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Gulf III: Iran’s Power in the Sea Lanes

Michael Connell

What is the record of interaction between the U.S. and Iranian navies in the Persian Gulf?
 
            The United States and Iran have never officially been at war, but several recent incidents between the U.S. and Iranian navies have had the potential to escalate into armed confrontations. In January 2012, three Revolutionary Guards speed boats harassed the USS New Orleans. The small craft came within 500 yards of the amphibious transport ship as it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz. On the same day, Iranian small boats also harassed the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Adak, operating east of Kuwait City.
 
      Most of the close encounters involved the naval arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is distinct from the conventional Iranian Navy. In contrast, U.S. Navy commanders routinely say their interactions with the regular Iranian Navy are professional.
 
      The U.S. and Iranian navies had several hostile encounters in the 1980s. Iranian attacks on commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf triggered armed exchanges between their navies during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The United States responded in Operations Nimble Archer (October 1987) and Praying Mantis (April 1988).
 
What types of situations could spark a larger conflict?
 
            The United States and Iran are unlikely to initiate hostilities in the Gulf waters without provocation. But a minor incident between the U.S. and Iranian navies could flare into a major encounter. The other main danger is an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, which could pull the United States into a wider conflict.
 
            If Israel strikes, the Iranians have pledged to retaliate by attacking U.S. forces in the region. Whether they would actually do so is debatable. The Iranians could simply be posturing to deter Israel and the United States. Regardless, the United States is likely to maintain a robust presence in the region to deter an Iranian attack or — should that fail — to respond militarily.
 
How might such a conflict be diffused?
 
            Various options have been proposed that could mitigate the danger of an unintended escalation after a maritime incident in the Gulf, beyond routine bridge-to-bridge communications. These include:
 
· Creation of common “rules of the road” to govern interactions between the U.S. and Iranian navies, something akin to the Incident at Sea (INCSEA) arrangement that the U.S. and Soviet navies had during the Cold War,
· Establishing a direct hotline between U.S. and Iranian commanders in the Gulf. In late 2011, military officials in Washington broached this idea, but Iranian regular and IRGC Navy commanders rejected it.
 
How are Iran’s naval forces deployed in the Gulf?
 
            Iran has two independent naval forces with parallel chains of command. The conventional navy is called the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN). The second is the naval wing of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGCN). The two navies have overlapping functions and areas of responsibility, but they are distinct in terms of how they are trained and equipped— and more importantly also in how they fight.
 
      The backbone of the regular navy’s inventory consists of larger surface ships, including frigates and corvettes, and submarines. With its longer range surface assets, the IRIN is generally considered to be a conventional “green water” navy. It operates at a regional level, mainly in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman but also as far afield as the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
 
      The Revolutionary Guards naval force has a large inventory of small fast attack craft, and specializes in asymmetric, hit-and-run tactics. It is more akin to a guerrilla force at sea. Both navies maintain large arsenals of coastal defense and anti-ship cruise missiles and mines.
 
            In 2007, the two navies underwent a major reorganization of their responsibilities, with the IRGCN assuming control over operations in the Persian Gulf and the IRIN mainly focusing its efforts outside the Gulf. Both fleets are organized on geographic lines, with district commands along Iran’s southern and northern littorals.
 
            The first naval district for both commands is co-located in Bandar Abbas, near the Strait of Hormuz, suggesting that both services have overlapping responsibilities in this strategically significant area. Recently, the Revolutionary Guards Navy set up an additional district command in Bandar Lengeh that is responsible for defending Iran’s numerous islands in the Gulf.
 
How do Iranian naval capabilities compare to U.S. naval capabilities?
 
            Iran’s military leaders recognize that the United States is a technologically superior adversary and that Iranian naval forces would suffer major losses in any conventional conflict. For this reason, they have developed an asymmetric strategy that plays to Iran’s strengths while taking advantage of their adversaries’ weaknesses, including the U.S. aversion to casualties.
 
            Geography plays a central role in this regard. The confined operating space in the Gulf and especially the narrow Strait of Hormuz complicates U.S. operations and mitigates some of the U.S. Navy’s technological advantages. In a conflict, Iran’s naval forces would seek to overwhelm their adversaries’ defenses with mines, coastal defense cruise missiles, and swarms of small boats. Submarines and frigates would form the outer ring of Iran’s layered defense strategy.
 
            While the U.S. Navy would almost certainly prevail in an extended conflict, Iran’s naval forces would likely seek to inflict enough casualties to raise the cost of victory to an unpalatable level.
 
