Building deep-water ports at home and abroad has been a hallmark of many of the world’s emerging powers. The ‘String of Pearls’ policy is arguably the most notable recent example, with the Chinese government upgrading its own ports, as well as those of countries on which it relies for trade and that have strategic geographic importance.
Such a strategy, which in China’s case has included construction of deep-water ports in Gwadar in Pakistan and Chittagong in Bangladesh, benefits both the emerging power and the developing countries being invested in. These ports have significant value, increasing the strategic importance of countries that have them, as well as boosting their economic status by enhancing their ability to expand their import and export capacities.
Yet despite all these potential benefits, it’s an area in which the Islamic Republic of Iran has been falling behind. Its southern ports can only accommodate 100,000 ton ships, meaning any ship above that capacity carrying goods for Iran has to dock in United Arab Emirates ports such as Fajirah and Jabal Ali, whereupon their cargo is loaded onto smaller ships and brought to Iran.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
So does all this really matter? When a diplomat from one of the states that provides your country a trading lifeline floats the possibility of war with you, then it most certainly does.
With the increase in both the number of 250,000 ton ships and the number of shipping companies operating in the Persian Gulf turning to them, Iran is already losing out on potential income. Meanwhile, every year, Iranian companies lose hundreds of millions—if not billions of dollars—in port handling fees to the UAE port authorities for handling ships that have goods for Iran.
Perhaps most troubling for Iranian policymakers, though, is the UAE’s proximity to the anti-Iran, pro-sanctions camp. The potential difficulties first became evident with the recent closure of 40 international and local firms as part of a crackdown on companies that violate UN sanctions on Iran.
But concerns likely reached new highs after a UAE diplomat openly endorsed a military attack against Iran, stating that ‘the benefits of bombing Iran’s nuclear programme outweigh the short-term costs such an attack would impose.’ Although his government may later deny this as being policy, the fact remains that a growing number of visiting politicians to Persian Gulf countries are coming back with the message that many of these countries are extremely worried about having to live with a nuclear-armed Iran.