Maritime Matters

Iran Navy: Developing Long Sea Legs

06 Jan, 2014    ·   4237

Dr Vijay Sakhuja comments on the capabilities and objectives of Tehran

Iran’s suspected nuclear weapon programme, the associated economic sanctions, hardliner Iranian lawmakers’ demand for uranium enrichment, and the inconclusive Geneva talks to urge Tehran to roll back its nuclear programme has attracted international attention and marked the headlines of the Middle East politico-diplomatic and security discourse in 2013. Amidst this debate, Iran also announced that it could enrich uranium to 50 per cent purity level for use in nuclear powered submarines but would limit it for now to 20 per cent purity for use in power generation. 
During the last few years, Iranian naval power has grown and Tehran has unveiled new ships, submarines, UAVs, missiles etc at regular intervals aimed at deterrence and power projection. Iran’s current naval order of battle is about 170 vessels and nearly 90 per cent are less than 500 tons displacement that engage in coastal/shallow water operation. These support the Iranian strategy of littoral warfare against the other Gulf navies and asymmetric strategy against the naval power of the United States and its allies that are forward deployed in the region. Interestingly, Iran has two parallel navies i.e. the regular Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) belonging to the traditional Iranian Armed forces i.e. the “Artesh,” which undertakes distant water deployments and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) which emerged after the Islamic revolution, operate closer to shores. Although the two naval arms have different role, area of operation, equipment, and operating philosophy, they complement each other. 
It is noteworthy that the Iranian naval industrial complex is able to build a variety of platforms indigenously but Russia and China are known to be the major sources of technologies. Among these, the Iranian submarine fleet merits closer examination. Between 1992 and 1996 Iran commissioned three Russian origin 877 EKM Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines.  In 2007, it developed the Ghadir-class midget submarines (believed to be based on North Korea’s 90-ton Yogo-class submarine) which form the bulk of the underwater force. These are most difficult to detect particularly when resting on the seabed and this could be the possible tactics that the Iranian Navy could employ during hostilities. Further, given their numbers, these could overwhelm enemy’s technological superiority. Iran has often threatened to mine the Strait of Hormuz and block international shipping carrying oil and gas from the Gulf region. This had prompted the United States to deploy additional minesweeping ships. 
In recent times, the IRIN has made a number of out of area deployments showcasing endurance and combat capabilities overcoming years of defensive operations in the Gulf waters. In November 2013, ‘Younus’, a  Kilo class submarine, Alborz , Alvand class frigate and Bandar Abbas a light replenishment ship made port call to Mumbai, India and Colombo, Sri Lankan and latter’s navy chief even visited the submarine.  
The Iranian leadership has defined the Indian Ocean as the primary area of operation and to focus on the triangular sea space encompassing “the golden triangle of Malacca, Bab el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz’. The IRIN now sails beyond this area as far as the South China Sea in the east and the Mediterranean in the west suggesting that ‘sanctions against the Islamic Republic have neither hindered Iran’s scientific progress nor decreased the country’s military capability’. It undertakes port calls, sea training missions for cadets, and fights pirates in Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Gulf of Aden as also ‘conveying the message of peace and friendship’ and seeking navy cooperation. 
There is also a belief that deployments towards South China Sea could be to secure Chinese military hardware shipments to Iran and an Iranian flotilla visited Zhangjiagang port in China in March 2013. Likewise, the Iranian Navy has undertaken deployments to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and made calls at friendly ports in Sudan, Libya and Syria. Iranian naval leadership has plans to deploy the navy in the Atlantic (off the US coast) and the South Indian Ocean (Antarctica) in the future.These would certainly help the IRIN develop long sea legs. 
The IRIN has regularly conducted naval exercises such as the annual joint services Velayat series and the IRGCN holds the Fajr and the Fath series of naval exercises. The IRIN also engages in bilateral naval exercises with the Azerbaijan Navy in the Caspian Sea and the Royal Oman Navy Rescue and Relief drills. However, it has no experience in multilateral operations other than participating as an observer in the Pakistan Navy’s multinational exercises in Aman 07.  This could be the reason that the IRIN operates independently in counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden where it has successfully thwarted several piracy attempts. It will be useful to see if India can engage Iran and Oman navies which could operate together to address a number of threats and challenges confronting the North Arabian Sea.