Tehran’s Corridor to the Mediterranean Sea

 

EURO Politika –  Analysis [EN]                                                                                                    By Nimet KARAASLAN

 

Introduction

The importance of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea from the strategic, economic and political angles has prompted both the regional powers and the global ones, as well, to take an interest in this region and to enter into competitions for strength there.  Although Iran does not have a shore on the Eastern Mediterranean, it is loath to see itself left out of this competition and by making some agreements with regional powers it has given itself a chance to have a say in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In Iran’s historic past, it had a policy aimed at reaching the Mediterrean Sea and achieving domination of the region.  Now, Iran is intent on establishing an overland corridor that will guarantee it some economic and political gains in the region.  The alternative routes Iran is considering for overland corridors would pass through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, so its relations with those countries are very important.  Meanwhile, certain global powers that are external to the region have concluded agreements with regional countries in order to gain entry into the quest for energy resouces and domination.  They, too, aim to be stakeholders in the eastern Mediterranean and, to this end, are trying to affect the regional balance of power.

In this article, the importance of the eastern Mediterranean, Iran’s overland corridor alternatives and primarily the global powers’ views of the corridor issue will be examined.

 

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Eastern Mediterranean and Its İmportance

The name ‘Mediterranean’ we use today comes from the Latin ‘Mediterraneus’.  It means ‘the place between countries’ or ‘the central place of the Earth’.  The names spring from the fact that ancient civilizations blossomed here, wars were fought here for world domination, and the region’s strategic importance.  (Güngör 2019 p.203) The French historian Fernand Braudel said with regard to the Mediterranean Sea that “it constitutes an entire transportation system from here to there, with seaways and highways that connect to one another,including small, mid-size and large cities in a never-ending flow of pathways.”  (Öztekin 2020 p. 5)

 

Photo: Shutterstock

 

When looked at from the perspetive of geography and politics, the Mediterranean can be bisected between Tunisia and Malta , with the right side constituting the eastern Mediterranean, including Italy, Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt Tunisia and Libya, and the left side the western Mediterranean including Spain, Italy, France, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Malta, Albania, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco (Kedikli, Çağlayan 2017 p. 122).  It can be said that the eastern Mediterranean Sea region is bordered by Italy, Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. (Öztekin 2020 p.4)

For centuries the eastern Mediterranean has been the scene of struggles for economic, political and military domination.  Today, as well, it remains a strategic focal point for the world’s natural resources, the flow of industrial and commercial products and air and sea routes. (Güngör 2019 p.204) This crossroads of three continents and many civilizations, was also the home to critical port citieshaving importance vis-a-vis the Silk Road.  And with the recent revival of the ancient Silk Road, the attention of both China and the regional countries has been grabbed tightly.  As a result, the eastern Mediterranean may become the home of new transportation hubs and ports for the riches of the East to flow the West. (Öztekin 2020, P.4-5)  In this regard, there are three important factors at play in the eastern Mediterranean.  Firstly, it is at the intersection of Africa, Asia and Europe.  Secondly, it includes the important straits of Gibralter and the Dardenelles-Istanbul Bosphorus, along with other international seaways.  Thirdly, its potential for natural gas and oil resources.  As energy explorations have increased there in recent years,  so has the importance of the eastern Mediterranean.  The discovery of oil and gas deposits in 2008 made the region an energy focal point.  In a 2020 report, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) stated that the reserves in the Levant basin of the eastern Mediterranean region were comparable to those of Iraq, and that the estimated gas reserves equalled 3,455 billion cubic meters (bcm). (Uslu 2019, p.225)

According to this same report, the estimated oil reserves in the Nile Delta basin amount to 1.8 billion barrels of oil, 6.3 trillion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas reserves, and 6 million barrels of liquid natural gas reserves. The estimate for the oil reserves in the area surrounding the island of Cyprus was 8 million barrels.  In the area comprised of Heredot in the southeast of Cyprus and surrounding regions, the estimated natural gas reserves amount to 3.5 trillion cubic meters (bcm). (Aksoy 2016 p.2).  Looking closely at the report, it can be seen that in the area around Cyprus, to include the Leviathon field between Israel and Cyrpus, the Nile region between Cyrpus and Egypt and the Heredot region in southeast Cyprus, the total energy reserves amount to the equivalent of 30 billion barrels of oil, which equates to a value of about $1.5 trillion dollars. (Uslu 2019 p.226)

The table below shows the natural gas amounts discovered recently in the eastern Mediterranean:

 

Field name Estimated reserves

(billion cubic meters)

