Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran’s Navies Flex Their Muscle

Iran's first domestically made destroyer, "Jamaran," sails in the Persian Gulf in February.
Iran's first domestically made destroyer, "Jamaran," sails in the Persian Gulf in February.
Iranian naval forces have recently staged two large-scale maneuvers intended both to enhance their combat capabilities and to demonstrate their strength to the West.

The first exercise, called Great Prophet V and held on April 22-25, was conducted by the navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. The second, dubbed Velayat 89, began on May 5 and is scheduled to last eight days. It is being conducted by the Iranian naval branch of the Iranian military (IRIM) in the Gulf of Oman.

In order to deal with a complex security environment in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and taking into account many constraints on its naval power, Iran has been working to align its operational doctrine with its goals and capabilities. Accordingly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as supreme commander of the armed forces, has assigned the IRGC’s navy sole responsibility for defending Iranian interests in the Persian Gulf, while the IRIM’s navy is tasked with boosting Iran’s presence in the Gulf of Oman.

Although this division of labor was formally announced in September 2008, the process of implementing it has already been under way for several years. Despite official rhetoric about “the brotherhood of the two navies” and reports of their close cooperation and coordination in many fields, the two forces are most definitely rivals.

The IRGC’s navy -- which wields immense political influence at the General Command Headquarters (Khamenei’s military headquarters), the Defense Ministry, the government, and among influential clerics – has been in a privileged position for resources and funding. Its operational role has expanded continuously since its establishment as an independent force in 1985, during the Iran-Iraq war.

High-Profile Exercises

The IRGC navy has some 22,000 personnel, including about 5,000 marines. Its sailors and marines are stationed in almost every Iranian port and on islands in the Persian Gulf. According to its outgoing commander, Rear Admiral Morteza Saffari, the IRGC navy has the capability of increasing its manpower three times over during a time of crisis by mobilizing Basij militia members from littoral provinces.

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy IRGC commander, reportedly that more than 300 missile boats, torpedo boats, and speed boats with rocket launchers and machine guns participated in the high-profile three-day Great Prophet V exercises.

Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi
During the final phase, the IGRC navy fired domestically produced shore-to-sea and sea-to-sea missiles that are based on Chinese models. These included the Saeqeh (Lightning); Noor (Light, based on the Chinese C-802); and Nasr (Victory, based on the C-704). Most of these weapons can be installed on trucks or high-speed attack boats, and most of the shore-to-sea missiles can engage targets up to 200 kilometers away.

(China, by the way, has been quietly providing Iran with missile technology for some time now; about six weeks before the exercises, the Nasr missile production site was officially opened by Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi and was widely covered by the Iranian media.)

Vahidi was also quoted as saying that during the war games, “a number of domestically produced drones” and “laser smart weapons” were tested. Also, some 30 vessels practiced laying dummy mines in the waters of the strait. The exercises also saw the deployment of the new “radar-evading and high speed” Ya Mahdi boat. Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri was quoted as saying the new boat, which is now in mass production, is “a remote-controlled vessel whose missiles can blow 7-meter holes in any enemy ship.”

Asymmetrical Operations

The highlight of the exercises – which were widely covered in Iran’s state-run media – was a swarming exercise in which “60 high-speed boats in formations of 10 attacked a hypothetical enemy ship.” This is in keeping with the IRGC’s doctrine, which emphasizes asymmetrical operations relying on surprise, maneuverability, speed, deception, and hit-and-run attacks in order to counter the overwhelming naval superiority of the United States.

Meanwhile, IRIM navy commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told the Fars news agency that the Velayat 89 exercise in the Gulf of Oman was intended to demonstrate Iran’s “might” and the country’s ability to protect its interests in the gulf and beyond into the Indian Ocean. At the same time, he said the war games convey “a message of peace and friendship” to the countries of the region and expressed Iran’s willingness to conduct joint exercises with neighboring countries. He said “the maintenance of security in the [Persian] Gulf region does not require the presence of foreign forces.”

The Velayat 89 exercises have been divided into six phases and will cover an area of some 250,000 square kilometers. They will involve surface ships, submarines, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and units from the IRIM army and air force. During the final phase, new missiles and torpedoes will be tested. Iran’s first domestically built destroyer, the “Jamaran,” is also participating in the exercises.

New Line Of Defense

For the first time, the exercises are being directed from the new Jask naval base, opened in October 2008 and located 300 kilometers east of the port of Bandar Abbas. The navy is expected to build a new line of defense east of the Strait of Hormuz and to project itself into the Gulf of Oman and even further, into the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean. This, incidentally, as also a dream of the last shah, an effort that was disrupted by the 1979 revolution.

Despite these ambitions, the fact remains that the IRIM navy is just a shadow of the shah’s Imperial Navy and has been largely ignored since the revolution. As a result, its capabilities have eroded steadily. The revolution broke the backbone of this navy in terms of both human and other resources. With the exception of the purchase of three Russian-made submarines, no serious attempt has been made to replace the navy’s decaying shah-era Western-supplied ships or to revive its fleet air arm. Most of its surface fleet is over 35 years old. Although the Russian Kilo-class subs are capable of laying mines, firing torpedoes, and (possibly) launching antiship missiles, they are vulnerable in the absence of surface or air support.

“The Velayat 89 exercises will show that the projection of the IRIM’s navy in the high seas is very serious and noticeable,” Sayyari said.

However, the IRIM force is clearly not a blue-water navy and will not acquire such capabilities in the near future. Brigadier General Abdolrahim Musavi’s October 2008 claim at the opening of the Jask base that “the mastery of the Islamic republic is going to reach into the Indian Ocean” may safely be dismissed as mere bravado.

Likewise, Sayyari’s assertion of an “impenetrable line” of defense east of the Strait of Hormuz along the coast of the Gulf of Oman appears to be an empty promise. The area between Jask and the Pakistani border is barren, isolated, sparsely populated, and boasts little infrastructure except for a small IRIM navy base at Chahbahar. Jask itself has no adequate facilities or infrastructure to support large warships or submarines.

Invested Heavily

It is clear that one of the major aims of Iranian naval preparations in recent years is to deter a possible attack on its territory by Israel or the United States by presenting a credible threat of disrupting access to the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil trade travels. Iranian military commanders have repeatedly discussed the possibility of closing the strait in response to a possible attack on Iran. Tehran has invested heavily in coastal-defense missiles, speed boats, and vast stockpiles of mines.

However, Iran also knows that closing the strait would have dire consequences for the Islamic republic itself. Most of Iran’s oil exports pass through Hormuz, as does about 40 percent of the gasoline that Iran imports. Moreover, although closing the strait could wreak havoc on oil prices for a time, it is doubtful it would have a lasting impact on global oil supplies or the regional balance of power. Clearly, Tehran would only resort to such a drastic action if it were attacked or felt an attack was imminent.

The conventional wisdom has been that if Iran decided to try to close down the strait, it would lay mines and use shore-based missiles to disrupt shipping. In response, the United States would use overwhelming military power to destroy on-shore missile batteries in short order and then sweep the mines.

But it may be wrong to think the United States could carry out such an operation smoothly. A study by Caitlin Talmadge, a former fellow of John M. Olin Institute of Strategic Studies at Harvard University, indicates that even if Iran initiated just a small mine-laying operation, the sweeping of mines and the reopening of the Strait of Hormuz would take at least five weeks or, possibly, even months.

In short, a conflict in the Strait of Hormuz is fraught with uncertainty and risk for both Iran and the West.

Hossein Aryan is deputy director of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL