Global supply chains and maritime shipping routes probably didn’t mean much to the average person until COVID-19 arrived, the ship Evergreen got stuck in the Suez Canal or baby formula, computer chips and other consumer goods failed to be delivered according to our expectations. How many of us were aware of how crucial Ukrainian and Russian grain are for most of the world, and how dependent we all are on global shipping for food, heating, clothes and consumer goods of all kinds?
Today, however, many people do understand the global supply chain and how connected and interdependent we all are, regardless of our nationality or political agenda. Maritime shipping is the skeleton, arteries and intestines of our global economy, and just like a human body, if any of those systems are congested or blocked, all kinds of challenges present themselves.
Mostly due to physical and political constraints, maritime shipping routes have a number of chokepoints, usually straits or man-made canals that channel the traffic, forcing enormous ships to slow down or anchor while waiting their turn to pass through. The Strait of Malacca, between the Malaysian Peninsula and Sumatra, is one of the busiest in the world. Other high-traffic shipping routes include the Panama and Suez Canals, the Danish Straits, the Straits of Hormuz and the English Channel. The only entrance to the busy Mediterranean via the Atlantic—the Strait of Gibraltar—is another.
City-states, nations, multinational corporations and international organizations have fought each other for centuries over the right to control and tax the endless flow of goods moving through these strategic passes. This historical backdrop brings us to present-day Middle East power politics, and how one specific state is trying to implement a nefarious strategy.
Iran enjoys a natural and unfettered dominance over one maritime bottleneck—the Straits of Hormuz. For decades, Iranian military vessels and missile launchers along the shores have been a permanent presence on these strategic waterways, through which about 20 million barrels of oil pass each day. This signals to regional and global powers that Iran has the ability to unilaterally disrupt global oil supplies if it wants to.
It is more than probable that when Iranian leaders saw the diplomatic gains they had made thanks to these tactics, they formulated a comprehensive strategy to control the straits that is still unfolding today.
For example, using their regional Houthi proxies in Yemen and their own Revolutionary Guards—a designated terrorist organization—the Iranians took control of the Bab al-Mandab Strait in 2015. This 28-kilometer-wide gateway channels all traffic between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. In seizing it, the Iranians doubled their power over international trade.
But Iran didn’t stop there. Parallel to nuclear negotiations with the West, Iran continued scheming to manipulate global shipping. In 2020, Sky News reported that clandestine Iranian cyber units had been collecting actionable intelligence on various civilian targets in the West. The targets included GPS navigation systems for tankers and cargo ships, as well as the control systems that manage the ballast water each ship uses to stabilize itself. The Iranian hackers noted that, if tampered with successfully, “these systems could cause a ship to sink.”
The current focus of Iranian expansionist operations is more than 5,000 kilometers from Tehran, in a Sunni kingdom on the northwest tip of Africa—Morocco. Why? Because the southern bank of the Strait of Gibraltar is Moroccan, and by establishing leverage there, Iran would have the tools to influence all traffic in and out of the Mediterranean Sea.
Relations between Morocco and Iran have been strained ever since Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979, but relations appeared to reach a boiling point in May 2021, when Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita publicly denounced Iran for trying to meddle in Moroccan affairs. Iran, he charged, was doing so by spreading Shia Islam. In other words, Iran was employing the same tactics it used successfully in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and partially Bahrain. In all these cases, Iran sought to exploit ethnic fault lines and existing conflicts and tensions to serve their imperial ambitions. However, Morocco isn’t Iraq. Iran is far away and has limited tools with which to inflict real damage at such a distance.
Given that Morocco has been keeping a watchful eye on nefarious Iranian-allied actions in Western Sahara and neighboring Algeria, it is not surprising that it joined the Abraham Accords and has enhanced its military cooperation with Israel. But the West, Russia, China and India should pay close attention to Iran’s Morocco strategy, which will undoubtedly lead to much more suffering than the delayed receipt of computer chips or baby formula.
If Iran manages to haggle itself to a deal that would give it nuclear capabilities on top of that, the consequences for the world would be even more catastrophic. A nuclear umbrella would allow the Islamic regime to disrupt not only the Middle East, but the entire world.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Avivi is the founder and CEO of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, an NGO comprised of more than 6,000 former members of Israeli security organizations.