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Iran's Naval-Gazing More Political Than Military

Clerics stand in front of the "Jamaran," Iran's first domestically built warship, during naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf in February 2010.
Clerics stand in front of the "Jamaran," Iran's first domestically built warship, during naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf in February 2010.
By Hossein Aryan
When the Iranian Navy announced that its forces had foiled a hijacking attempt by eight boatloads of Somali pirates off the coast of Yemen earlier this month, it was held up as an example of how naval commandos could successfully protect remote Iran-chartered cargo ships.

That announcement, delivered on September 10, came just days after the government in Tehran revealed that it was sending a naval surface ship and a submarine into the Red Sea -- in an echo of another multiple-ship mission during the summer that was hailed by Iran's official media as the "first such operation by the country's navy in far-off waters."

More headlines are sure to come. Iran's leaders have declared their intention to boost their presence in regional waters and beyond. They are talking up their naval capabilities and declaring their ambition to stage more operations far from the country's territorial waters.

Tehran is not being coy about the motivation for all this activity: to impress other regional powers with Iran's growing influence and to undercut the American military presence in the waters around Southwest Asia.

"The days of hegemonic powers which determined the fate of other nations with their military presence have come to an end," said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, in a speech to naval personnel in the port of Bandar Abbas several weeks ago. "[Iran] will impose its resolve on any military and political power and force them to retreat."

He called the presence of U.S. and European ships in the Persian Gulf "detrimental and unwarranted" and said the region's seas remain independent "due to the powerful presence of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Ships To The Atlantic

The Iranians are underscoring this message by showing off new cruise missiles and torpedoes. Meanwhile, the commander of the navy has vowed to dispatch ships to the Atlantic Ocean if the occasion demands and declared the aim of keeping vessels on continuous station in the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, and the Indian Ocean.

Analysts urge skepticism, however. In its current state, they say, the Iranian Navy simply does not have the capacity to live up to these ambitions. Most of its oceangoing surface ships are more than 40 years old, and Tehran is struggling to keep them operational. Over the past few years the only major ships the government has managed to add are one home-built destroyer and three Russian-made submarines.

But this doesn't mean that Iran's ambitions are entirely unfounded. The real thrust of Tehran's new strategy, observers say, is more political than military. Iran, they say, is trying to capitalize on what it perceives as diminishing U.S. influence in the region.

That view draws on the seemingly unwinnable NATO-led effort to stabilize Afghanistan, the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the rising influence of pro-Iranian political parties in governing circles in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iranian-backed Hizballah in Lebanon, among other factors.

An Iranian warship and speedboats take part in a naval war game in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. (file photo)

Tehran is trying to build on these developments by promoting regional cooperation in the establishment of a security system that would exclude the U.S. Navy from the Persian Gulf and adjoining waters.

But this, says Michael Connell, director of the Iranian Studies program at the Center for Naval Analyses in Washington, could be easier said than done.

"The Iranians would like the Arab countries to reach out to Iran and participate in some kind of security arrangement," Connell says, "but there is no appetite whatsoever on the part of Arab countries, particularly the ones on the Gulf. The whole reason the U.S. is there is because the Arab countries in the Gulf feel that without the U.S. there it will alter the regional balance of power against them and in Iran's favor. So for the time being, the U.S. is acting as security guarantor."

Greater U.S. Presence

In fact, Connell and other analysts say, shared concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions are actually bringing the United States and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- which includes the Arab countries adjacent to Iran -- closer together.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei looks through binoculars as he inspects the launch of the "Jamaran."
If anything, continuing progress in Iran's nuclear program and the uncertainty caused by the Arab Spring is likely to intensify calls for a greater U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf. Tehran's criticism of the GCC intervention against Shi'ite-dominated protesters in Bahrain earlier this year has done little to endear Iran to its Arab neighbors, some of whom accuse it of abetting antigovernment demonstrations there.

"Unless there is major political change in any of these countries, by and large, the general thrust would be to further tie in the relationship with the United States and to deepen the U.S. involvement in the security of the region," says Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Some of Iran's naval maneuvers accordingly seem to be aimed more at cementing diplomatic relationships than bolstering military prowess. In February, two Iranian naval vessels docked at the Syrian port of Latakia in an effort to bolster Tehran's relationship with one of its closest regional allies.

Connell says such visits are calculated to boost Iran's prestige.

"It allows them to show and plant the Iranian flag in places where it's never been planted before," Connell says. "There is a diplomatic component to it. For instance, a lot of these deployments involved are port visits where Iranian vessels will dock in a foreign port and the personnel will get out and will go to a conference and they will engage in naval diplomacy. Part of it is to advertise the navy's capabilities, to demonstrate that the navy has achieved technological advantages perhaps the rest of the world might not be aware of."

'Mainly Propaganda'

Making port calls is part of Iran's effort to "support its narrative as a rising power," says Eisenstadt.

"But these visits are short-term visits. These are small numbers of ships that would be vulnerable in the event of a military confrontation," he says. "So it is mainly again propaganda and power projection to try to create this image of Iran as a rising power, [of] intelligence-gathering, and also to train their naval elements to operate far from their normal areas of operation.

"But it will be a long time before they can operate on a sustained basis far from the shore, never mind projecting power in a significant way far from Iran. So it is more to build an image than there being a kind of substance or actual capabilities behind these deployments."

There is little doubt that there is a major gap between Iran's intentions and its capabilities. As for extending its operational range to the Atlantic Ocean, it is beyond Tehran's capabilities, "at least for the foreseeable future," says Connell.

