The Royal Navy is caught in the middle of Iran’s proxy wars

As Iran becomes increasingly assertive in the Arab world, the Navy’s brand new Bahraini base finds itself on the frontline

June 06, 2018
Mike Jackson was professional head of the British army. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images
Mike Jackson was professional head of the British army. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images

Last month the Royal Navy opened its new base, HMS Juffair, in Bahrain—the first new overseas naval establishment for decades. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said it would play a “vital role in keeping Britain safe as well as underpinning security in the Gulf.” The announcement was initially made by Philip Hammond in 2014 as a commitment to the region and in particular the United States-led efforts to protect maritime transport from piracy and potential state aggression. At the time, concerns about Iranian activity in the region centred primarily around its nuclear programme, which was subject to the final rounds of negotiations for the JCPOA.

Since then, especially in the year following President Donald Trump’s election, focus has increased on Iran’s use of proxies, both political and military, to influence the Arab world. We have always known and cared about Iranian support for Hezbollah, and Syrian and Iraqi Shia militias—but they had been seen in the context of the many various armed groups fighting for control of largely ungoverned conflict areas, and in any case we were very distracted by the more urgent campaign against Islamic State.

But as the terror group recedes from the battlefield and it becomes increasingly clear that Iran not only wants to stay in these countries, but dominate them, and as it steps up its efforts to prolong conflict in other arenas like Yemen, the Islamic Republic’s behaviour in the region is coming to be seen as the greatest threat to its stability, based as is it is on territorial ambition rather than domestic security.

Europeans and Americans outside the White House tend to give a lower weighting to this concern than the threat of a nuclear Iran, which is why they were prepared to remain in the deal even if it meant a continuation of Iran’s assertive foreign policy. But seen from the view of Iran’s neighbours, the countries which Tehran has sworn to destroy and whose borders the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ proxies have amassed on with ballistic missiles, the priorities are understandably a bit different.

Chief among these highly-alert neighbours is Bahrain—a country with a large Shia population that is no stranger to Iranian interference. The Washington Post reported last month that the IRGC is still brazenly arming and supporting Bahraini insurgents, preparing them for another attempt on the government. This is astonishing given the amount of international attention on Iran’s foreign manoeuvres presently, but even more so because Bahrain, unlike Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, is not a conflict zone.

The Iranian regime is risking a serious backlash by a stable, well-stocked, and well-supported country. There is no shortage of foreign state interference around the world at present, but virtually no country other than Iran is arming violent groups against neighbouring countries not engaged in conflict. And the best, perhaps only, means by which Iran can supply equipment and munitions to Bahrain is by sea.

Which places the Royal Navy base, sitting on the Bahraini coastline and facing across the Persian Gulf, right in the middle of this situation. Boris Johnson joined his European colleagues in criticising US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent list of demands presented to the Iranians. The European view remains that the terms are unrealistic and no more achievable in a post-JCPOA world. That may well be true, but it will be interesting to see whether British sentiments towards Iran’s non-nuclear behaviour intensify with proximity. Furthermore, if the escalating tensions between Israel and Iran do indeed spiral into a hot conflict, this base will have an essential frontline role to play.

I found it astonishing and somewhat concerning that until HMS Juffair opened this year, our once ubiquitous Royal Navy only had two overseas bases in operation: in Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, which arguably don’t even count as overseas. I was disappointed with how little interest there was in the announcement and opening of this latest facility. Whatever happens next, it seems that the decision to re-install a permanent British naval presence in the Middle East, for the first time in decades, was perhaps more prescient than it was given credit for at the time.