The Guardian: Iran yesterday signalled its intention to extend its military presence in the world's most important oil conduit, opening a new naval base at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and adding weight to its threats to choke off oil supplies, if the Islamic Republic came under attack.
• Move boosts Tehran threat to choke vital oil supply
• Extent of forces at site remains unclear
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
Iran yesterday signalled its intention to extend its military presence in the world's most important oil conduit, opening a new naval base at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and adding weight to its threats to choke off oil supplies, if the Islamic Republic came under attack.
The inauguration of the new base at Jask was announced by Iran's naval commander, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, who said it represented a new line of defence, blocking the entry of the "enemy" into the Persian Gulf and the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, the gateway through which 40% of the world's traded oil passes each day.
As international tensions have grown over Iran's nuclear programme and US allegations of Iranian involvement in Iraq's insurgency, the US has reinforced its naval presence, keeping two aircraft carriers and their battle groups in the Gulf for long periods this year, instead of one. The USS Ronald Reagan and USS Theodore Roosevelt carriers are currently on patrol, and being used for sorties over Iraq.
Nato and the EU have announced plans to dispatch more ships to the Gulf of Aden in the coming months. The move is aimed at combating Somali-based pirates and escorting food aid deliveries in the Horn of Africa, but the naval build-up has been viewed with suspicion in Tehran.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy has also moved to bolster naval presence in the Gulf, signing a deal with Abu Dhabi to site a new base on the Emirate's coast. There is an ongoing dispute between Iran and Abu Dhabi over possession of three small islands in the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran's deputy army commander, Brigadier General Abdul-Rahim Moussavi, commenting on the base's inauguration, said it would represent an "impenetrable naval barrier". As speculation has waxed and waned in recent months over the possibility of a US or an Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, the Iranian government has threatened a multi-pronged response, including the possible closure of the Strait of Hormuz.
Iranian naval doctrine is focused on asymmetric attacks against western navies using swarms of small high-speed fibreglass boats armed with anti-ship missiles under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC would rely on strength in numbers and surprise, calling it a "presence everywhere and nowhere doctrine".
Iran's regular navy is comparatively small, comprising three frigates, two corvettes, and three "kilo" class submarines. It is currently based at the northern shore of the Strait of Hormuz, at Bandar Abbas. Jason Alderwick, a naval expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Jask would offer some important advantages.
"It is in a better position strategically than Bandar Abbas," Alderwick said. "It has access to the Arabian sea, so there is deep water access straight away. It has a commanding position vis-à-vis access to the straights, being forward, to the east for them. The real question is what forces are going to be based there? At this stage it's unclear what the Iranians are going to station there, for example, if they want to re-site their submarines there. That would be significant."
Lee Willett, the head of maritime studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said the mere announcement of a new base could be an end in itself. "The cynic would say that any time Iranians say something about the Gulf the oil prices go up, and they are oil exporters, so they are going to make some money," Willett said.