"If you look at Iranian military developments, there is a lot of bluster and a lot of exaggeration," Connell says. "It is messaging. They are trying to say, ‘We are extremely capable. You'd better watch out. The Iranian Navy is coming to your neighborhood.' But a lot of it is bluster."
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Comments
     
by: Kaveh The Blacksmith from: Anywhere
September 20, 2011 12:17
Do NOT hold your breath on your comments. A relatively small navy like Iranian navy can do big operations that do not need to be revealed just as the illegitimate child of u.s. the IsNotReal do not reveal their full viciousness and nuclear arms power. Believe in the Iranian power because it is for just and peace. u.s. and their murderous allies have been trying hard over the past 70 years to rule the world by wars, killings, destructions but have got to nowhere and in return they have managed to create sick societies from which the western people are running away to the so-called thirld world where the real life exists. What they have created is a claen cut of a modern and well organised sick society. That exists in europe, Australia, Canada and u.s. and gradually infecting japan and some otehr countries. But that won't last long because the Iranian power house is booming. Viva Iran.
In Response

by: Dariush from: Bimingham, UK
September 20, 2011 14:31
Kaveh, if you stop attacking the U.S and think rationally, you would see Iranian Navy at this juncture does not have the capability to project its power to high seas. It is a fact and it cannot be changed with amulet, talisman or praying. Wake up and please think rationally.

by: fly eye from: the mighty usa
September 20, 2011 12:45
whats new?? irans leaders are the biggest crap talkers in all the world period!!!! but its very easy to tell when irans leaders are lying.....their mouth will be moving !!!

by: Joe from: Dubai
September 20, 2011 17:14
Iranian navy is a defensive navy unlike United States navy which carries the task of offensive operation. In that role Iran's navy is very capable mainly relying on mid-size fast armored boats armed with anti-ship missiles. They manufacture the world's fastest missile boats which would be very effective in shallow waters of Persian Gulf as was demonstrated by US navy mammoth exercise, Millennium Challenge 2002. This capability is augmented by diesel electric submarines, mine laying and land based anti-ship missiles which again suite Iran's geographic conditions. So their navy is not a weak force at all. Their biggest addition in the past 3 decades is not a ship and few submarines, it is the addition of highly accurate anti-ship missiles which are termed as force equalizers in military terms.

Also one must not forget that Iran is a new comer to naval game plays. As time passes, they will surely upgrade capabilities and will start building bigger ships which will reach Atlantic. For those who watch the military capabilities of nations, it is only very evident that Iran's military capabilities have only grown in the past 3 decades, with Iran emphasizing its strategy on force equalizer weapons trying to offset its smaller economy against the much larger economies which can afford bigger and more ships. Iran is well aware of this facts and that is why Iran is building anti-ship missiles instead of aircraft carriers and ballistic missiles instead of fleets of fighter aircrafts. There is no way Iran could out gun US on conventional terms, so they have adapted an unconventional asymmetric strategy. And considering the fact that they have the world's fastest growth rate in science and technology, Iran surely can put up defenses which would deter any would be attacker.
In Response

by: Johann from: USA
September 20, 2011 19:53
Very thoughtful and correct article. I think we should worry more, if Islamists come to power in Egypt and Libya, than if Iran is building its defense capabilities !!! Egypt has borders to Gaza and Isreal, and Islamists are already in control of Gaza. They ( in Gaza ) are trying to get membership at the United Nations. Lets pray that President Obama, will be steadfast against Palestinian membership !!!

by: Johann from: USA
September 20, 2011 17:27
It is good that Iran ( Iran is Democratic Country with elections, when Saudi Arabia isn't ) is planning to use its Navy to fight Somalian- and Libyan Terrorists !!!
Sunni Muslims, but not Iran's Muslims, are threat to the World peace !!!
Now, Turkey is already threatening Israel !!! Turkey is also increasing its influence, in Albania, Kosovo, and in Bosnia !!!

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
September 20, 2011 17:54
Interesting: Iran is putting to work (with the help of Russia) the first civil nuclear power plant in the Middle East, Iran is (supposedly) continuing to work on its military nuclear program, Iran is sending its Navy to go throught the Suez Channel to the Mediterranean and back, whereas politicians from the US and Israel are just talking and talking and again talking. Are they trying to talk the Iranian leadership to death or something like that? :-)

by: John from: Spain
September 20, 2011 23:35
Iran has never invaded any country for the past 100 years while itself was attacked by the US/Europe backed Saddams Iraq in the '80ies. US % Britian overtrhew a democratically elected goverment of Mosadeq in the '50 and '60 and placed the dictator Shah of Iran who was more in line with intrests of the US. The border between Turkey and Iran hasnt been changed for 300 years. Iran isnt an agressive country like the US or Britian. It doesnt go 10.000 km to attack a country without a UN mandate!

However you cant say the same about Israel, who has invaded and attacked every neighbour and even preformed piracy on international waters by killing Americans and Turks on the Mavi Marmara. It has even gone further by attacking countries like Tunisia and Iraq. But Israel doesnt supply a ship to somalia coast or it doesnt make a contribution to afghanistan or iraq to help us.

by: Paul from: USA
September 22, 2011 00:12
Dear John from Spain,

We are totally impressed with your finger pointing. I lived in Spain for six years. We do noticed that you never mentioned anything about what General Franco did for 50 years to Spain nor that your Prime Minster Zapatero regularly deals with terrorists by paying in millions of dollars in ransoms nor that Spanish troops do not fight in the front lines in Afghanistan and that your government has created the worst unemployment in European history. So, great job!

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