Iran held a wide-ranging naval exercise in December 2012. What new capabilities did Iran demonstrate — and what was its message to its neighbors and the United States? 
 
            Velayat 91, a combined Iranian Navy and Air Force exercise, featured test launches of a variety of missile systems as well as naval and amphibious maneuvers. The extensive testing of anti-ship cruise missiles was particularly noteworthy. So were the testing of the new Ra’d air defense missile — an “optimized” version of the Russian S-200 — and several subsurface warfare drills. Iranian maneuvers also featured the IRIN’s new, domestically produced Tondar hovercraft.
 
            According to official statements, the exercise was intended to “send a message of friendship to neighboring countries.” But its primary purpose was undoubtedly to deter the United States and its allies from attacking Iran. Many of the weapons systems and platforms featured in the exercise play an important role in Iran’s anti-access, area denial strategy.

Read Gulf I: Iran's Power in the Air

Read Gulf II: Timeline of U.S-Iran Encounters
 
 
Michael Connell is director of Iranian Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, a non-profit institution that conducts research and analysis in Washington D.C.
 
Photo Credit: Suspected small craft of the IRGCN 080106-N-0000X-005.jpg by Navy.mil on Jan. 6, 2008
 
Department of Defense photo of Kilo-class submarine via Wikimedia Commons
 
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 
 
 

Gulf II: Timeline of U.S.-Iran Encounters

Michael Connell
 

         Iranian and U.S. naval forces have had sporadic and sometimes hostile interactions since the 1980s.                 

·May 13, 1984: After repeated Iraqi attacks on Iranian shipping and refining facilities, Iran retaliated with attacks on neutral shipping. The tit-for-tat exchanges initiated the so-called Tanker War. The first vessel struck by Iran was the Kuwaiti tanker Umm Casbah. The United States responded by bolstering the capabilities of its Arab allies in the Gulf and increasing its own military presence in the region. Shortly afterward, Speaker of Parliament Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani declared, “Either the Persian Gulf will be safe for all or no one.”
 
·July 24, 1987: The United States began to reflag and escort Kuwaiti tankers to protect them from Iranian attacks. The operation, codenamed “Ernest Will,” was the largest of its kind since World War II. On the first escort mission, the Kuwaiti tanker al Rekkah, reflagged as the MV Bridgeton, struck an Iranian mine, suffering minor damage.
 
·Sept. 19, 1987: U.S. forces attacked and captured the Iranian logistical vessel Iran Ajr ( above), after it was caught dropping mines in the Persian Gulf.
 
·Oct. 19, 1987: U.S. naval forces destroyed two Iranian oil platforms in the Rostam Oil Field. The operation—codenamed “Nimble Archer”—was in retaliation for an Iranian attack on the Kuwaiti-owned, U.S.-flagged tanker, the MV Sea Island City.
 
·April 14, 1988: The U.S. frigate Samuel B. Roberts, which was escorting tankers in the Gulf, struck an Iranian mine. It suffered extensive damage. U.S. forces retaliated with Operation Praying Mantis, destroying two Iranian oil platforms—both of which were believed to be important Revolutionary Guards Navy staging bases—and disabling or sinking several Iranian regular navy surface assets.
 
·July 3, 1988: The USS Vincennes, a Navy guided missile cruiser, shot down Iran Air Flight 655, bound from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, with the loss of all 290 of its passengers and crew. According to U.S. officials, the crew of the Vincennes, who were operating in a warzone, mistook the airliner for a hostile Iranian aircraft. Tehran claimed that the downing was deliberate.
 
·June 21, 2004: IRGC naval forces captured six British Royal Navy sailors and two Royal Marines in the disputed waters of the Shatt al-Arab, along the southern boundary between Iran and Iraq. Tehran claimed that the British had strayed into Iranian waters. The captured sailors and marines were released following negotiations. The British personnel had been operating as part of a U.S.-led naval coalition in the Gulf.
 
·March 23, 2007: Revolutionary Guard Navy forces seized 15 British Royal Navy personnel while the latter conducted a routine boarding of merchant vessels off the coast between Iraq and Iran. Britain claimed its personnel were operating in Iraqi territorial waters. But the Iranians claimed the British had illegally entered their territorial waters. The British personnel were released after 13 days.
 
·Jan. 6, 2008: Five high-speed Revolutionary Guard boats engaged in aggressive maneuvering against three U.S. vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. During the incident, one of the small boats placed what appeared to be small white boxes in the path of the three U.S. vessels. A threatening radio transmission also was heard on a commonly used maritime frequency. It was subsequently determined that the radio transmissions probably came from a third-party heckler, a concept known to mariners as the “Filipino Monkey.”
 
