Recent statements by the head of the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, about Iran’s plans to establish a permanent station in Antarctica have, unsurprisingly, attracted considerable attention and some skepticism. Whatever Irani’s aspirations and intentions – and those of others in the hierarchy of the Iranian regime, if indeed the remarks are not solely the initiative of the navy chief – they warrant careful and cautious consideration.
What are the options available to Iran in the Antarctic, and what level of Antarctic engagement may be feasible for it? This entails consideration of Iran’s actual capabilities, resources, and motivations in the context of its Antarctic ambitions, the operational realities for anybody conducting activities in Antarctica, and the architecture and norms of the international system in place to manage Antarctic affairs.
One of the authors is an Iranian researcher, living outside Iran, with expertise in polar matters and international law, and the other is a New Zealand-based specialist in Antarctic geopolitics and governance within the Antarctic regime. Together, we hope that we can provide an informed perspective on these matters.
What Did Irani Say?
This is the second time Iran’s navy head has spoken publicly on Iranian plans for Antarctica in 2023. In May, Irani had said the navy was planning an expedition to the region. This was in the context of the Iranian Navy’s 2022 round-the-world deployment of its 86th Flotilla, which was said to have “deployed” to the Antarctic. In fact, the Iranian vessels, none of which appear to have been ice-strengthened, seem to have gone no further south than the Straits of Magellan.
In late September, Irani spoke of establishing a permanent base in Antarctica. This has been an aspiration of various Iranian scientific communities for the past decade, but thus far without evident advancement. In a separate story, it was reported that Irani included amongst his rationales for such an establishment that “the location of the South Pole is important for several reasons. Militarily, this area is the best location for controlling ballistic missiles and the enemy uses this area.” This proposition is without foundation.
“Our future plan is to proudly hoist the Iranian flag in Antarctica and undertake collaborative military and scientific efforts in that region,” Irani told IRIB TV1 television channel during a program to mark the anniversary of the 1980-88 Iraqi war on Iran. Asked whether this meant setting up a permanent base in Antarctica, Irani said, “Inshallah (God willing)… It is not just military work. There has to be scientific work and our dear scientists are preparing to implement a joint effort in line with the guidelines of Leader of Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.”
The admiral stressed that the Iranian Navy should first send a research team to Antarctica to survey the conditions there. “Moreover, in order to build a base, certain things that are necessary for construction must be taken into account, and the most important thing is that we must have constant contact with this base.” He continued by saying, “We are trying to send a group to that region for environmental studies. Today, there is this self-belief, and in our opinion, this capability exists in the country.” He added that the Iranian Navy has to build icebreakers to be able to sail in the ice.
Capacity to Engage With Antarctica
Operating in Antarctica does not come cheap. To state the obvious, the environment is challenging, access is extremely difficult, and (particularly for a northern hemisphere state such as Iran), the Antarctic is a long way from home. But Iran is a technically sophisticated state, as capable as a number of other states that are present in Antarctica, and many more that are engaged with the international governance system for the Antarctic (the Antarctic Treaty System) but without maintaining Antarctic stations or much in the way of Antarctic activity.
North Korea has been a non-consultative party (NCP) to the Antarctic Treaty since 1987; it joined during the international discussions around a minerals resource regime. It does not maintain a station or any active science program, and although Pyongyang generally doesn’t turn up for the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs), it is entitled to do so, and on occasion does.
Pakistan maintained a rudimentary Antarctic station, Jinnah, for a while and became a NCP in 2012. Again, it currently has no Antarctic presence and doesn’t turn up to ATCMs – but it could.
So, capacity is not a rate limiting step for a low level of Antarctic engagement of some sort, including a minimal presence in the Antarctic. The question is, what sort of Antarctic engagement does Iran aspire to? Seemingly, from Admiral Irani’s statements, Iran seeks a physical presence (a station) from which it may conduct desired activities – both legitimate scientific research and definitely illegitimate military activities (which are prohibited under the Antarctic Treaty) – and a national logistics capacity (ships) that would enable its access. A subset of the capacity question is the timelines for realizing these facets of Antarctic engagement. And part of the context in which those issues will be resolved is the international framing within which all the states currently operating in Antarctica interact.
