Iranian naval forces are key to maintaining and expanding Tehran's weapons smuggling routes. In 2007, Tehran restructured the Iranian navy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy, putting the corps' naval focus on the Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. This allowed the more traditional Iranian navy to focus on blue-water efforts that would expand Tehran's naval influence, specifically in the triangle connecting the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca and the Bab el Mandeb strait. Bab el Mandeb is of great importance to Iran, because it is a natural choke point between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Iran's focus on expansion in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea serves several purposes. First, it establishes an Iranian presence along a key transportation route where Iran can protect its vessels from Somali pirates. Second, it is a military tactic, giving the Iranian navy influence outside the Persian Gulf — something Tehran believes is necessary for its success as a regional power. As Iran attempts to move its navy toward a blue-water capability, the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea will be where developments occur first. Finally, it supports Iran's goals in eastern Africa. Iran's navy is not advanced enough to challenge other navies in the region, but the maritime presence in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea allows the Iranians to provide cover for their weapons smuggling routes to the north.
Diplomacy on the Southern Red Sea Coast
Tehran uses its naval presence in the region as a form of soft diplomacy to maintain good relations with Eritrea and Sudan (and, to a lesser extent, Djibouti) all while supporting its onshore goals in the region. Iranian tankers and other vessels, including military vessels, frequently dock at the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab and at Port Sudan. In 2008, Eritrean opposition figures even claimed that Eritrea had allowed Iran to establish a naval base at Assab, near the entrance to the Bab el Mandeb strait. Tehran has also used its relationship with Eritrea to aid Yemen's al-Houthi rebels who, like the Iranians, are Shia (although the Yemeni rebels belong to a different sect).
Port Sudan's proximity to Gaza, Egypt and Israel make it an excellent location for smuggling arms northward. In 2009, Israel launched three airstrikes against weapons shipments in Sudan that were believed to be from Iran heading toward Gaza. In 2011, Khartoum blamed Israel for another strike on Port Sudan that killed two people. Leaked cables also indicate that the West warned Khartoum not to allow Tehran to arm Hamas militants during the 2008-2009 Gaza War.
Since Tehran's relations with Saudi Arabia and Yemen — on the northern coastlines of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden — are sour, these ties to countries on the southern coastlines have become a strategic necessity for Iran's ambitions beyond the Persian Gulf. Iran has been able to deploy more ships farther from the Gulf since 2007. For example, in 2011, for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian naval vessels passed through the Suez Canal. With Egypt's new Islamist president seeking to work with Iran on a solution for Syria, Iran could gain greater access to Egyptian waters, especially as Cairo attempts to use Tehran as leverage to manage Israel.
Iran's navy cannot project enough power to control key shipping lanes, but Tehran has emphasized its presence around Bab el Mandeb as a possible means of disrupting global trade in the event of an attack on Iran and a key point for negotiations in the future, much like the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran's maritime presence also helps support anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and northwestern Indian Ocean. Iran's navy has been a successful interdictor of Somali piracy since 2008, when Somali pirates hijacked an Iranian chartered cargo ship off the Yemeni coast. While countering piracy protects Iranian trade vessels from Somali pirates, it also provides a rationale for the Iranian navy's presence off the coast of eastern Africa, allowing it to discreetly augment Iran's activities on land, such as weapons trafficking through Sudan.
Iran's Land-Based Operations in Africa
Iran has used not only the Sudanese coastline but also Eritrea and possibly Djibouti or Somalia to smuggle arms onto land before shipping them to their destination. Eastern Africa’s porous borders make smuggling along land routes relatively easy.
Tehran uses the land routes in eastern Africa to smuggle weapons and stage anti-Israeli attacks. The Yarmouk factory in Khartoum, where the explosion occurred Oct. 24, is believed to manufacture ammunition and rocket artillery destined for Gaza and the al-Houthi rebels in Yemen. The factory is thought to have ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and is said to be staffed by Iranians. In June, two members of the corps' Quds Force were arrested in Kenya and were found in possession of the explosive RDX. The RDX could have been bound for a smuggling route, or it could have been meant for use in an attack on Israeli interests in Kenya. In Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002 an Israeli-owned hotel was bombed and two surface-to-air missiles were fired at an Israeli chartered jet in attacks believed to have been conducted by al Qaeda's East Africa branch.
Tehran has used the land routes not only to smuggle weapons and drugs into Gaza but also to move trafficked goods back to Iran. During the 2011-2012 Arab unrest, Libyan weapons were smuggled to Sudan, and Israel has said those weapons went back to Iran before they were sent to Hezbollah, likely through Syria.
As Israel's attacks on weapons convoys in Sudan illustrate, Israel is paying attention to Iran's smuggling routes in eastern Africa and attempting to interdict Tehran's weapons shipments to the north. Iran's use of additional smuggling routes in Kenya and Tanzania, south of the African horn, could limit Israel's ability to interrupt Iran's trafficking operations by spreading those operations across a larger area.