Seizes Positions for Blocking Sea Routes and Toppling Pro-Western Rulers

Saturday Dec. 20, a brace of Iranian destroyers, supported by two submarines and a supply vessel, turned up in the Gulf of Aden, ostensibly to engage the Somali pirates preying on its commercial vessels. On arrival, the fleet carried out a naval exercise simulating a pirate attack.

Pirates have so far seized two Iranian cargo vessels: the Hong Kong-registered Delight with a 25-man crew and 36,000 tons of wheat, which was on its way to Bandar Abbas. Tehran said last month it was negotiating for the ship's release but was ready to use force.

On August 21, the Iranian Diyanat cargo ship was hijacked.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and military sources report that while those ships were indeed seized, Tehran has itself seized on the piracy threat as the facade for its expanded military and naval presence in two key Horn of Africa locations, Somalia and Eritrea.

(See attached map

After quietly settling its sea and land forces in the Eritrean port of Assab, Iran is chasing a foothold in Djibouti where US and French naval units are based. The Eritrean headquarters, backed by an outpost in Somalia and Djibouti, would empower Tehran to exercise a chokehold on the Gulf of Aden's Bab al-Mandeb Straits, on top of its Jask island base in the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz.

In the event of a military confrontation with the United States and Israel over its disputed nuclear program, Iran could then block both straits and sever the world's most vital oil sea lanes; cutting the Gulf of Aden off from the Suez Canal and Red Sea and slashing American reinforcement and supply routes by sea. America's only base in Djibouti would be cornered.

Ensconced in the strategic Horn of Africa and its coastal waters, Iranian forces would stand in close proximity to eastern Saudi Arabia and the northern boundaries of Ethiopia. Its navy could draw an iron ring around Israel's Red Sea port and impose an embargo on its oil deliveries and marine traffic, complementing the posture of its Hizballah proxies against northern Israel and the Hamas-Jihad Islami missile threat from Gaza.


Building a rogue naval force in Somalia


Exploiting the chaos in Somalia, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources report, Iranian agents recently handed former Somali naval commanders and officers wads of cash to reconstruct their scattered units and work for Iran. Iran's Revolutionary Guards Navy promised them fast boats armed with heavy machine guns and torpedoes.

Iran's door to Eritrea was opened wide by president Isayas Afwerki.

He allowed Iran to base a fleet of warships, submarines and combat manpower at the strategic port of Assab on the Arabian Sea coast of the Horn of Africa, and signed a contract granting Iran complete and exclusive control over the old Russian-built Eritrean oil refinery with a mandate to overhaul and manage the facility.

This mandate covers a military presence to guard the refinery.

The facility is doubly useful to Iran which Western sanctions keep short of refined fuel products like gasoline. Tehran is allowed to refine its crude oil in Assab and in return, siphons off some of the product to save Eritrea having to import refined products.

This arrangement was set up last May, when the Eritrean president capped a visit to Tehran by issuing a joint statement with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad underlining the common views shared by the two countries on regional issues and on ways to resist “hegemony” (i.e. the United States).

Ahmadinejad said Iran saw “no limits to the expansion of cooperation and relations with Eritrea.”

Afwerki spoke of reciprocal defense commitments that would embrace “other independent nations” too.


Eritrea pits US against Iran in Horn of Africa


Since the United States and Eritrea backed opposite sides in the Somalia civil war, Asmara's accord with Tehran clearly pits the US and Iran against each other in bidding for control of the Horn of Africa.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that the Iranian flotilla dispatched to fight piracy will be based permanently in Assab. It is also the front for a second fleet of 150 speed boats which Iran is sending to Eritrea.

Like the rogue Somali naval units, the Eritrean boats will also be armed with heavy machine guns and torpedoes.

According to the Eritrean opposition, the only reason Tehran is willing to pay the pirates a $2 million ransom for the hijacked Diyanat, is because it was shipping Iranian weapons to Assab.

According to our intelligence sources, the Iranians are now making a play for two more prizes. They are leaning hard on the Eritrean president to permit the Assab-based Iranian units to set up a sub-command on the Red Sea Hanish islands opposite Yemen. (See map)

This group of islands was in dispute between Yemen and Eritrea before 1999. Eventually, an international court granted Yemen full ownership of the larger islands and awarded the peripheral group to Eritrea. It is there that Iran hopes to snap up one of the most important strategic points of vantage in this region.

Tehran also has its sights on war-torn Somalia. At the end of January, 2008, the Ethiopian army finally gave up on its three-year effort to rescue the ruined country from Islamic bands, some of them linked to al Qaeda. (Read DEBKA-Net-Weekly 327 of Nov. 7, 2008: Al Qaeda in Full-Blown Offensive to Capture West African “Waziristan”).


Iran's next stop: Mogadishu


Today, no Western or pro-Western force sees any way of saving most of Somalia including Mogadishu from falling to the Islamists, some of whom are backed by Eritrean president, Afwerki, Tehran's Horn of African friend. The US and Europe have cut their ties with him, but for Tehran, he is a big asset for boosting their ambition to reach out and grab Mogadishu too.

Military cooperation is not the only field of cooperation between Iran and Eritrea.

A month after Afwerki's visit, an Iranian delegation of agricultural, financial and health experts arrived in Eritrea to pursue the Islamic Republic's classic takeover mode on the Lebanese Hizballah model.

By providing the needy Eritrean population with a broad range of benefits, Iran intends to bind the country to economic dependence, the while bribing its leaders and local officials to obedience.

Eritrea is being transformed into a base for the Shiite missionaries to spread their brand of Islam across Africa. The mosques established with Iranian funds are also recruiting centers for agents and terrorists working against the United States and other Western countries in the region.

And that is not the sum of Iran's hyperactive grab in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources reveal that an Iranian marine force in the Red Sea will be deployed to provide back-up for its covert drive to win a base in the southern Arabian Peninsula, by supporting the Hothi rebellion of Zaydi Shiites against president Abdallah Salah, who has an understanding with the US and France, and topple him.

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