Is Iran planning a naval base at Port Sudan?

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There is speculation that Iran is planning to establish a naval base in the African Red Sea port of Port Sudan.

Officially, Iran says it has no intention of attempting to entice Sudan, which is involved in a bloody and tragic civil war, into allowing the country to create a naval base at the strategically important Red Sea port.

Sudan’s Foreign Ministry has issued a similar denial to that of Iran, soon after the American newspaper Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a report saying that “Tehran, which has supplied drones for Khartoum’s war with a rebel warlord, pledged a warship in exchange for access but was turned down.”

Radio Dabanga said Sudan turned down the proposal for fear of upsetting the Americans and Israel, the latter with whom Sudan had normalised its relations at the end of 2020.

Sudan’s acting foreign affairs minister described the WSJ report as “fabricated” and “lies”. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said the report was politically motivated.

IRIS Alborz

Iran has meanwhile stationed a warship in the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden region, ostensibly to protect its own shipping interests. The Iranian Navy frigate IRIS Alborz has been deployed since early January to the Red Sea where having a neutral base in the region would have provided assistance with logistical and intelligence requirements.

This is not the first time that Iran has deployed naval vessels to the region. In 2016 Iran stationed two ships in the Gulf of Aden to provide protection for its commercial shipping, less than a year after the Houthis, with Iranian backing, swept into power over a significant part of Yemen. That part included not only Yemen’s commercial and administrative capital at Sana’a but also several ports on the Red Sea coast.

The ‘official’ (previous) Yemeni government set up its rival government at Aden on the south coast facing the Gulf of Aden.

Iran has since become a major supplier of weapons to the Houthis including explosive drones and anti-ship missiles that are being used currently against selective merchant and western naval shipping.

It is also widely believed that Iran is providing the Houthis with marine intelligence concerning the movement of merchant ships and the respective naval vessels operating in both the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. A naval base at Port Sudan would have greatly enhanced Teheran’s ability to continue monitoring maritime traffic from the Suez Canal and to or from Israel.

The elderly frigate Alborz, a 1969-built Alvand class frigate supplied by the UK to pre-revolution Iran, and since upgraded with modern systems, lends an element of uncertainty and suspicion to an already uncertain situation in one of the world’s most important waterways.

Alborz is not the only Iranian asset in the Red Sea. Also present is the replenishment ship IRIS Behshad, which some consider is being used more as a spy ship than for basic replenishing.

Russian maritime interest in Sudan

This is not the first time in recent years that a foreign nation has shown interest in establishing a naval presence on the coast of Sudan. In 2017 it was reported that agreements had been reached for Russia to establish a military base at Port Sudan.

This was during the rule of Omar Al Bashir, following a visit by him to Moscow in 2017 and prior to his overthrow. The agreement said to have been reached was for Russia to create a base for several hundred military personnel, four naval ships including nuclear submarines, as well as support for a larger number of ships operating in the area, all for a period of 25 years.

In part exchange, Russia would equip the Sudanese military with weapons and other equipment.

This was never ratified by the Sudanese parliament and subsequently postponed indefinitely when fighting broke out between rival armed forces in April of 2023.

Written by Africa Ports & Ships and republished with permission. The original article can be found here.