On November 28th, Iran commemorated its National Navy Day with the usual showcase of advancements in maritime defense technology and equipment, along with a reception of top Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) commanders and personnel by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei’s remarks during the reception honored IRIN martyrdom in the Iran-Iraq War, praised naval defense achievements in the past year, and highlighted IRIN’s vital role in Iran’s security architecture. Interestingly, Khamenei affirmed that the pace of progress in Iran’s naval capabilities has been insufficient and that IRIN must expand its presence in international waters. Khamenei’s encouragements complement recent comments from IRIN’s newly appointed commander, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi. In his first press conference as IRIN commander, Khanzadi announced IRIN would soon deploy ships to cross the Atlantic, visit Latin American countries friendly to Iran, and fly Iran’s flag in the Gulf of Mexico.
The United States must be careful not to overreact to the inevitable growth in Iran’s naval capabilities and long-range operations. U.S. policymakers should focus on IRIN’s developing capabilities as they serve to complement Iran’s “land bridge” across Iraq and Syria, while remaining watchful, albeit publicly reserved, regarding the planned political spectacle in the Gulf of Mexico.
Pursuing such an ambitious, long-range naval operation is strange considering Iran’s maritime strategy has traditionally been grounded in securing its core naval interests – the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. Economically, Iran depends on safe commercial passage through these waterways for oil exports (which provide 62% of government revenue) as well as food and medical product imports. Former IRIN Commander Habibollah Sayyari has alleged that nearly 90% of Iran’s international trade is dependent on maritime transport. Furthermore, securing the Persian Gulf is a geostrategic necessity in the event that conflict breaks out with Saudi Arabia – a growing possibility in light of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s bellicose rhetoric towards Iran.
Iranian assets on display on Navy Day in 2013
Persian Gulf security is the primary objective of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), formed in 1983 as an outgrowth of the IRGC. With a tacit understanding that Iran’s navies cannot challenge U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf conventionally, IRGCN acquisition prioritizes small, fast attack craft armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and mines. The IRGCN complements its acquisition strategy with asymmetric tactics such as mine-laying and hit-and-run swarm attacks utilizing numerically large forces. By comparison, IRIN acquisition and tactics are more conventionally focused, with operations geared towards a longer range.
Iran’s proximity to these waterways is not just a liability, but also a strategic asset. The U.S. Energy Information Administration describes the Strait of Hormuz as “a key artery of the global oil market” and “the world’s most important chokepoint,” with roughly 30% of seaborne-traded crude oil passing through its two-mile-wide shipping lanes. Closing the Strait would cause oil prices to skyrocket and wreak havoc on international markets. In 2007, Iran reorganized its naval forces to reduce overlap between the IRIN and IRGCN. However, the navies maintained joint-responsibility for the Strait, exemplifying Iran’s premium on maintaining this deterrence capability.
There is no consensus regarding how long an Iranian blockade could resist U.S. forces, with estimates ranging from days to months. Since the reorganization, Iran’s navies have conducted several coordinated military exercises signaling improved integration. Furthermore, the Strait’s narrow confines could make IRGCN swarm attacks, mine laying, and submarine support devastatingly effective. Of course, closing the Strait would have disastrous consequences for Iran’s economy and immediately invite U.S. intervention. Iran has foregone a nuclear weapon, but its ability to quickly destabilize energy markets is a key deterrence strategy to U.S. aggression.
Tankers filling here at Al Basra Oil Terminal must pass through the Strait of Hormuz to access global markets.
Acknowledging Iran’s keen interests in regional naval security begs the question: why would Iran pursue a logistically difficult, long-range naval operation to the Gulf of Mexico, and how serious are these pronouncements from Iran’s new IRIN commander? Although Iran announced and later abandoned similar plans in 2014, there is some evidence to suggest Khanzadi’s plans might come to fruition.
Since 2014, there has been a fundamental shift in Iran’s strategic position. Iran has become increasingly entrenched in both Iraq and Syria’s domestic politics and security by recruiting, training, and funding Shiite militias to combat ISIS. Iran-backed Hezbollah is becoming increasingly popular in Lebanon and is expected to gain seats in the next election. Houthi rebels in Yemen may soon provide Iran a foothold on Saudi Arabia’s border. Iran has capitalized on regional chaos over the last three years, willing into existence Gulf monarch fever dreams of an emerging Shiite Crescent. Iran has been emboldened by these strategic gains, and seeks to develop naval forces capable of consolidating its improved position. Currently, Iran’s material support to Hezbollah is usually smuggled or delivered via aerial resupply. A robust naval force that can go unchallenged by Saudi Arabia and Israel would enable Iran to provide greater material support to allies in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
The politics of a long-range naval operation are also likely important factors in Tehran’s calculations. In February, Iran’s ambitious Velayat 95 war game extended into the northern Indian Ocean as far as 10° latitude. These well-publicized exercises communicate the growing competency, integration, and capabilities of Iran’s naval forces to foreign audiences and foment Iranian nationalism and regime legitimacy domestically. Successfully deploying Iranian vessels to the Gulf of Mexico would serve a similar purpose and bolster Iran’s ambitions to be perceived as a dominant regional power and consequential international actor.
War games and exercises inspire Iranian nationalism, strengthening the government.
Diplomatically, the operation serves as strategic outreach to Iran’s South American allies, potentially complicating U.S. bilateral ties to those countries. Iran may also seek to attract American media attention and an overreaction from President Donald Trump. A wayward tweet deriding Iran’s provocative operation as a threat to American security could delegitimize U.S. operations in the Persian Gulf. Trump’s words have the potential to reignite the debate regarding U.S. force presence in the Persian Gulf, playing into Tehran’s rhetoric that the U.S. has no business in Iran’s backyard. A graver miscalculation would embolden Iran’s domestic audience and undermine U.S. international moral authority.
Iran’s naval forces do not pose a serious conventional threat to the US, and it is unlikely to utilize its sole asymmetric deterrent capability. The non-political impetus behind Iran’s developing naval capabilities – improving its ability to supply regional allies and proxies – is the real prize. Continuing to buoy international support for political transformation in Syria, playing a leading role in Iraq and Syria’s reconstruction, and further enhancing naval cooperation with Israel will serve U.S. interests to roll back the manifest Iranian influence that makes these strategic maritime initiatives attractive.
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Paul Michael is a first year M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He currently interns at the Center for International Policy. His research interests include U.S.-Iran relations and the economic dimensions of national security.