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‘Greater deterrence power': Iran’s evolving blue-water naval ambitions December 7, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : DeSilva-Ranasinghe, Serge, Future Directions International, South Asia - General , trackback

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

This posting first appeared here on Future Directions International

The fallout over Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, and the threat of war with the US and its allies, continues to give impetus to the expansion and modernisation of Iran’s military, particularly the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy. Today, the Navy forms an essential part of Iran’s foreign policy. It is considered by some to be Iran’s best-equipped, trained and organised armed forces institution – one which seeks to extend Iranian influence in seas far outside the Persian Gulf.

Iran has two dedicated naval forces, the first being the older 18,000-strong Islamic Republic of Iran Navy and the second the 20,000-strong and much-vaunted Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, formed in 1985. Subjected to a strategic review in 2007, followed by a major reorganisation, both naval forces have since developed clearly defined roles. The Iranian Navy has developed blue-water capabilities, to operate in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, while the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy specialises in asymmetrical warfare and operating in the Persian Gulf.

Iranian Kilo class submarine

On the basis of what Iran claims is defensive and deterrent naval power, the Iranian Navy has witnessed unprecedented activity in the spheres of indigenous production and modernisation. Since 2000, Iran’s domestic defence industry production has increased markedly, and so has its technological sophistication. The most significant and recent examples are: in 2008, Iran announced its intention to produce the new 1,000 ton Qa’em-class submarine; in 2010, it launched its first locally-built Mowj-class frigate; similarly, in mid-August 2010, 12 new locally-built Peykraap/Tir-class missile boats were delivered to the Iranian Navy. Again, in late November 2011, the Iranian Navy added to its fleet three more locally-manufactured Ghadir-class submarines.

At a gathering at Tehran University on 2 December, the Iranian Navy’s growing confidence was amply demonstrated by its chief, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, who confirmed: ‘All activities of our enemies are within our reach. Our naval forces are fully prepared to defend the country’s interests even in international waters.’ The comments were made in the wake of the naval chief’s previous announcement on 27 November, where he affirmed Iran’s future intention to conduct naval exercises in international waters.

Although Iranian military exercises are nothing new, what is increasingly noticeable is Iran’s ability and intention to project its Navy farther from its shores than ever before. In recent years, the Iranian Navy has been deployed in the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. For instance, in the Gulf of Aden, the Iranian Navy has engaged in over a dozen anti-piracy patrols since November 2008. Its contribution to anti-piracy efforts was even acknowledged by the International Maritime Organisation. Indeed, more recently, in November 2011, the Tehran Times claimed that the Iranian Navy had escorted 1,300 merchant ships and tankers in the north of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and clashed with, or fended off, Somali pirates in at least 100 incidents since 2008.

The growing incidence of Iranian naval activity outside the Persian Gulf was eventually put into a broader strategic context, when in March 2010, the Iranian Navy’s deputy head of operations, Rear Admiral Rostamabadi, was quoted as saying:  ‘We plan on having a presence off the coasts of India and inside the Malacca Strait. The strait forms a point of a triangle in which a high percentage of the world’s energy is exchanged and transferred,’ he said. ‘Ships within the Persian Gulf which set sail towards the Suez Canal and enter the Mediterranean Sea and those ships that set sail eastward, all pass through this triangle’. He added: ‘By expanding our presence within this triangle, we will be able to completely oversee the transit of the world’s energy and at the same time protect our interests. At the same time, we will have greater deterrence power within this region when facing enemies and rivals of the Islamic Republic of Iran’.

Consistent with Iranian rhetoric, there has been growing evidence of Iranian military interest and activity outside the Persian Gulf area. For instance, in December 2010, an Iranian naval delegation led by the Navy chief, visited the Red Sea state of Djibouti to bolster military to military ties. This developed into an agreement to provide Iranian warships with access to Djibouti’s ship repair and maintenance facilities.

Similarly, in February 2011, two Iranian warships passed through the Suez Canal for the first time since 1979, and called in to the Syrian port of Latakia, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Subsequently, in mid-2011, Iran deployed one Kilo-class submarine to the Red Sea to participate in anti-piracy operations. Finally, in September this year, in an unprecedented announcement, Iran declared its intention to deploy naval forces in the Western Atlantic, near the US, in the near future.

Iran’s increasing forays into the eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean are being taken seriously by its adversaries throughout the region, particularly the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. They view its presence as a veritable threat to their security and interests. Nonetheless, Iran’s shrewd use of trade, energy and naval diplomacy, has given it considerable strategic leverage. This has enabled it to expand its influence in many regions throughout the world, and has set the stage for what may become a strong, visible and permanent presence outside the Persian Gulf.


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