Iran’s Comeback to the Mediterranean

From the Achaemenid Empire to the Islamic Republic · After a very long absence, Iran settles back in the Mediterranean, reviving a very old history dating back to the Achaemenid Empire. But this deployment is less a matter of imperial will than a strategy of sanctuarization of the national territory.

Last September, the Trump administration in the person of John Bolton, the President’s National Security adviser, announced that the US would keep troops in Syria [as long as Iran’s military presence there is maintained. While this decision is in line with the US strategy of containment towards Iranian influence since Trump arrived in the White House, it is also in response to a major geopolitical event: Iran’s return to the Mediterranean shores. Its interventions there are a source of worries and questionings, all the more so as the Iranians have not had anything to do with that region since the Arabs conquered Persia in the 6th C. BC. We must study the history of Iran’s relations with the Mediterranean to understand how exceptional that presence is and why it is mainly due to the ways of thinking inherent to the very nature of the Islamic Republic.

The History of an Ephemeral Presence

The Achaemenid Empire, which is considered the earliest “Iranian” political entity came into contact with the Mediterranean at the time of the conquest of Babylonia and Asia Minor by the founder of the dynasty, “Cyrus the Great” (600-530 BC). However, it was his successor, Cambyses II (died in 522 BC), described by Herodotus as “the conqueror of the sea” and ruler of a large share of Persian territories on the Mediterranean shores. While this assertion is difficult to verify, it says a great deal about the role played by that sea in the strategy of the Achaemenids. Controlling it was essentially meant to ensure Persian hegemony in the Middle East. Indeed, as Pierre Briant explains in From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (Eisenbrauns, 2002), the Achaemenids could not allow a power such as Egypt to hold sway in the Mediterranean at the risk of seeing their own authority challenged in Babylonia and Asia Minor. Thus, in the 5th C. BC, the Achaemenid Empire established itself as a major maritime power, in control of the whole Eastern Mediterranean. However, Achaemenid domination did not last long. The naval defeat off Salamis in 480 BC at the hands of the Athenian fleet turned back the invasion of Greece during the second Greco-Persian war1. Moreover, the Mediterranean coast was the scene of many uprisings (Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, op. cit.). However, it should be stressed that controlling the Mediterranean was not a priority for the Persian Empire. As most of its sea trade passed through the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, the Mediterranean was a secondary theatre of operations for the Persian fleet, except in time of war.

Alexander the Great’s conquests in the 4th C. BC put an end to Persia’s domination and its naval power. It was only a century later that Iranian power was to be resurrected under the Parthian Dynasty (247 BC – 224 vAD). Despite recurrent conflicts with the Diadochoi (Hellenistic kingdoms resulting from the break-up of Alexander’s empire) and later with the Roman Empire, the Parthians never managed to reconquer the Mediterranean shores.

It was not until the final years of Sassanid domination2 that Iran succeeded in temporarily recovering its access to the Mediterranean in 620. But the Empire was weakened by these conquests. Exhausted and bankrupt from years of war with the Byzantine Empire, it finally succumbed under the onslaughts of the Arab tribes united by Muhammad (637). It was the Arab conquest that put an end to Iran’s presence in the Mediterranean basin.

Thus Iran has had a Mediterranean seafront only in the time of the Achaemenid Empire. The recovery of that region was never a major issue for the Persians’ successors, who focused their efforts on Mesopotamia and Armenia, areas which belonged to their “sphere of influence”. Thus, when the Safavids (1501 to 1736), who restored the power of Iran, warred with the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 18th centuries, it was the possession of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and of the Caucuses which were at stake. The Mediterranean was too far away from Persia to ever be an issue in those wars. In reality, today’s return of Iran to the Mediterranean shores must not be seen as an irredentism handed down by Iranian history but as a decision dictated by the specific interests of the Islamic Republic.

