Iran considers the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya as an extension of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. From this perspective, Iran opposed the presence of NATO forces in Libya pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1973 imposing a flight ban over Libya. Iran viewed this presence as an opportunity that will be used by the United States and Europe to reinforce their influence in the region. On another level, Tehran supported the Libyan “revolutionaries”, at the time, and called their revolution the “Islamic Sahwah [Wakeup]”.
In this context, Libya’s geographic location and influence among Arab and African countries, with their huge oil and gas resource, present a new market that can feed the Iranian avarice for investment and search for new markets for its products. Libya is also a state member of the Non-Aligned Movement, which contributed to its high significance in the Iranian foreign politics1.
Some Iranian analysts say that Iran has no special interest in Libya, especially with Libya being far from the vital field of Iran’s national security, and that Libya fits neither Iran’s major ideological agenda (the Resistance Axis/Shiite Crescent), nor its long-term geopolitical plans (especially, an access to the Mediterranean Sea). However, the deteriorating Iranian economy and Iran’s direct and indirect long-term interventions in Syria and Iraq will make Iran interested in finding a new path for influence in Libya; for two main reasons: ensuring participation in control over the Mediterranean as a necessary navigation port, and circumventing sanctions.
Despite geographical distance, Iran can achieve good presence in and management of conflicts through what is called “distant wars” or “remote fighting”, employed by some countries, such as, Russia, in conflict areas to minimize its personnel losses. We can see this attitude growing in Libya: emergent technologies along with agent forces and media compains2.
Therefore, Iran tries to have a foot in Libya, and certainly the party closer to ally with is the Turkey-supported al-Wefaq government, Qatar, Italy, and recently the United States. However, there is information that Iran has opened a path with Tobruk Parliament and the Libyan National Army forces under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
During the last year, Iran has shown mixed signals about which party Tehran supports. On 24 April 2019, the Libyan National Army spokesman, Major General Ahmed al-Mismari, said that they detected an Iranian ship, belonging to a US-sanctioned company, loaded with armaments off the coast of Misrata days after departing from Eastern Europe. The vessel turned out to belong to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and that it is involved in suspicious actions. Images taken from the data of Marine Traffic, a website interested in monitoring international ship navigation, indicated that the Iranian vessel approached the Libyan Misrata coasts, and international intelligence resources noted that the vessel moves Iranian weapon shipments that are supposed to be delivered to al-Wefaq’s Misrata militias3.
On 21 May 2020, Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Danny Danon, revealed information about detecting Iranian-manufactured “Dehlaviyeh” missiles at the hands of Haftar forces4. In a message sent in advance, on 8 May, to the Security Council, Danon mentioned that Iran has violated two resolutions by the Council, Resolution 2231 of 2015 related to banning transfer, exportation, supply or sale of weapons from Iran to other parties, and Resolution 1970 of 2011 related to the prohibition of exporting weapons to Libya. This clear contradiction in positions raises many question marks. It appears that Iran is open to both parties of the conflict in Libya (the National Army and a-Wefaq government), but a close look at the power factor and the Iranian national security calculations could help deconstruct this contradiction.
Iran’s motives to intervene in Libya
Leaders of the Iranian regime, most notably President of the Republic Hassan Rouhani, acknowledge that Iran is currently in a real crisis, especially after the United States withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the “Nuclear Agreement”, in May 2018, and the successive sanctions on different economic sectors in Iran, starting from oil and gas sectors. Iran’s returns from oil exports during the period from 20 March 2019 to 20 March 2020 were lower than 20%, that is about 42 Billion dollars, of the returns during the period from 21 March 2011 to 20 March 2012, which reached about 107 Billion dollars5.
With the tensions growing between the United Sates and Iran, some reports indicate that the US officials oscillate between two options; either direct reprisals against Iran or more limited sanctions. There is, however, a third strategy worked on by segments in the US administration, that is inducing and supporting Turkey to confront Iran in the Northern Middle East, minimizing risks to Washington6. Ankara will be addressing Iran’s influence and playing a role in its areas, considering that Turkey itself has some concerns over impacts on its interests by the Iranian influence in many nearby areas.