Joining the International Antarctic Governance Regime of the Antarctic Treaty System
Frankly, the Antarctic Treaty System is where the action is – the “seat at the table,” the place where the international community discusses Antarctic affairs, and the place where the top-tier members (Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties, or ATCPs) make the decisions. But a country can conduct activities in Antarctica before it accedes to the Antarctic Treaty. This is what Pakistan and other states have done – and of course all of the original signatories who are now decision-making ATCPs to the Antarctic Treaty had by definition first operated in Antarctica before the adoption of the Treaty in 1959. So, this is neither a novel nor an improper approach to Antarctic engagement.
A state could even operate in Antarctica and never seek to join the Antarctic Treaty System, if it could weather the diplomatic pressure to do so. But if even North Korea “joined,” why would Iran seek not to, particularly if it would have supporters?
Acceding to the Antarctic Treaty as an NCP does not require permission or consensus on the part of existing Antarctic states. Article XIII of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty deals with this in Paragraph 1:
The present Treaty shall be subject to ratification by the signatory States. It shall be open for accession by any State which is a Member of the United Nations, or by any other State which may be invited to accede to the Treaty with the consent of all the Contracting Parties whose representatives are entitled to participate in the meetings provided for under Article IX of the Treaty.
Iran is a Member of the U.N., and thus it may accede to the Treaty without any requirement for invitation. Once it has acceded, Iran would be free to attend the ATCMs under the terms of Paragraph 2 of Article IX of the Antarctic Treaty:
Each Contracting Party which has become a party to the present Treaty by accession under Article XIII shall be entitled to appoint representatives to participate in the meetings referred to in paragraph 1 of the present Article, during such times as that Contracting Party demonstrates its interest in Antarctica by conducting substantial research activity there, such as the establishment of a scientific station or the despatch of a scientific expedition.
Note that the demonstration of interest is no longer taken as requiring a separate national station; even one of the significant ATCPs (the Netherlands) does not have one. As an NCP Iran would not have a right to participate in decision-making – that’s confined to the ATCPs – but there has long been a practice of otherwise accepting NCPs as participants in the meetings. Iran would at least be at the table and able to table papers and speak.
The Geopolitical Context
The “rogue state” framing of Iran will likely mean opposition from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea, along with Western European and possibly South American ATCPs. But plainly North Korea has not been debarred on these grounds, and one might assume that Iran’s accession would be welcomed by Russia, Belarus, North Korea, China, and possibly South Africa and others, given evidence of their increasing collaboration in relation to their respective approaches to the Russo-Ukrainian War, and Iran’s inclusion in the expanded BRICS+ community following the 2023 South African meeting. Might some or all of these states see benefit in “growing” their community of like-minded Antarctic states?
There is a further, and tragic, out of area consideration, namely perceptions of Iran’s role in relation to the ongoing warfare in southern Israel and the Gaza Strip, and whether Tehran has, or has not, had a direct hand in supporting Hamas. This seems likely to have worsened Iran’s standing with at least a part of the international community.
We need to be alert to the geopolitical focus on future Antarctic resource access, as we close on 2048, after which time it becomes possible, if not necessary, to review the Antarctic system and its present minerals activity prohibition. If the community-of-interest argument has validity – and in the wider geopolitical context it has been suggested that Russia is mobilizing an “axis of the sanctioned” – then the driver of Iranian Antarctic engagement is conceivably not solely Iran’s national interest, central as that no doubt is.
These musings open up another possibility for Iran, namely that its operations in Antarctica need not require entirely autonomous activity, but that it might piggy-back operationally (or significantly collaborate with) an established Antarctic state, most obviously the Russia, but possibly also China. This is the model followed by Belarus – since 2006 an NCP which is currently seeking ATCP status, probably with negligible prospects under present circumstances.
Were Iran of a mind to accept this option, this might mean Iranian Antarctic activity nested within (say) that of the Russian Federation. Alternatively, Iran might establish a separate station co-located, or close by, an existing Russian station, allowing it to benefit from Russia’s established logistics arrangements – to which Iran might become a contributor, as with other international arrangements in the Antarctic. So again, capacity need not be rate limiting, and a bridging mechanism might be available until such time as Iran could fully sustain an autonomous Antarctic presence.
