for now, the Iranians want to send a signal that they are prepared to fill the vacuum created by the fall of President Mubarak by dispatching warships through the Suez Canal for the first time.
From the perspective of the Iranian leadership, which reiterates on multiple occasions that the U.S. and the rest of the West are powers in decline, there is likely a view that the fact that Washington could not help its old ally, Mubarak, means that U.S. power in the Middle East is waning. Looking at events in Cairo from Tehran, it appears that America cannot defend what should have been its own interests (it does not matter that President Obama had no intention of saving Mubarak). Indeed, already in April 2009, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Washington: “We say to you today that you are in a position of weakness. Your hands are empty and you can no longer promote your interests from a position of strength.” The Iranian naval move is a simple signal: wherever the U.S. withdraws from, Iran will be there to enter. Should Iran cross the nuclear weapons threshold, this kind of assertiveness will only increase.