Between Revolutionary Rhetoric and “Realpolitik”

Starting in the 18th C., Iranian power, faced with Russia and the arrival of the British in the Middle East, began to decline. The country was not to become a regional power again until after WW2 under the rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980). The restoration of Iranian might had become a national priority, a policy backed up with massive weaponry purchases from the United States which made the shah their chief ally in the Middle East. However, despite of the Iranian sovereign’s ambition of becoming the regional “policeman,” Iran had little interest in the Mediterranean. The shah’s main concern was the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, where Iran sent troops in support of the reigning Oman dynasty in 1971. The overthrow of the monarchy in 1979 and the advent of the Islamic Republic brought a complete overhaul of the country’s foreign policy.

For the new strong man in Tehran, the Ayatollah Khomeiny, the Islamic Revolution was not to be viewed as a purely national or Shiite movement, but rather as a planetary one meant to overthrow the established order in every Muslim country. Indeed, the new regime felt duty-bound to export the Islamic revolution throughout the world with the help of various dissident groups abroad. Its support of the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas must be understood in the light of this revolutionary paradigm. And Iranian interference in the countries bordering on the Mediterranean is justified by this determination to export the revolution. While these interventions had a low profile up to the end of the 20th C., they became increasingly visible following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. By overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the Americans eliminated Iran’s chief adversary and gave the regime a chance to meddle in the internal affairs of that country. In fact, the Islamic Republic was able to step up its relations with its “Mediterranean” allies, Hezbollah and Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian regime, with Iraq serving as a bridge between Iran and the Mediterranean. However, the actuality of that influence has more to do with issues of realpolitik. Iran is essentially trying to set up levers of regional action to ensure its own security against its American and Israeli enemies.

Indeed, the Syrian revolution of 2011 is seen as a threat in Tehran where there is a fear of losing one of its rare allies in the region (we must remember that Syria was the only Arab country to support Iran in the war against Iraq). Iran’s intervention in Syria is not to be explained solely by a logic of confessional rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis, but is chiefly motivated by the geopolitical interests of the Islamic Republic. Thus Iran has provided precious aid to its Syrian ally, deploying an estimated 10 000 troops in Syria. According to one Western diplomat, this support has cost Iran 10 billion dollars. Moreover, the Islamic Republic is now considering the construction of a new land corridor connecting Iran with the Mediterranean, a clear indication that its actions in Syria are obeying a logic which is more geostrategic than ideological.

In addition, it is believed that the regime intends to build military bases on Syrian territory, which is a source of increased tensions with Israel and its US ally. Until now, Iran’s presence in Syria has been confined to military matters, but is now becoming economic, as the Iranians are jockeying to win construction contracts or even concessions for the exploitation of natural resources in post-war Syria. Indeed, the Islamic Republic intends to reap the “benefits” of its costly participation in the Syrian conflict.

A survey of the history of Iran’s relationship to the Mediterranean shows that the dynamics of Iranian geopolitics have not made that distant sea one of the country’s major concerns. And since the Mediterranean shores lie outside the Iranian sphere of influence from an historical point of view, the Islamic Republic’s intervention in Lebanon and Syria may seem surprising and worrisome. Some US experts even regard it as an attempt to rebuild the Persian empire. However, while Iranian interventionism in the region can indeed be understood in the ideological light of Khomeiny’s original doctrine, but mostly in a geostrategic light involving the Islamic Republic’s need to ensure its own security. The regime’s survival appears to lie at the centre of the regional politics of the Republic’s decision makers, all of whom experienced the torments of the Iran-Iraq war. So that in fact, Iranian presence on the Mediterranean shores is part of a strategy of national “sanctuarisation”3, and not some kind of Persian imperialism aimed at restoring the borders of an ancient empire.

1These took place between the 6th and 5th centuries BC.

2Iranian dynasty, successor of the Parthian from 224 to 651 AD.

3To learn more about the Iranian regime’s security policies, see Ariane M. Tabatabai and Annie Tracy Samuel, “What the Iran-Iraq War Tells Us about the Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal,” International Security, vol. 42, N° 1, summer 2017: pp. 152–185.