·Jan. 6, 2012: IRGC Navy small boats harassed the USS New Orleans, an amphibious transport ship, while the latter was transiting the Strait of Hormuz. On the same day, Iranian small boats also harassed the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Adak, which was operating 75 miles east of Kuwait City. U.S. Navy officials said the small boats came within several hundred yards of both vessels and did not respond to queries or whistles, as is standard for maritime protocol.
 
·Nov. 1, 2012: Iranian Air Force fighter jets fired on a U.S. Predator drone over the Gulf, but failed to bring it down. Iranian officials claimed that the Predator was conducting a reconnaissance mission near Bushehr, the site of Iran’s only nuclear power plant.
 
 
Michael Connell is director of Iranian Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, a non-profit institution that conducts research and analysis in Washington D.C.
 
Photo Credit: Ajr mine laying ship by Service Depicted, Command Shown: N1601 Camera Operator: PH3 CLEVELAND (ID:DNSC8712581) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 

Iran’s military exercises send strategic message to Israel, the United States

Michael Connell

       Iran launched five-day military exercises on Nov. 16 to test its air defenses in case of an attack on its nuclear sites or other sensitive facilities. The war games—dubbed Defenders of the Sky of Velayat III—are the largest exercises ever held, according to the government. In a key development, Iran tested a new air defense missile system.
 
       The exercises come at a sensitive time, given tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, talk of a future Israeli strike, and scheduled diplomatic talks in December. As in the past, the new war games have been accompanied by a fair amount of bluster, bravado and strategic messaging. Their primary purpose, beyond training and testing new systems, is to showcase Iran’s capabilities and deter potential attackers.
 
       Given the advance rhetoric, Iran appears to be primarily messaging Israel, although other countries, including the United States, are also on the list.
 
       The exercises were preceded by tactical drills that simulated real combat in Fordo, Tehran, Natanz, Bushehr and Isfahan, all sites associated with Iran’s nuclear program, according to Brigadier General Ahmad Mighani, the head of Iran’s Air Defense Forces.
 
       In another signal to the outside world, Iran tested a new air defense missile system known as the Mersad, or “ambush” in Farsi. It has been coupled with a domestically produced surface-to-air missile (SAM) called the Shahin, or “hawk” in Farsi. It is a reverse-engineered version of the I-HAWK first produced in the 1970s.
 
       Tehran claims that Iranian scientists developed the new systems, which can identify and hit incoming missiles at low and medium altitudes. Iran also tested a new radar, which it claimed has a range of 3,000 kilometers or about 1,875 miles.
 
       The test follows Russia’s decision in September to comply with U.N. sanctions and not deliver the advanced S-300 SAM system that Tehran had ordered. Iranian officials have been furious at Moscow’s unwillingness to follow through on the deal, with Iranian legislators even calling for the government to sue Russia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
 
       Iranian state television has implied that the Mersad test is linked to the failed S-300 deal. It reported that the new system is an “ungraded version” of the Russian S-200 anti-aircraft missile system but has the same capability as the S-300.
 
       The Mersad/Shahin system, even with upgrades, is actually a far cry from the S-300. But in testing it, the Iranian military is sending a defiant—if somewhat exaggerated—message to Israel, the United States, Russia, as well as its own people that it is not dependent on Moscow’s help to defend Iranian air space.
 
       The exercises are being coordinated by the Khatam ol-Anbiya Air Defense Base, under the control of Iran’s regular military, although other services, including the Revolutionary Guard, the police, and the Basij also appear to be involved. The last large-scale war games were in May in the Persian Gulf.
 
       The latest exercise will be a critical test for the new command and its ability to coordinate operations across multiple services and agencies—not an easy thing to do in a country with two parallel military chains of command, one for the regular military and another for the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
 
       On the operation’s second day, the Iranian press reported that six unidentified foreign planes had intruded on Iranian airspace but were intercepted and forced to retreat. This rather interesting bit of news generated a stir in the Western media—until Press TV, an Iranian state-run English language news outlet, reported that the incidents were actually mock intrusions and part of the exercise. The next big Iranian military exercise—with IRGC ground forces taking the lead—is scheduled for late December. Stay tuned for more messaging.
 

 

Michael Connell is director of Iranian Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, a non-profit institution that conducts research and analysis in Washington D.C.

 

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