BEIRUT — In 2021 alone, Iran’s naval forces and Revolutionary Guard added the Alvand destroyer, four Martoob al-Sabehat 15 Type submarines and 110 combat speedboats.
And a top official says there’s more to come. Iran has ambitious plans to build a 6,000-ton destroyer and giant submarines, Rear Adm. Amir Rastegari, who heads the Iranian Defence Ministry’s Marine Industries Organization, told the local Mehr News Agency in April.
Experts say the buildup of naval forces in Iran represents a rising threat to its neighboring countries.
The Alvand, the newest ship of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, was set afloat on Dec. 19.
“Iran has recently tried to modernize its Navy, which is primarily designed for the defense of [the] Persian Gulf against foreign navies,” Sina Azodi, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and a visiting scholar with the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, told Defense News. The “Iranian Navy has historically been its smallest force.”
Azodi, who specializes in Iran’s military and nuclear program, noted the Navy has not undergone modernization for decades. Now, the country is beginning indigenous programs to upgrade its existing fleet of surface vessels.
Iran operates three Soviet-built Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines that are 74 meters long. Its submarine arsenal also includes two Fateh-class diesel-electric coastal submarines, which are 48 meters long and were commissioned in early 2019, as well as 23 Ghadir-class mini-submarines based on North Korean Yono-class technology.
One country, two navies
Unconventionally, Iran has two naval forces: its regular naval forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. However, they have different missions and scopes of operations.
“The IRGC Navy and the Iranian Navy have two separate command structures,” Azodi said. “While some of their responsibilities overlap, the primary difference is the methods and strategies of operation.”
He said that while the IRGC focuses on hit-and-run tactics and asymmetric operations using fast boats, the traditional Navy consists of frigates, submarines and corvettes.
“They share the same mission of defending the Iranian mainland in the Persian Gulf,” he added.
Mohamed al-Kenany, who leads the military studies unit at the Cairo-based Arab Forum for Analyzing Iranian Policies, said another difference between the two navies is their respective theaters of operation.
“The Revolutionary Guard’s Navy is entrusted with combat missions in the Arabian Gulf region in particular, while the regular Navy operates mainly in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman and is trying to expand to the Red Sea,” al-Kenany said.
He differentiated between the conventional naval forces affiliated with the Army, which includes “old” frigates and corvettes obtained in the 1970s from the United States, the United Kingdom and France, and between the Revolutionary Guard’s highly effective naval assets that rely on asymmetric warfare and include speedboats, missile boats, vessels equipped with torpedoes and remote-controlled ships.
“The efficiency of IRGC Navy in the Persian Gulf is very high because of the doctrine and strategy it uses,” including anti-access/area denial tactics and the proliferation of mines in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf waters in general, al-Kenany said.
He noted that due to arms sanctions on Iran, the Navy relies on old systems and on local projects that were developed based on technology procured from Western countries.
The United States has imposed restrictions on activities with Iran under various legal authorities since 1979, following the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
There’s no mention of a naval modernization budget in the budget bill submitted by President Ebrahim Raisi to parliament on Dec. 12.
“I have not seen the numbers either,” Azodi told Defense News. “What I do know [is] the IRGC has received a large increase in budget. I believe that the expectation is that since they cannot expand either the Navy or the Air Force, it is better to give the bigger share to the missile program, which is the backbone of the defense strategy.”
Azodi noted that Iran relies on government-owned shipyards and there are no private ones in the country.
Threats in the Gulf
From a bomb boat striking the Saudi frigate Al-Madinah in 2017 to a fatal drone strike on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea in August, there have been several incidents in the region.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard recently received 110 locally made combat speedboats “equipped with missiles and rockets and are capable of operating efficiently under the IRGC’s indigenous radar network,” according to IRGC Chief Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, as reported by IRIB News in December 2021.
Azodi said the country’s focus on asymmetric warfare capabilities is due to the fact that “Iran has been largely out of the arms market, and countries under the U.S. pressure are reluctant to sell major weapons systems.”
He said Iran sees that approach as “quite effective against larger navies.”
Elsewhere in the region, Azodi added, Gulf Cooperation Council navies have heavily invested in larger surface vessels, including frigates from both the U.S. and France. Al-Kenany said that’s partly because the Iranian Navy represents a major threat in the Arabian Gulf.
“The revolutionary guard poses the biggest threat in the Gulf since it depends on asymmetric warfare and hit-and-run operations, especially swarm attacks,” al-Kenany said.
“Gulf navies’ assets need to be equipped,” he added. “They need thermal systems and thermal electro-optics to be able to detect [adversaries] from large distances, and radars that can monitor them from long distances.”
Agnes Helou is a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.