For Turkey, weakness of neighboring countries is a good opportunity to be exploited, that is why we see Turkey accessing markets of neighboring countries amidst their internal problems and security crises, e.g. Iraq, or trying to exploit economic crises of countries to support its economic interests, e.g. Iran under sanctions. In an attempt to boost its economy that has been deteriorating for two decades, Ankara has also ventured in new endeavors forming a coalition of Turkic Speaking States in central Asia, above all to secure its economic interests7.
Turkey tries to exploit the sanctions on Iran and the tensions between Iran and the West, especially the United States, to the highest degree possible. For this purpose, Turkey has two objectives on its plan of action in this regard:
- changing the regional passages crossing Iran; with the passage from the East to the West is decided, according the new Turkish plan, to circumvent Iran to the north, so that the path starts from the Northern part of Turkey to Georgia then Azerbaijan passing through the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan then from there to Kirgizstan then to China. Turkey will even prevent a lot of heavy means of transportation to move from Europe to Iran, directing them to the above road, significantly impacting good transit from Iran, with the whole endeavor applauded and supported by the United States8.
- Gas investments in the Mediterranean to minimize its gas imports9. In the past few years, spasms between Iran and Turkey have been successfully reduced by the two countries through multi-party dialogue and conflict management platforms; however, Tehran is highly skeptical about the Turkish measurements during the recent period, especially when the prevailing view in Tehran is that Turkey tries to exploit Iran’s weaknesses.
Furthermore, Turkey seeks to reinforce its relations with the United States, either under the presidency of Donald Trump, if reelected, or his Democratic competitor Joe Biden, to balance its losses caused by the problems faced by Ankara either in its relations with Russia or many states in the Middle East and the Gulf. In return, the United States tries to enhance its relations with Turkey to use it in facing Russian in Libya and Syria.
Gas, the Secret Word
Gas is a crucial consumptive resource in Turkey. In the recent years, Ankara discovered gas sources in the Mediterranean Sea and went on to extract and invest in it. By intervening in Libya, Turkey wants to seize the Libyan oil and gas. Apparently, this is the reason why Turkey is reluctant to fix the pipeline transferring gas from Iran to Turkey, as revealed by Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh, who said during an interview with him that Turkey did not fix a damage caused by an explosion inside Turkish lands, on 31 March, of a gas pipeline coming from Iran, and that Ankara did not accept Tehran’s suggestion to provide assistance in fixing the damaged part10.
Although Turkey is one the main buyers of Iran’s gas, the Iranian exports of gas to Turkey severely decreased during the last few months due to the US sanctions on Tehran. Parallel to this, Turkey works on becoming a regional energy hub through connecting the natural resources producers in the East to the European customers, with increasing competition between suppliers of the national energy market in Turkey.
On the other hand, Iran has strategic, ideological, and geopolitical interests in the Middle East region, mainly maintaining control and influence over the oil markets through OPEC, as well as expanding Iran’s relations with the countries with a geopolitical significance for exportation of energy resources, in addition to attracting the attention of the region’s states11. Another Iranian concern during the next decade is the formation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which will possibly create a new area for gas exportation to the world. Being one of the countries with the largest reservoirs of gas worldwide that also seeks to export its gas to Europe, Iran considers this a threat to its economic interests.
Russia, a major international energy exporter with huge reservoirs of natural gas, wants to reinforce its position in the energy equations in the Eastern Mediterranean. For the United States, one of the key goals, that plays an influential role in Washington’s energy diplomacy with Brussels, is reducing Europe’s connection to the Russian gas and increasing Europe’s imports of US liquified natural gas. Both Russia and the United States target the European energy market too, and neither of both will be happy if the Mediterranean provides the energy resources necessary for Europe; thus, the United States justifies its military presence by supporting its allies, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey, and facing Russia in the region.