That said, states operating in Antarctica are generally dependent for Antarctic access upon transit and port arrangements with the southern “Gateway” ports: Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – all ATCPs and original signatories and, apart from South Africa, claimants. Would this access be available for Iran? Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russian ships and aircraft bound for the Antarctic are seemingly only able to routinely operate via South Africa. Would it be the same for Iran?
Iran is capable of funding, mounting, and sustaining some sort of national Antarctic project. It could likely get to Antarctica – either through chartering an ice-strengthened vessel (although Western states might be successful in prohibiting or deterring such chartering through existing sanctions arrangements) or through the support of an existing Antarctic active state, most likely from within the BRICS community.
Iran is capable of funding, building, staffing, and sustaining an Antarctic station, certainly a summer-only station, and probably a year-round facility.
The costs of Iran seeking to pursue a military function for any station or ground infrastructure in Antarctica seem prohibitive in diplomatic and conventional power projection terms. It is difficult to see any existing Antarctic state (Russia and China included) being willing to ignore, let alone support, an overtly military purpose facility or usage in Antarctica. This would be to challenge a still common purpose of regional demilitarization across the Antarctic community. Antarctic demilitarization faces challenges at the margin, not in relation to the totemic commitment to exclude conventional military uses.
Whether funded from the civilian scientific center or from the better endowed military and security state budgets, Iran would likely be able to sustain some sort of scientific research program in Antarctica. Whether this would be a significant program is another matter – and probably a matter of funding rather than any inherent incapacity within the Iranian scientific and technical community. To be frank, this is a moot point because a number of the existing Antarctic states – generally amongst the NCPs but even one or two Consultative Parties – have objectively weak scientific research programs. This is not something that precludes a state engaging operationally in the Antarctic nor being recognized as a participant within the Antarctic Treaty System.
Among even more robust programs, there are still states whose activity remains functionally separated across civilian and military services, and military support and equipment is allowed for peaceful purposes in support of scientific research and logistics. So, Iran need not be novel even if its military were to have a significant role in its Antarctic presence. This is not to say that we are advocates for a militarized national presence in Antarctica by Iran or any other state – we are not.
However one personally views an Iranian interest in the Antarctic, and the possibility of it becoming active there, there are surely questions of principle and consistency. Taking the first, if one sees insurmountable problems with the idea of Iran as an active Antarctic state, that position should be reached solely on the specific grounds that the present administration of the country poses intolerable risks to the Antarctic or the present international modus vivendi there. Most obviously, concerns arise because of the repressive nature of the present Iranian regime and its support for actions and organizations that other states take exception to.
Consistency then becomes an issue, since we plainly have states that are already parties to the Antarctic Treaty which have histories of internal repression, external aggression, and other disagreeable inclinations. Can one say that Iran is worse than these states, and so much worse that special measures to keep it out of the Antarctic are called for? It seems unlikely that there would anyway be a consensus across present Antarctic states to even attempt to exclude Iran.
Unsurprisingly, various U.S. military figures have expressed concern about any sort of Iranian Antarctic interest. While this may be reasonable in relation to Admiral Irani’s more outrageous military aspirations, it doesn’t take us very far in relation to the more realistic modalities of Iran in Antarctica, and risks fetishizing Iranian activities when something similar by other states does not excite us.
What are the risks of an Iranian presence? One could be that it arises as part and parcel of an emerging bloc identity within the ATS – the West vs. a Russian axis or BRICS+, most obviously. But there might also be a risk that the arrival of Iran in Antarctica stimulates other states from West Asia to join too. This is a region from which there are currently no Antarctic members. The issue is not that the states and peoples of this region lack legitimate interest in 10 percent of our common planet; the issue is that it will not aid anything to see the importation of regional antipathies into the ATS.
So, to cut to the chase, would an Iranian presence trigger a Saudi and/or an Israeli Antarctic engagement, or accelerate the already underway Turkish Antarctic interests – all of which may anyway be stimulated by the reappearance of the Antarctic resources issue as we close on 2048? And might there be unhelpful Antarctic feedbacks into the Middle East in turn?
To end on a more positive note, let’s turn the question on its head: Could we envision an engagement with Iran in the Antarctic as a mechanism for building cooperation elsewhere?