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.
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.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Iran’s leaders. To try and address the problem, the Iranian government is now placing tenders for the expansion of port facilities at Qeshm island, which is located a few kilometres off the southern coast of Iran, opposite the port city of Bandar Abbas. However, the new port on its own won’t be sufficient, as the island is detached from the mainland. To remedy this problem, the Iranian government also intends to build a new bridge to connect Qeshm to the mainland, thus allowing the cargo offloaded from the ships to be transported more easily and efficiently into Iran using trucks or cargo trains.
The new UN sanctions imposed under resolution 1929 are likely to have added a new urgency to the project. According to these new sanctions, ships going to Iran could be searched in international waters. Iran has warned against such measures, but due to their size, some of the ships destined for Iran have no choice but to dock at UAE ports since Iran’s own ports are for the time being unable to handle them. This could make it much easier for countries wishing to enforce the new UN sanctions—all they would have to do is wait until the ships are inside UAE territorial waters, and then search them. And Iranian authorities would be powerless to stop this as the ships will be in the territorial waters of another country.
Although it’s unclear when construction will actually begin, much less how long it will take for Iran to complete this project, the fact that it has decided to embark on such a venture will be welcome news for reformists and conservatives alike. Despite the backslapping and the complimentary words that are exchanged between UAE and Iranian leaders during bilateral summits, many Iranians have resented their country’s overt reliance on the emirates. In addition, the fact that UAE businessmen have been one of the biggest benefactors from the sanctions previously imposed by the United States is not lost on Iranians.
And there’s also the question of nationalist pride. Why should Iran, a country with thousands of years of civilization and that sees itself as a superpower depend on a country that’s barely more than 40 years-old for something as vital as its shipping needs?
With new UN, as well as EU and US sanctions looming, some of its Persian Gulf neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, may try and use Iran’s increasing isolation and its dependence on the UAE to further weaken its position. Of course, this wouldn’t be an easy job—Iran has other important levers, such as its influence in Iraq, to ward off the Saudis. But it’s unlikely to stop the Saudis from trying—and asking other countries such as the UAE to join them in a regional campaign to hurt Iran’s interests. After all, they did it during the 1980 Iraq-Iran war by supporting Saddam Hussein. They could do it again.