The Iranian Navy’s Historic Mediterranean Deployment: Timing Is Everything
Iranian Warships in the Med. In an unprecedented maneuver, two ships of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) entered the Mediterranean Sea on February 22, 2011. The Iranian flagship Arvand, a corvette, and its supply ship, Kharg, transited the Suez Canal en route to Syria, ostensibly for a port visit as part of a midshipmen training deployment. Much to Israel’s chagrin, they conducted a port visit in Latakia, Syria, before returning through the Suez Canal on March 3 for a transit back to Iran. Israeli foreign minister Lieberman labeled this deployment a “provocation,” and certainly the timing could not be more opportunistic for Tehran as popular upheaval spreads across North Africa and the Middle East and Hezbollah appears poised to form a new government in Lebanon. If there was ever a window in which Iran could take advantage of uncertainty and instability in the region to convey a message of growing regional power and influence, this is it. Iran’s strategic message of growing capability and reach contrasts sharply with the instability embroiling Egypt and neighboring countries. This maneuver also reflects important developments in Iran’s military strategy, force posture, and strategic ambitions.
Although it might appear that Tehran timed the ship visit to coincide with ongoing popular uprisings in the region, the Iranian military leadership actually announced its intent to deploy to the Mediterranean on January 23, two days prior to Cairo’s first “day of rage” and well before President Mubarak’s anticipated demise. In fact, this historic deployment has been in the making since late 2007, when Iran initiated a naval reorganization that restructured the areas of responsibility for the IRIN and Iran’s second navy—the Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN)—and set both navies on new trajectories. Instead of both services patrolling the same waters, the IRIN was directed to expand its presence in the Caspian Sea and outside the Persian Gulf, leaving the responsibility for the Gulf itself to the IRGCN. This reorganization is somewhat intuitive, allowing the larger and more capable blue-water platforms of the IRIN to operate outside the limited confines of the Gulf, extend Iran’s layered defense against any threat coming from the seas, and exert greater regional influence to counter perceived threats from the regime’s many enemies.
However intuitive the reorganization may be, it was likely the result of another change initiated in 2007. General Mohamad Ali Jafari was appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei in September 20071 to lead the Revolutionary Guard. Although there is no consensus regarding the impetus for his selection,2 he is credited with refining Iran’s thinking on asymmetric warfare and dealing with soft power threats while leading a strategic research center responsible for innovative defensive and military strategies in 2005–2006, during a time when Iran's leadership was highly sensitive to perceived growing threats from the region and the West. His appointment also coincided with the Revolutionary Guard’s transition from its original mission as defender of clerical rule to its current role, which has been described in quasi-praetorian terms.3 It is the refining of this asymmetric doctrine that likely resulted in IRGCN supremacy in the Gulf at the expense of the IRIN. Whereas the IRGCN has focused procurement and production on asymmetric capabilities designed to ensure surprise, mass, and speed against maritime threats, the IRIN retains many of the antiquated assets purchased by the Shah that would be little more than targets for Western navies in any upcoming conflict. In fact, the Alvand and Kharg are both vestiges of 1970s procurements from the UK.
Reinventing the IRIN. As a result, the IRIN is now solely focused on providing defense in depth and extended deterrence. This concept includes the Gulf of Oman where the IRIN can emphasize its coastal defense and subsurface capabilities, but also expands as far as the Gulf of Aden, where the IRIN is now, somewhat surprisingly, conducting its 12th consecutive anti-piracy patrol since 2008. December 2010 agreements with Djibouti may portend a greater logistics footprint in the Gulf of Aden, allowing a larger IRIN presence in this region. Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, the IRIN commander, has made it clear that these deployments are about far more than combating piracy:
The IRIN’s presence within the Gulf of Aden is not just aimed at combating piracy…. As outlined in the directives set forth by our Supreme Leader, our strategy is to become a strategic naval force and maintain a presence in the high seas.4
Sayyari is clearly committed to expanding the IRIN footprint in the region and has a long-term view. One can question whether the IRIN is capable of this as modernization has been slow, particularly when compared with the IRGCN’s recent plus-up of high-speed, missile-equipped small boats designed to defend the Gulf. However, Sayyari has repeatedly cited the Supreme Leader’s directive5 to expand the navy’s reach as a critical underpinning to Iran’s future prosperity and has backed it up with the two years of anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden—something most analysts would have dismissed back in 2008 as a possibility.