Country of Ownership Year of Discovery Production Year
Aphrodite 198-198,2 Republic of Cyrpus 2011 2019
Leviathan 509-509,7 Israel/Palestine 2010 2019
Tamar 280-283,3 Israel/Palestine 2009 2013
Karish 50,9-51 Israel/Palestine 2013 2020
Mari-B 42-42,5 Israel/Palestine 2000 2004
Tanin 33,9-34 Israel/Palestine 2012 2020
Gazze-Marine 28,3 Palestine 2000 2017
Dalit 14,2 Israel/Palestine 2009 2013
Shinshon 8,4-8,5 Israel/Palestine 2012 **
Dolpfin 2,2-2,3 Israel/Palestine 2011 2019
Noa 1,1 Israel/Palestine 1999 2012
Zohr 850 Egypt 2015 2017

Source: Effecton Regional Energy and Security Policies from the Oil and Gas Explorations in the Mediterranean.  Murat Önder-Nurettin Akıncı

The table below shows the estimated costs and production years for marketing gas extracted from the eastern Mediterranean:

 

Projects Concerned Countries Gas capacity Estimated Cost Estimated production year
LNG Facility Cyprus and Israel 7-14 10-15 2020
Pipeline Israel-Cyrpus-Greece 30-40 17-20 2020 and later
Pipeline Israel-Cyprus-Turkey 5-11 5-10 2023-2025
Pipeline Israel-Turkey 5-11 5-10 2023-2025

Source: Uslu,K. (2019) Joint projects for benefitting from the gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean

 https://www.avekon.org7papers/2348.pdf (Erişim Tarihi 30.09.2021)

The major hydrocarbon discoveries between 1990 and 2009 prompted renewed interest in Middle East energy fields. (Uslu 2019 p.224)  These new natural gas and oil reserves changed the region from an energy transport corridor to an energy production center. (Öztekin 2020 p.8)  The economic and political effect of the energy beds has had the force to impact the economic and political dynamics of the entire geography of the Middle East, not just the eastern Mediterranean.  At the top of priorities is the matter of energy consumption in Europe, which is keenly interested in the region’s energy reserves.  Europe is eager to reduce its energy dependence on Russia. (Aksoy 2016 p.2)

Both the region’s nations and global powers hope to acquire the energy resources of the Mediterranean. The various nations have entered into efforts in this regard, to the extent that even states external to the region have made agreements with other global powers in order to avoid being excluded from this energy competition.  As for the global powers themselves, rather than directly intervening in these regions, they are using local nations for various arrangements.  One of the Mediterranean’s most important aspects is being an energy resource center with the potential to feed the global powers. (Sınır Kantar 2021 pp. 30-31)

 

Iran’s Policy for Reaching the Eastern Mediterranean

The past of Iran’s policy of reaching the Mediterranean stretches back to the Sassanids.  Sassanid Shah Hüsrev II’s armies occupied the lands of Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Byzantium at the beginning of the 620 AD period and surrounded Constantinople, as well. In 330 BC, after the end of the Achaemenid Empire, Iran’s ties with the Mediterranean were cut, so its successes in reaching the Mediterranean were short-lived.  In other words, for 1,400 years Iran’s quest to reach the Mediterranean was kept under control.  (Adviani 2017 p.1)

By using the pressure of its religious regime on the region’s other countries, Iran aims to establish a number of overland corridors to the West in order to spread its influence and maintain its viability as a nation.  (Torres 2021 pp 1-4)  Creating a corridor that stretches from Iran’s western border through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, would mean that Iran has achieved its long-sought goal of reaching that sea. (Emil Advani )  The overland corridors would result in Iran gaining a say in matters affecting the eastern Mediterranean, one of the Middle East’s strategic regions, and establish its presence in that region.  (Askeroğlu 2020 )

It can be said that there are two routes in Iran’s policy of reaching the eastern Mediterranean.  The first route starts in Iran, passes through the territory of Iraq and Syria to reach the Mediterranean.  The second one would start in Iran and pass through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  For this reason, Iran’s relations with those three countries are particularly important. (El Züveyri 2017 p.18)

When it comes to Iran’s relations with Iraq, the Iraqi government during the time of Saddam Hussein was worried that the Iranian Revolution would spread into Iraq.  Additionally, a clash erupted over the Shattülarap waterway border and 41 years ago war began between Iran and Iraq, lasting for 8 years.  Afterwards, anti-Saddam groups were supported by Iran for 17 years and, as the consequence, pro-Iran groups took places in the political mechanism in Iraq and Iran gained a say in Iraq’s administration.  (Congar 2021)

Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1991 changed the strategic interests in the region and agitated both the nearby countries and Western countries.  The resulting First Gulf War with the United States caused Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.  In 2003, because of the Saddam regime’s detrimental effects on the other countries of the region, the Second Gulf War began.  The United States occupied Iraq, putting an end to the Bath Party domination in the country.

