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While the international community focuses on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, the Iranian government has been investing heavily in both its regular navy and its corollary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGC-N). On July 25, 2011, at Iran’s Bandar Abbas naval base, the supreme leader promoted the role of both navies. “Both the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy and the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy are the symbols of the might of the Iranian nation in defending the interest of the country in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman,” he declared. (1) Khamenei’s speech was not politics as usual. The supreme leader does not traverse the country and offer platitudes to different constituencies on a daily basis like ordinary politicians, nor does he endorse specific elements of the military lightly.
Rather, Khamenei’s speech affirmed a concerted push to expand Iran’s maritime abilities and reach. While the Iranian navy has historically been a presence in the Persian Gulf, in recent years it has sought to branch out into the more open waters of the Sea of Oman and Indian Ocean. The IRGC-N, for example, established a naval base at Jask, a small port on the Gulf of Oman, outside the Strait of Hormuz. (2) In an interview with the IRGC weekly Sobh-e Sadegh, IRGC-N chief Ali Fadavi also bragged about establishment of an IRGC-N base in Chahbahar. (3) The Iranian navy also maintains a naval base at Bandar Anzali, on the Caspian Sea, a body of water whose maritime division remains the subject of active dispute among its littoral states. (4)
Since Khamenei’s Bandar Abbas speech, Iranian naval leaders have issued a number of declarations about their intentions, most of which appear fanciful. For example, on September 27, 2011, Habibullah Sayyari, Commander of Iran’s Regular Navy, announced his intention to deploy the Iranian Navy into the Atlantic Ocean, an action which appears beyond Iran’s logistical capabilities. Two days later, Mansur Maqsudlu, deputy commander of the Iranian navy for research and self-sufficiency jihad, announced Iran’s intention to build aircraft carriers. (5) More recently, Admiral Abbas Zamini, the navy’s deputy for technical affairs, declared Iran’s intention to build a nuclear submarine. (6) This, too, does not appear realistic in the near term, although Iranian officials could use the claim that they intend to build a nuclear submarine to justify uranium enrichment up to 97 percent, the level that some U.S. submarines utilize. (7)
Beyond the bluster, however, there has been marked expansion in the Iranian Navy and IRGC-N. In recent months Iranian ships have traversed the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. While Iranian claims of participation in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa are exaggerated, in the past two months Iranian warships have docked at Port Sudan, and there is speculation among Sudanese opposition and in the Iranian press that Iran seeks a permanent base along Sudan’s Red Sea coast. (8) In recent weeks the Iranian Navy has unveiled both refurbished hovercraft (9) and the new Sina-7 missile-launching warship. (10) Further, Iranian television broadcast the launch of two new Ghadir-class submarines. (11) On 27 November — Navy Day — the supreme leader reiterated the navy’s new emphasis on areas beyond the Persian Gulf. (12)
The Iranian leadership’s emphasis on naval development coincides with Mohammad Ali Jafari’s leadership of the IRGC. His signature policy has been implementation of the “mosaic doctrine,” a reorganization of IRGC land units away from the borders of the Islamic Republic and instead the establishment of provincial units, marking a shift for regular IRGC units away from border defense in favor of combating internal enemies. (13) If the IRGC is to focus inward, then it is logical that the Iranian navy and IRGC-N will become the frontline defense along Iran’s 1,500-mile coastline (including the Caspian Sea coast). At the same time, Iran’s greater maritime assertiveness marks a generation change in the Iranian navy, as its April 1988 defeat during Operation Praying Mantis fades from Iranian consciousness.
The Iranian navy is no match for the U.S. Navy, nor are its blue water capabilities strong. Nevertheless, while the U.S. military is accustomed to interacting and occasionally confronting the Iranian navy inside the relatively shallow and narrow Persian Gulf, Iranian efforts to push into the Sea of Oman and northern Indian Ocean suggest that those waters will soon become more crowded. While the IRGC-N still rehearses swarming exercises to overwhelm larger U.S. ships with small boats, Iran’s regular navy is developing more traditional doctrine and capabilities.
The development of naval bases along Iran’s Sea of Oman coast also reflects an Iranian recognition that, despite its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, absent its own mechanism to bypass the Strait, its closure could be disastrous for Iran. After all, while that waterway’s closure would hamper international tanker traffic, it would also effectively trap the Iranian navy inside the Persian Gulf. Further development of Jask and Chahbahar (and the infrastructure to facilitate their connections to Iran’s interior), will mitigate such effects.
Sayyari’s declaration that the deployment of international navies to the northern Indian Ocean is not legitimate also indicates that, as Iranian capabilities expand, so too will Tehran’s traditional demand that foreign navies withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. Thanks to Iranian ambitions, the era of quiet sailing in the Northern Indian Ocean may soon come to an end.
(1) “Dawlat-e Mostaqal va Mellat-e Bidar-e Iran Har Ghodrate ra Majbur beh ‘Oghab Nashini Khahad Kard,” [“The Independent and Vigilant Nation of Iran Will Force the Power’s Retreat,”] FardaNews, July 23, 2011. http://www.fardanews.com
(2) “New Iran Base to Block Persian Gulf in Case of War,” Fars News Agency, October 29, 2008.
(3) “Sardar Fadavidar goftoguye ekhtisasi ba Sobh-e Sadegh,” [“An Exclusive Sobh-e Sadegh Interview with Commander Fadavi”] Sobh-e Sadegh, October 10, 2011. http://www.sobhesadegh.ir/1390/0520/M10.HTM
(4) “Caspian Sea security needs no foreign presence, commander” Islamic Republic News Agency, November 27, 2012.
(5) “Sakht-e Naw Havapeymabar dar Niru-ye Daraya-ye Iran,”[“Iran Navy to Build Aircraft Carriers,”] Asr-e Iran, September 29, 2011. http://www.asriran.com
(6) “Iran Plans to Build Nuclear-Fueled Submarines,” Fars News Agency, June 12, 2012. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9103081864
(7) Chunyan Ma and Frank Von Hippel, “Ending the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactors,” The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2001, p. 91.
(8) “Rebels: Sudan, Iran Agree to Set Up Military Base in Red Sea,” Fars News Agency, December 11, 2012.
(9) “Alhaq-e Shanavarha-ye Setahe va Zirsetahe Jadid beh Niru-ye Darya-ye Artesh,” [“Incorporation of new Navy surface and subsurface vessels into the Navy,”] Fars News Agency, November 27, 2012, http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13910908000130
(10) “Naw Mushakandaz ‘Sina 7’ Ravanmaye Mishavad,” [“Missile Carrier Sina-7 is Unveiled,”] Fars News Agency, November 26, 2012, http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13910906000411
(11) “Iranian TV Shows Live Launch of Two Ghadir-Class Submarines,” IAP20121128950017 Tehran Islamic Republic of Iran News Network Television (IRINN) in Persian 0556 GMT 28 Nov 12. Translation provided courtesy of the Open Source Center.
(12) “Didar Farmandahan-e Niru-ye Darya-ye Artesh bah Farmandeh Kal Qava,” [“Navy Commanders Meet with the Commander in Chief,”] Ayatollah Khamenei Official Website, November 27, 2012. http://farsi.khamenei.ir/news-content?id=21642
(13) Ali Alfoneh, “What Do Structural Changes in the Revolutionary Guards Mean?” American Enterprise Institute Middle East Outlook, September 23, 2008. http://www.aei.org/article/foreign-and-defense-policy/regional/middle-east-and-north-africa/what-do-structural- changes-in-the-revolutionary-guards-mean/
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