Iranian Maritime Policy and Ambitions vis a vis It’s Geo-political and Geo-economical Goals

Iranian Maritime Policy ambitions targets vis a vis its geopolitical and geo-economical goals

Aneela Shahzad |

Iran’s maritime policy is a mix of asymmetric warfare based on enhancing Anti Access/Access Denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, and a projected strategy of wide ocean presence in pursuit of connecting and coordinating with its global allies. This policy mix comes from a historical background, limitations of the contemporary times and the unique geography and economic needs of the country.

Traditionally, the Persian Empire has had a long history of struggle with the Ottoman Empire at their east and with the Russian Empire at their North, but these threats had been land-bound and through the Persian Gulf had been a busy lane for commerce between further East and the Mediterranean, it had never been developed as a naval strength by the Persians. The Pahlavi, the last ruling dynasty, established the Imperial Iranian Navy (IIN) that constituted warships purchased by the last Shah, from the US.

The 1979 Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War destroyed the IIN and the three Alvand-class frigates that were left, could no longer be maintained because the US denied Iran of the needed spare parts. Therefore, after the war, the Iranian naval strategy was reduced to a limited strategy of coastal defense relying on patrol boats. The Revolution, however, renamed the IIN to the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and created a second naval force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) in parallel.

Since the war, the Navy has concentrated in augmenting its coastal capabilities by adding surveillance boats, fast attack crafts and hovercrafts in order to be able to swarm the Persian Gulf with their presence and thereby legitimize their authority in the coastal waters. As of 2008, Haghshenass’ Report said, “Iran could launch a coordinated attack involving explosives-laden remote-controlled boats, swarming speedboats, semisubmersible torpedo boats, fast attack craft (FACs), kamikaze UAVs, midget and attack submarines, and shore-based anti-ship missile and artillery fire, all concentrated on a U.S.-escorted convoy or surface action group transiting the Strait of Hormuz”.

The US has never withdrawn its sanctions over Iran since 1979 and has called it a part of the ‘axis of evil’ since then. But especially after 9/11, when the US has deployed forces both in Iraq and Afghanistan at its flanks, Iran’s apprehensions were heightened and since then the Navy has been revamped to meet international challenges with the limited resources in hand. Because of the sanctions, Iran has had to rely on few friends and relatively cheaper technology, mostly from China, Russia and to some extent from North Korea. Purchase of inventory and technology from China, Russia and N Korea has been rigorously followed by reproduction of Chinese/Korean designs domestically.

According to an Office of Naval Intelligence, Feb 2017 report, ‘IRGCN focuses its naval acquisitions along four primary capabilities: fast attack craft (FAC), small boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and mines’. FACs like the Chinese-built Houdong WPTGs and their domestic copies are armed with cruise missiles and torpedoes; added to them are copies of the North Korean Peykaap-class boat fitted with Nasr (C704) ASCMs. Iran also produces missiles like the Ghader ASCMs at home and the ‘IRGCN has a large inventory of mines including contact and influence mines’. In contrast, ‘IRIN’s fleet is comprised of mainly traditional surface ships and submarines’.

Since 2007, up to 7 Corvettes have been added and two domestic combatant construction programs, the Jamaran-class and Alvand class are underway, while missile boats are being made under project Sina. Iran has so far procured 21 submarines, including Kilo-class attack submarines from Russia and North Korean-designed Yono-class midget submarines have been attained and construction of Fateh-class submarines have been developed along with building a 1300-ton attack submarine named Besat. Iran possesses ‘only two, the Bushehr and Kharg oilers capable of conducting replenishment at sea (RAS) missions’.In addition to these Iran has acquired 11 Landing Crafts, 13 Naval Combatant Helicopters and has 12 Amphibious Ships.

With this modestly growing inventory, Iran has engaged the IRGCN for defense and deterrence in the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz region, whereas the IRIN has been delegated the responsibilities of projects in the international waters. In this way, Iranian Navy has laid a wide strategy, which according to Christopher Harmer, is three-prong, he says, ‘First, Iran has reprioritized some of its local maritime exercises towards solidifying or expanding territorial claims in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and the Caspian Sea. Second, IRIN has significantly increased its long-range deployments in support of strategic relationships with key partners. Third, at the same time that IRISL is being used to support Iranian objectives logistically, IRIN may also be conducting similar operations’.

Iran’s naval ambitions can be driven from two factors, firstly the dream of becoming a regional power and secondly the fear of being attacked by much superior enemy navies, and the two reasons feed each other. Becoming a regional power, or posing to become one is a deterrence necessity for Iran, who has lived through the intrigues of the ‘Great Game’ in the past and is surrounded by foes in the Gulf States, and whose marked enemy, the US, encircles its navy in the Persian Gulf with ships fitted with ICBMs.

Apart from such an ambition, there is also a necessity of survival. In the face of continues sanctions, Iran has always had to dig out states that would do business with it. China and Russia have deals with Iran on military hardware, infrastructure and oil extraction. China is the largest importer of Iranian oil, followed by India, Japan and South Korea. As a resultant of all these geopolitical and geo-economic concerns has the Iranian navy adapted to asymmetric methods at its shore and a power-showcasing in the international waters.