Taking a page from Kaplan’s Monsoon? 6 Sayyari’s vision is echoed by Rear Admiral Rostamabadi, the IRIN deputy for operations, who provided a snapshot of IRIN’s strategic vision in August of 2010:
[The IRIN] plan on having a presence off the coasts of India and inside the vital Malacca Strait. The strait forms a point of the triangle in which a high percentage of the world’s energy is exchanged and transferred. Ships within the Persian Gulf which set sail towards the Suez Canal and enter the Mediterranean Sea and those ships which set sail eastward, all pass through this triangle. By expanding our presence with this triangle, we will be able to completely oversee the transit of the world’s energy and at that same time protect our own 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.7
Iran is perhaps second only to North Korea in using tactical military activity to further strategic ends, with the Navy playing a key role. Although there may be relevant tactical objectives8 to this deployment (the Iranian press has cited anti-piracy training and surveillance/reconnaissance), the larger strategic message articulated by Sayyari and Rostamabadi and amplified by this deployment is the real concern. With the IRGCN focused on the hard power mission of deterring and potentially defending the Persian Gulf from Western and Coalition threats, the Navy is able to focus on a broader role designed to expand Iranian influence and increase its leverage in the region at the expense of the West. The December overtures with Djibouti have more recently been complemented by maritime partnership efforts with Oman. Even this recent Syrian deployment concluded with a new cooperation agreement that was signed, not surprisingly, aboard the Kharg while pier side in Latakia. In fact, Sayyari personally led the high-ranking military delegation to Syria for this event.
Implications for Planning and Policy. Sayyari refers to 20259 as his target date to meet the Supreme Leader’s strategic guidance, providing significant time to continue with fleet modernization and procurement.10 At a minimum, this new IRIN footprint should give U.S. military planners pause to reconsider planning assumptions about Iran’s tactical and strategic depth. In one example, could Iran’s defense in depth eventually include the deployment of C-802 missiles in the Red Sea, delivered by an asset like Kharg to surrogates in Yemen or Eritrea? On a more strategic level, although Monsoon characterizes the Indian Ocean competition in terms of Indian and Chinese interests, could Iran complicate these maritime commons?
The new challenge posed by an active IRIN is not primarily a military one, but one of influence. Enhancing regional maritime partnerships and building upon existing maritime cooperation will be essential in moving forward to contain any “soft power” Iran hopes to create with its Navy. There may be policy implications that do not require a focus on containment. Does Iran’s expanding naval presence provide an opportunity for the United States to enhance communications with Iran? This would require back-channel diplomatic lifting and be met with suspicion in Tehran, but there are existing mechanisms that could be used. The Gulf of Aden counter-piracy task force is one such target of opportunity for greater communication and even maritime cooperation. It has a proven track record in bringing together more than 20 nations to date for a common cause. Another opportunity would be to invite the Iranian Navy to participate in a regional international exercise. Pakistan is currently hosting Aman 2011, a five-day, 39-country exercise this month that is designed to address transnational threats and provide a common forum for information sharing and mutual understanding.
One can reasonably question whether the IRIN is capable with its current inventory of realizing such an aggressive expansion and meeting its declared 2025 vision. The easy response is that these scenarios are unrealistic; however, with its 15-year time horizon and a strategic vision, the often-underestimated IRIN may deserve a second look. After all, there are two IRIN ships that just completed a historic transit to the Mediterranean and a string of 12 anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since late 2008—maritime milestones that no one would have predicted from Iran in 2007.
Commander Joshua C. Himes is the 2010–2011 U.S. Navy Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The assessments and opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
8. The Alvand itself is not a significant threat, although the Kharg will raise suspicion simply due to its logistics capacity and potential to transport weapons/materiel to Iranian surrogates in the region.
10. Although sanctions have likely affected Iranian naval modernization, AMI International’s 2010 review of Iranian maritime modernization efforts provides examples of ongoing procurement, indigenous production, and increased defense spending (2010 marked an increase in the defense budget from 3 percent to 5 percent of GDP) that will allow the IRIN to continue its modernization.