x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Iran sends submarines into Red Sea for first time

Analysts say Iranian regime hopes its display of naval prowess will deflect attention from unprecedented power struggle gripping its ruling hardliners.

Iranian military submarines reportedly ventured into the Red Sea for the first time yesterday as the Islamic republic flexed its muscles as a self-proclaimed regional superpower.

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said that the submarines would collect data in international waters and identify warships of other countries: shorthand for the Bahrain-based United States Fifth Fleet.

Analysts said the Iranian regime hopes that its display of naval prowess will deflect attention from an unprecedented power struggle gripping its ruling hardliners. This has pitted president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's camp against supporters of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The former has been left reeling by several recent setbacks after miscalculating the clout of the Ayatollah's supporters.

Tehran also has a nervous eye on the uprising in Syria, where the Assad dynasty has been Iran's only Arab ally for decades. At a press conference in Tehran yesterday, Mr Ahmadinejad dodged awkward questions on the domestic front.

His stance, he told reporters, was to maintain a "unity-inspiring silence".

Despite much evidence to the contrary, he repeated recent claims that his relations with Ayatollah Khamenei are "much stronger than what some individuals may think".

At the same time, he attempted to garner sympathy by portraying himself as an opposition figure fighting for the rights of ordinary Iranians against a privileged and entrenched old guard.

But Mr Ahmadinejad had no qualms about answering questions on Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is solely aimed at generating electricity. He insisted that Yukiya Amano, the chief of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, had discredited the world body by alleging this week that Iran may be working on a nuclear weapons programme.

Mr Amano, he proclaimed, was following Washington's orders and his comments had "no legal value". The Iranian president declared that no offer from world powers would persuade his country to stop enriching uranium, dismissing the key demand of the United Nations Security Council.

"I have said before that Iran's nuclear train has no brakes and no reverse gear," he boasted. He also claimed that he had "reliable intelligence" that Washington is trying to sabotage Pakistan's nuclear facilities to prolong the US's military presence in the region.

Washington's aim, he argued, was to weaken that country's government and increase the US's domination of Pakistan with the help of the UN Security Council.

Mr Ahmadinejad also restated his claim that the US used the September 11 attacks as a pretext to invade the Middle East. The US's intention, he argued, was to "save from destruction the ailing economy of themselves and the Zionist regime as the main base of ultra-modern colonialism".

He proclaimed that the US was trying to gain popularity by "pretending to support the people of Bahrain" when in fact, he argued, the core problem was the US military base there.

On Syria, Mr Ahmadinejad said: "I condemn the interference of America and its allies. We believe that Syrians themselves are capable of managing their own affairs."

In contrast, the Iranian president has hailed other uprisings in the region, saying they are Iranian-inspired Islamic awakenings against US-backed despots.

Iranian warships have probed more distant waters than the Red Sea's in the past. Two Iranian warships sailed through the Suez Canal this year on an unprecedented visit to Syria that provoked an outcry in Israel. The warships were allowed to pass through the waterway by the post-Mubarak authorities in Egypt, which signalled Cairo's interest in re-establishing ties with Tehran that were severed more than three decades ago.

In recent years, Iranian warships have patrolled in the Indian Ocean to combat Somali pirates. But Iran's submarines, which include three long-serving Russian-built vessels and four smaller, home-produced ones delivered to the Iranian navy last year, have, until last month, operated only in the shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf.

The Fars news agency quoted an unnamed government official saying the submarines were accompanied into the Red Sea by warships of the Iranian navy's 14th fleet.

Analysts said that Tehran's tacit message was that, try as the US might, it could not contain Iran's regional ambitions.

If it hoped to end three decades of mutual hostility, the US must treat the Islamic republic as an equal.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

msinaiee@thenational.ae