The American Interest
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Why Iran’s Blue-Water Naval Ambition Matters
Published on August 5, 2011

Last month, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) chief Ali Fadavi declared, “The frontline of the Islamic Republic is the sea. Our enemy, the United States, has a military capacity at sea and has secured hegemony by the means of its naval capacity. . . . It is necessary that the Iranian navy counters the enemy.” Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi told the local press “Iran plans to strengthen its naval forces to maintain security of the open seas … the message to regional countries is that there is no need for the presence of foreign forces.”

Iran’s naval force, which include the IRGCN in addition to the more conventional Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), has been neither a major force in nor highly visible on the world’s waterways. However these conditions are changing, as the Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to regain the maritime might that Persian empires enjoyed during antiquity and the Middle Ages. This effort also represents the revival of a program begun under the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The current quest to project power on the high seas has been endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who claims that even in its early stages it “has intimidated” other nations, referring no doubt to the United States and Israel in particular.

Tehran’s blue-water ventures are gaining attention not just in nearby Israel and the United States, but in the European Union too. However, Washington, London and Paris, although they feel stymied by foreign wars and debt, remain too confident in their militaries’ capacities to handle an Iranian naval threat; the problem, they think, is still well over the horizon. They fail to recognize that Iranian leaders have proven adept at opening new fronts along which to challenge American and European global dominance and incrementally increase their country’s capabilities and influence on a global stage.

Up to now, the Iranian navy comprised a small fleet of speed boats, corvettes, frigates, destroyers, supply ships, and submarines. Its theater of action was restricted to the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman by technological limitations. Yet even there Iran’s government has proven detrimental to regional and world safety by aiding terrorists. The IRGCN and IRIN are suspected of having facilitated movement of al-Qaeda operatives across the Persian Gulf to and from Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan for many years. More recently, as Tehran’s global ambitions have expanded, so has the deployment of its navy. This deployment has gained considerable significance within Iran—even being encouraged in a khotba, or sermon, after Friday prayers at Tehran University.

Many of the IRIN’s larger vessels were put into service before the 1979 revolution. In order to modernize the fleet, over the past decade the IRIN was linked with the IRGCN, which has access to manufacturing services and concentrates on offensive and defensive missions along the coastlines. As resources and capabilities grew, the IRIN expanded its mission scope into the Indian Ocean. There Iran began to find common strategic cause with the People’s Republic of China in ensuring the uninterrupted flow between the two countries of oil and gas eastward and technology westward. Iran’s navy, like China’s, began regular visits to the harbors of Indian Ocean nations, and Iran, like China, has been funding construction of deep water ports along the coastlines of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

Now Iran’s naval ambitions are reaching beyond Asian waters. Ostensibly to thwart Somali pirates, Tehran’s submarines have navigated the Gulf of Oman since 2008, and they entered the Red Sea this June. Testing the thaw in relations with post-Arab Spring Egypt, Iran’s warships passed through the Suez Canal and docked at the Syrian port of Latakia in February, much to Jerusalem’s chagrin. Since then, Tehran is suspected of supplying Bashar al-Assad’s regime with munitions, advisers and IRGC troops to quell the populist uprising against its Syrian ally. The IRIN even aims to enter the Atlantic Ocean, although no date for deployment has been set for what would largely be a symbolic action.

Iran’s naval expansion has other, more duplicitous dimensions as well. Merchant vessels linked to the IRIN, often sailing under the flags of other countries, are known to transport illicit cargoes. In 2009, for example, twenty tons of explosives were seized in Cyprus during transit from Bandar Abbas to Latakia in violation of United Nations sanctions. An Anglo-American record-breaking speedboat was procured in 2010 through a similarly illegal transaction by the IRGCN and is believed to be undergoing modification and duplication for combat use. The possibility of nuclear technology shipments from China via North Korea to Iran, again in violation of both UN sanctions and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has also been raised by the respected Institute for Science and International Security.

Distinctions between the IRGCN, IRIN and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) are deliberately obscured by the authorities in Tehran. By doing so they are trying to stay ahead of international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program and terrorist support networks. So Western nations suspect many ports, wharfs, berths, piers, warehouses and other facilities of the three maritime organizations are jointly controlled, operated and shielded by military secrecy.

In early July, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while attempting to rein in military leaders who oppose him, exposed the existence of these covert ports: “If a product is for military or security purposes, it can be imported without customs duties. But it does not mean the ports involved should not be registered.” IRGC Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari acknowledged that “some wharfs are controlled for military purposes.” Presidential Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei’s office responded by demanding to know why some “southern and eastern ports are without government oversight?” The Iranian Students’ News Agency, which is allied with the president’s political faction, then published a list of secret sites on the Persian Gulf “used by the military outside regular supervision.”

It was at one such port, on Kish Island, that former FBI agent Robert Levison went missing in March 2007. The Iranian military’s involvement in smuggling worth at least U.S. $12 billion each year is no secret at home or abroad. So perhaps persons associated with Iran’s shadowy activities believed it unlikely that an ex-agent of the U.S. government was there merely to stem the flow of consumer-related contraband. The U.S. Department of State believes Levinson is alive and being held against his wishes in the region, perhaps to ensure he cannot disclose what was learned during his investigation.

Technology transfer from abroad, by circumventing UN sanctions, coupled with domestic augmentation, have given Iran’s land-based missiles an operational range that places American forces in the Middle East and Israeli territory at risk. Iran test-fired missiles with more restricted ranges from submarines in the Persian Gulf in 2006; it is only a matter of time before the IRIN and IRGCN gain capacity to launch long-range ones. As Iran moves steadily toward nuclear capability, the eventual prospect of unconventional warheads on its seafaring vessels’ missiles cannot be discounted either.

Iran’s navy still ranks only 12th in the world, so it is building up capabilities in asymmetric warfare. For now, the threat it poses to the West is mostly directed at crude oil and natural gas shipping lanes in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf. “Due to the strategic location of the Strait of Hormuz,” blocking maritime traffic off Iran’s southern coastline is “always on our agenda,” Major General Jafari commented to the press in July 2011.

Jafari, like other Iranian commanders and politicians, is not shy about stating that the Iranian navy aims to do much more: “We have not restricted ourselves to this region and have not stopped at this point.” Indeed Iran regularly conducts naval war games to demonstrate its military might is expanding beyond West Asia. Just in case America and its allies missed the point, IRIN Deputy Commander Rear Admiral Gholam Reza Khadem Begham declared to reporters that such exercises should serve as “a warning to countries which are trying to prevent Iran from becoming an extra-regional power.”

Even if patrolling the Atlantic becomes a reality, Iran’s navy will not risk actions that place it on the receiving end of a Trafalgar-like battle. Shaping perceptions through power projection is the route that Tehran traditionally takes, not military confrontation. So the new naval doctrine fits well into expanding nuclear, missile, satellite and sanction-busting programs as Iran gradually slips beyond Western safeguards and demonstrates it is a rising power whose views on global geopolitics must be heeded and can be forced upon others.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian, and International studies and former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University. He is also a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed here are his own.