In April 2013, Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said “The golden triangle of Malacca, Bab el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz is an important triangle and is the Navy’s point of concentration as recommended by the Leader”.

Map showing shipping density and the Malacca, Bab el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz

In March 2013, IRIN’s Navy destroyer Sabalan and the helicopter carrier Kharg reached the Chinese port of Zhangjiagang and on their way back anchored offshore from the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka – showing the world that it is ready to connect with its allies for both military and economic reasons. Likewise, Iranian ships routinely cross the Bab al Mandab, docking at the Sudan Port, wherefrom supplies are allegedly smuggled to both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the Mediterranean, the Iranian fleet compliments the Russian fleet at the Syrian coast.

In Sept 2012, in a move that sent shockwaves around the world, at least three IRISL ships anchored off the three Libyan ports of Benghazi, Sirte, and Misrata, a lot has been speculated upon the intention of this move since then. Another global factor for Port Bandar Abbas is that it serves as a port enroute for the Russian Navy, that does not have any other bases in the Indian Ocean.

As for Iran’s territorial ambitions, though the Greater Iran dream encompasses parts of the Caucasus, West Asia, Central Asia, and of South Asia, but practically Iran claims only some islands (the Tunbs and Abu Musa) in the Persian Gulf that it disputes with UAE and intends to increase Iranian claim in the Caspian Sea from 12% to 20% of the waters.

Map showing Lesser/Greater Tunb & Abu Musa islands contested between Iran & UAE

With this scheme of events in the background, Pakistan needs to assess Iran’s possible ambitions and threats vis a vis Pakistan. Especially with the on-going construction of Iran’s second major port in Chabahar that is being built with Indian assistance. From Pakistan’s perspective, Iran’s multilateral role in the region makes it difficult for Pakistan to figure out an ultimate Iran Policy for itself. Iran itself seems to be weighing out between India and China as it has oftentimes delayed the completion of Chabahar.

Is Iran ready to give India, a close ally of the US, an open path into Afghanistan via Chabahar and/or will Iran think that Chabahar will give it a better bargaining position with the US, who would be just as interested in using Chabahar as the Indians would be? Or would Iran’s economic and strategic connections with Russia, China and Sri Lanka forbid it to entertain India? Or would Iran, itself weary of being attacked by the US and its allies, not want the ousting of US from Afghanistan, wherefrom the US threatens equally both Pakistan and Iran, and thus its recent backing for the Taliban? Though Pakistan may be having an edge over Iran in its land and air forces, but the Iranian navy is certainly somewhat superior.

IRGCN may also be more battle ready as it faces enemy fleets close to its own in the Persian Gulf round the clock. In the geostrategic context Iran has to defend a small, bounded, enclosed sea with a convex seashore, lined with a mountainous terrain, that can support the navy with mounted missile systems, while on the other hand, Pakistan faces a wide-open ocean, with a concave seashore. This geography is an additive to Iran’s ocean threat levels compared to Pakistan, which has faced more of its adversaries around its land borders and has been relatively safer in its waters.

Map showing Iran’s seashore lined with hilly terrain that supports mounted missile systems

In the same line, Iran has a scarce agriculture, and sanctions on oil, its major commodity, confine it geo-economically and make the value of friends greater for Iran. In this context, Iran’s major friends (Russia and China) may have apprehensions about Indian investment in Chahbahar. Policy circles and experts are of the view, that US may not see Gwadar and Chahabar differently in its long-term geopolitical goals, given the fact that both belong to the same province of same ethnicity divided between two countries. Anticipating same reasons, Iran has signaled at occasions for being partner in the Gwadar energy and port projects. Iran has also offered Pakistan to conjoin Chabahar and Gwadar operationally.

It can be seen that minus-India – Russia, China, Pakistan and the Central Asian states would all be willing to do business with Iran, and Chabahar and Gwadar could become two parallel routes of prosperity opening in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, to minus India is not as easy done as said, Pakistan’s arch-rival India is swiftly increasing its naval inventory and holds several listening posts from the Maldives to Oman and Madagascar.

With a clear ambition to become a regional power, India’s project in Chabahar is a vital lifeline in and out of Afghanistan and Central Asia that India would not want to miss at any price. Iran has made pacts with India on Sea-lane control and security, joint naval exercises and joint working on counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics and would surely be looking forward to port-calls in the near future when/if Chabahar has been fully launched. Imagine if India’s under-construction aircraft-carrier is dock at Chabahar in near future!

Summing up, those inclined to look at the situation through a belligerent lens may ponder whether Pakistan should consider Iran an opponent of the Sunni world, a rival in Afghanistan, a friend of its arch enemy?However, on the other hand  should Pakistan consider Iran being:(a) encircled by enemies; (b) fearful for its economic and existential survival; (c) left with the only few states that are willing to buy its oil undercover. Should we, from a pragmatic perspective, strategize diplomacy to convince Iran overshared goals and its fruits and hence restrain from taking an unnecessarily antagonistic position?

The writer is a geopolitical analyst. Chief Editor at Strategic Analysis Forum and a regular contributor at leading national newspapers. Her area of interests are geopolitics, maritime affairs, anthropology, and history. She tweets @AneelaShahzad


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