The Iranian regime pulled the Shiites and the Kurds close and made an impact in Iraq, increasing Tehran’s potency in the country.  The closeness of the new government established in Iraq to Iran was thereby ensured.  (Sinkaya 2013 p. 15)  With regard to Iran’s mission of hegemony, Iraq has an important place.  Iran aims to establish a military and political base in Iraq in order to be able to dictate Iraq’s domestic and foreign policies for it own ends.  (Melamed 2018)  With America’s departure from the region, Iraq was essentially handed over to Iran on a silver platter and this accelerated Iran achieving its goals in Iraq.  (Sinkaya 2013s.6 )

As for Iran’s relations with Syria, the two regimes appear to be opposites.  In Iran the regime is religious-based, whereas in Syria the regime is secular, with no religious aspects in the public sector.  Yet, the two counties have similar ideologies.  Unlike other countries in the region, Syria and Iran have taken a stance against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and have identified themselves as a blocking axis against Israel.  (El Zuveyri 2017 p. 23)  Opposition to both the United States and to Zionism are at the head of the list of reasons that have brought Iran and Syria together.  Also, during the time of Saddam Hussein, Iran and Syria were both against Iraq.  (Sinkaya 2012 s.5)

The Syrian regime was happy to see the demise of the Shah in Iran during the 1979 Revolution, in light of the Shah’s good relations with Israel and the United States.  When the war between Iran and Iraq broke out in 1980, Syria backed Iran, unlike other regional nations that backed Iraq, and this strengthed the friendship between Tehran and Damascus.  (Sinkaya 2011 p.39)

The formation of a “Shiite Crescent” starting in Iran and extending through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean helped the Shiites in Bahrain and the Houthis in Yemen to coalesce. The Gulf monarchies and Israel were unable to stop this expansion.  Despite the isolation imposed on Iran, it has succeeded in sending its Revolutionary Guard members and Shiite paramilitary organizations to Syria.  In Yemen the Houthis are Iran’s allies, controlling most of north Yemen.  And Hizbullah in Lebanon continues to be the strongest militant group in that country.  The Shiite militias in Iraq have kept up their activities without any impediments.  (Rossidis 2021 )

Iran’s military operations have allowed it to achieve three goals in Syria.  Firstly, it has gained influence within the state enough to infiltrate the decision mechanism for all security and military activities.  Secondly, it has reached the Mediterranean and, thirdly, it has established domination of Syria’s most important highway and used it to send weapons to Hizbullah.  As for its other goal, in operations in Der-i Zor and Rakka , Iran is showing a tough stance against the U.S. government, whichdid not expect a confrontation there with Iran, one of Syria’s most important allies, and blocking the possible places that the Syrian opposition groups might take vis-a-vis a political solution with Syria.

In 2011, when the uprising that began in Der, Syria, could not be contained, this prompted foreign forces to occupy the region.  Hydrocarbon reserves were not present in the areas where the central government lost control.  With regard to the other side of the civil war, the battle to grab control of energy resource and transport corridors, is essentially a competition between Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.S. and Russia for different natural gas projects. (Uslu 2019 s.225-226)

Tehran has secured economic and political power for the long term in both Iraq and Syria.Iran will have to continue to make military concessions in Syria. (Sohtaoğlu 2020)  Shiite fighters were at the forefront in battles with the Syrian opposition in Aleppo at the end of 2016 that resulted in large territorial gains.  Iran’s increased role in the fighting was not just that of an ally supporting Syria but also of one looking to the future.  The Iranian regime’s significant financial, practical and human resources investments in Syria are an indication that Tehran sees its presence there as a long-term objective.  (I.D.F.)

With regard to Iran’s relationship with Lebanon, there are strong ties between the two countries.  Through the Shiite community that is the largest of the 18 sects that rule in Lebanon, Iran has been able to strengthen its ties there.  Religious teachers coming to Lebanon from Iran give lessons to the Lebanese populace.  Musa el-Sadr was a Lebanese cleric and the first to lead a Shiite movement in Lebanon.  In 1974 he established the ‘Those Deprived of Inheritance Movement’ and later, during the Lebanese civil war, he formed an armed group called ‘Amal’ to support the Lebanese people.  Sadr went missing during a visit to Libya, but the Amal Party he established continues to be one of the Shiite parties operating in Lebanon.  Iran provides financial, military and spiritual support to the Shiite groups in Lebanon.  (Fulton 2010)