As a result, there is a 30% decrease in the gas imports from Iran in March 2020. Probably, Turkey haven’t received any gas from Iran within the first three months of the current year. According to Turkey’s official statistics, Ankara imported 7.735 million cubic meters of gas from Iran in 2019, but Ankara’s purchases of US liquified gas tripled in March. This is the first time Turkey’s imports of liquified gas exceed its imports through pipelines. In addition, Turkey stopped its purchase of Iran’s oil during the second half of 2019 due to the US sanctions.
Scenarios of Iranian Intervention in Libya
According to ideological calculations and political interests, Iran may support the Islamically inclined al-Wefaq government, being intellectually close and backed by Turkey and Qatar as allies in the same front; in addition to the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement during the recent years, which facilitates the execution of a main Iranian policy, the constant attack on Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, who are closer to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. For these reasons, Iran would welcome military operations in Libya to create a state of political balance that could lead to the option of division which Iran in turn may support.
From the Iranian point of view, the fall of al-Wefaq government would be in favor of Israel, considering Libya’s wealth of oil and gas. This is why Iran is inclined to support Sarraj government to avoid the sensitivity of a triumph achieved by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, which would be viewed by Iran as a triumph of UAE and Saudi Arabia12.
Moreover, Iran views the consolidation of the power of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya as the worst case scenario for its sectarian and political expansion ambitions, because this will translate as added power and influence to Iran’s two direct competitors; KSA and UAE, and a deduction from Iran’s influence and efforts in the Arab Maghreb region; and considering the yet unclear attitudes of the new regime in Sudan. Therefore, “Abrar” center for research and studies, which is close to the Revolutionary Guard, recommends supporting “al-Wefaq government”, according to the view of supporting the forces that are intellectually and ideologically in line with Tehran.
Considering the duality of (State and Revolution) in Iran, the Revolutionary Guard may try to exploit the chaotic environment in Libya to send arms to Iran’s agents (Hamas in Palestine/Houthi in Yemen). Many security reports say that the Revolutionary Guard is involved in seizing advanced missiles and arms in Libya and moving them to Sudan, with the aim of supplying insurgent groups in Africa and the Arab World13.
Accordingly, and despite being regional rivals, Iran and Turkey are good at managing and adapting to such rivalry in a way that ensure achieving their interests.
It is clear that they will work together to neutralize any issues in order to share the management of influence in Libya, ensuring that Turkey achieves its expansion interests and seize the largest possible share of the gas wealth in the eastern Mediterranean, and that Iran also achieves several gains, most importantly to have a new port to the world through the Mediterranean and a new political agent in Libya, al-Wefaq government which is closer to the religious state form present in Iran, and which is open to the rest of Iran’s international allies, “Qatar and Turkey”, and to other agent organizations close to Iran in the Middle East, such as Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, or what is known as the Resistance Axis and the Shiite Crescent.
- Andishmand website, [Persian language], https://bit.ly/2B8sl3w, viewed on 27/05/2020 21:49 [in Persian].
- Defence one “Is the Conflict in Libya a Preview of the Future of Warfare?”
- Sky News Arabia, Suspicious Ship Confirms Evil Triangle’s Disregard to Libyan Blood, https://bit.ly/2AitbtO, viewed on 27/05/2020 21:00 [in Arabic].
- Anadolu Agency, “Israel Accuses Iran of Sending Advanced Arms to Haftar”, https://bit.ly/2M5cBjS, viewed on 27/05/2020 21:00 [in Arabic].
- [Persian language], https://tn.ai/2278428, viewed on 04/06/2020 22:34 [in Persian].
- [Persian language], 11/05/2020.
- [Persian language], viewed on 30/05/2020 21:08.
- [Persian language], viewed on 30/05/2020 21:47.
- [Persian language], viewed on 03/06/2020 00:47.
- Hamdi Bashir, Iranian Entryism in Arab Maghreb States: Mechanisms, Ramifications, and Confrontation Options, Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, 1st Edition, 1439 AH, p 223 [in Arabic].