The Israeli occupation of Lebanon that lasted until 1982 strengthened the spread of Ayatollah Humenyni’s ideology and Tehran’s ties with the Shiites in Lebanon.  Then, in 1982, Iran and Iraq went to war with each other.  Many countries in the region implemented isolation policies so Iran needed to establish a new front for itself. (Hoyakem 2010 )  The Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) in Iran provided training and funding for the new militias that sprung up under the name Hizbullah (Party of God).  Hizbullah identified itself as a Shiite resistance movement and swore in 1985 to expel Western forces  from the region.  Concurrently, Hizbullah declared that Israel must be destroyed.  (Naci 2020)  The embargoes that the United States imposed on thr region brought Lebanon that much closer to Iran.  (Hashem 2020)  Let us take a look at one example of a recent U.S.-imposed embargo.  The firm Amana was put on America’s sanctions list in 2020.  The firm was distributing Iranian fuel in Lebanon.  Yet despite the sanctions imposed on it, Amana continued to operate.  One of the underlying reasons for this was the ongoing and unprecedented fuel shortage Lebanon continues to suffer through.  (Khatib 2021)

The continuing clashes in Syria and Iraq among groups there bode well for Iran, as the region is reconstructed.  ( Mroue & Qassim Abdul  2017 )İt can be said that during the civil war in Syria, Iran has used its influence in the Syrian army to increase it military standingwith an eye toward gaining preferences once the war is over.

Tehran’s Eastern Mediterranean Corridor

It can be said that one of Iran’s long-range goals is to form a net that would link regions amenable to development.  From Iran’s standpoint this would require the establishment of a land bridge that could be called the Iranians’ resistance axis.  (Torres 2021)  This land bridge is being called the Shiite Crescent.  The net would tie Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon across their respective territories.  (Clawson 2018)  In order for Iran to be able to realize this overland corridor it must have loyal subordinates within those countries.  These internal allies would ensure support to guarantee the transfer of provisions and support from Iran to the allied countries.  (MENA 2020)  Although worldwide the percentage of Shiites among Moslems is only 10%, they are the overwhelming majority in Iran.  So one see that in the region of the Iranian net, the Shiites are dominant, too. (Clawson 2018)

The distance of the overland corridor that would link Iran from its western border to the eastern Mediterranean would be less than 1,300 kilometers and Iran has taken various steps to attain dominance over this path.  Beginning in 2011 and up to 2013, Iran had control of the route through Iraq to the border crossing at El Waleed, which is opposite the Syrian border crossing at El Tanf.  In 2014, after developments in Mosul, Iran announced its overland project. (MENA 2020)  The Tehran regime invested  millions of dollars to realize this project, in light of the strategic importance of the route linking Iran with Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  (Ramih 2021)

A news report entitled ‘An Overland Corridor from Tehran to Beirut’ in the Wall Street Journal newspaper in the Fall of 2016 evaluated the overland corridor stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean.  (Adsenik & McMaster & Talebu 2019)  In an article by Martin Chulov in October 2016 the topic of this road to the sea was taken up and he stated that the clashes between pro-Iranian militias and ISIS in Iraq,along with Iran’s active gains in Syria and Iraq, were being used by Tehran to fulfill the overland project to the Mediterranean. He also pointed out that the route of the war against ISISran through the YPG-controlled area and that Iran’s influence reached from Sicar to Bakuba, and from Kamışlı to Kobani, and from there to İdlib, Homs and the sea. (Frantzman 2019)

 

Map 1: The northern and southern routes of the land bridge

Source: “The Iran Threat Network along the Qa’im – Bukamal Corridor: a Flashpoint for Power Projection”

//internet link here//

Map 2: The northern land bridge route (red) and the southern one (green).

The northern land bridge roads (red) and the southern ones (green).  The southern route’s upper and lower arms under control.  In sequence, by means of el-Kaim/Albu Kemal and el-Tanf.  Source: taken from the Strategic Evaluation (Israel) map prepared by Franc Milburn.

//internet link here//

 

The corridor linking Iran to the eastern Mediterranean was divided into two main routes, north and south.  The northern route would stretch from the Kurdish region of Iraq to Kerkük, from there to Erbil and from there to Mosul and Rabia.  The M4 highway runs parallel to the Turkish border on Syrian territory.  By this highway, a direct connection can be made to the Aleppo transport hub and to Latakia port, where both the Russians and the Iranians have a presence.  It is also possible to secure a comfortable tie from Aleppo to Homs via the M5 highway and from there via another corridor to Beirut.

As for the southern route, passing through central Iraq and moving along the Baghdad M1 highway one reaches El Tanf in Syria and continues on to Damascus and Beirut.  A third route that can be considered as an alternative to the southern route would be: following the Euphrates River to El Kasım on Iraq’s border, then via Ebu Kamal into Syria’s Der-i Zor and on to the Homs transport hub.  Access to the port of Tartus could be ensured from this point.  The Russians control Tartus. (Torres 2021)

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