Iran has harbored hegemonic aspirations for decades. Indeed, during the Shah of Iran’s reign, such hopes were encouraged by the U.S. policy of developing Iran as a regional power that would safeguard Western interests in the Persian Gulf against Soviet adventurism. The Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah, the internal upheavals that accompanied the transformation to a theocratic state, and the bloody 1981–1988 Iran-Iraq War moved them to the back burner. However, a combination of international events—the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the Cold War and the annihilation of much of the Iraqi military in 1991—and a relatively stable domestic political environment have emboldened Teheran to pursue regional hegemony once again.
One indication of Iran’s renewed quest for power is the steady rebuilding of its land and air forces. Furthermore, for the first time since the end of the country’s monarchy, the Iranian Navy is being given the resources to modernize and expand.
Days of Disarray
Toward the end of his rule, the Shah of Iran planned to acquire powerful warships for the Imperial Iranian Navy—including six modified Spruance (DD-963)-class destroyers and six West German submarines. The principal Iranian naval bases—at Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz and Chah Bahar on the Indian Ocean—were expanded and modernized.
However, the Iranian revolution sent the Shah into exile and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and capture of its staff in late 1979 further soured relations between Iran and the United States and other Western nations. The submarines and ships never were delivered and the Iranian Navy was cut off from its sources of spare parts, technical advice, and supplies. In addition, many Western-trained officers were purged from all branches of the Iranian military. Therefore, when the war with Iraq began in 1981, the Iranian Navy was in disarray.
The Iran-Iraq War essentially was a land war. After Iraqi gunboats commenced a campaign against Iranian oil Platforms and shipping in the northern Gulf around Korramshar, however, Iran retaliated by striking against ships transporting oil from Iraq. Later, tankers steaming to and from the ports of nations that aided Iraq—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the other Gulf Principalities—were targeted. Initially, the attacks were made by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, but by late 1987, nearly all attacks were being conducted by Iranian naval units.
Most of the Iranian units were small patrol boats armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. These ships were manned by the Pasdaran Islamic Revolutionary Guards operating out of Bandar Abbas and from derelict oil platforms. Of the approximately 200 ships that were attacked, only 22 were sunk, because the Iranian boats carried relatively light weapons. Other problems Plagued the Iranian effort as well. Often, their Chinese-built Silkworm missiles were inaccurate and their warheads were unreliable, because of poor maintenance. The arms embargo imposed by the United Nations forced the Iranian Navy to cannibalize equipment for Iranian-made spare parts or to repair and refit ships with foreign-made—often Chinese—parts.
Nevertheless, the Tanker War posed a grave threat to the West’s supply of Middle East oil. Therefore, the United States and other Western nations took a number of strong actions to protect the tanker routes. One of these actions was a direct attack on Iranian naval power. On 18 April 1988, U.S. naval forces in the Gulf launched Operation Praying Mantis, in which they struck suspected Revolutionary Guard bases and sank one Iranian frigate and damaged another.
The Iranian Naval Resurgence
In the early 1990s, Iran began a weapons buying spree to replace equipment lost during the Iran-Iraq War. Multiyear, multibillion-dollar deals for weapons—including ballistic missiles—were sealed with China and North Korea. Iran also negotiated contracts with Russia, Syria, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. The acquisition of the ballistic missiles is particularly worrisome because, in July 1993, China agreed to construct a 300-megawatt nuclear power plant for Iran. With continued Chinese assistance, Iran could have nuclear weapons by the end of the decade.
Iran already operates the most powerful navy in the Persian Gulf. According to the 1992-93 edition of the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ publication The Military Balance, it operates 3 destroyers, 3 frigates, 33 patrol and coastal units—including 10 missile craft—and 14 support vessels. Far from being neglected during this restoration of Iranian military power, however, the Iranian Navy is engaged in an intense program to construct a potent regional naval force.
Surface Combatants: Iran will receive a new fleet of 70-ton fast-attack patrol boats armed with HY-1 Styx antiship missiles—again from China. These ships are ideal for operations in the Gulf region because their weapons are lethal, their speed makes them difficult to hit, and their relatively small size allows them to operate from camouflaged positions along Iran’s long coastline.
Submarines: In November 1992 and August 1993, the first two Kilo-class submarines of three ordered from Russia were delivered. The first is based at Chah Bahar on the Gulf of Oman—a location giving it free access to the strait of Hormuz and the Indian Ocean. The second operates from the base at Bandar Abbas. It was reported in Britain that on 24 December 1993 the order for the third boat was canceled unilaterally by Russia. A Kilo is capable of carrying 18 torpedoes or 36 mines and loitering on station for 60 days. Iran also operates an unknown number of midget submarines supplied by North Korea that are useful for shallow-water attack, minelaying, and special operations.
Antisubmarine warfare is particularly difficult in the Persian Gulf because submarines can hide behind the incessant noise produced by merchant ship traffic through the Gulf, and can take advantage of dynamic thermal layers and coastal distortions.
Aircraft and Missiles: Russia has supplied Iran with many MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters and reportedly has offered the long-range Backfire bomber—designed to attack carrier battle groups. In 1992, Ukraine sold Iran eight SS-N-22 supersonic “Sunburn” antiship missiles for $600,000 apiece. Presently, the U.S. Navy has no electronic countermeasures that can defeat the Sunburn—which travels 15 feet above the waves at about 1,900 miles per hour and executes evasive S-tums as it approaches its target.
Domestic Capability: With Chinese assistance, Iran is developing its own defense industry. In early 1993, experts were surprised to find Iranian arms producers hawking their products at an international defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Iran is developing an array of missiles—from the Tandar-68 (with a range of 40 kilometers) to the Shahin 2 (with 100–130 kilometer range) to the Mushak (with a range of 160 kilometers).
Iran: Aggressive and Assertive
Certainly, there are other Middle Eastern nations with large arsenals and more advanced weapons than Iran. However, two things make the Iranian military buildup—particularly its naval dimension—especially alarming.
The first is Iran’s growing assertiveness and aggressiveness in its foreign affairs. Teheran is attempting to extend its influence throughout the Islamic world—from Morocco on the Atlantic to Tajikistan on the Hindu Kush Range—and is strengthening its links to fundamentalist Muslim insurgences and political movements in such countries as Jordan, Algeria, and Egypt. The Islamic government in the Sudan has developed a relationship that includes Iranian subsidies in exchange for Sudanese operation of extensive sanctuaries and training bases for Islamic irregulars and terrorists. Through Sudan, Iran is assisting Muslim separatists in Ethiopia.
Fueled by assistance from Iran, a large Islamic resistance movement in Farsi-speaking Tajikistan—a former republic of the Soviet Union—is battling ex-communists for control of that country. In Afghanistan, Shi’ite Muslims armed by Iran are battling Sunni Muslims armed by Saudi Arabia.
The epicenter of Iranian activity, however, has been in the Persian Gulf region. In September 1992, Iran annexed Abu Mesa, Sirra, and Farsi, small islands jointly controlled by it and the United Arab Emirates, over the objections of eight Arab nations—including Tehran’s ally, Syria.
It is no secret that Iran’s policy is to remake the region in its own image. To that end, Iran is financing fundamentalist political groups, terrorists, and guerrilla movements, by which it hopes to topple the secular government of Iraq and the pro-Western monarchies. By installing Islamic governments throughout the Gulf, Iran would establish itself as the leading nation in the region and it also would effectively eliminate just about all Western influence.
A Question of Intent
Even if Iran’s effort to transform the political map of the Persian Gulf fails, its geostrategic position—astride the entrance to the Persian Gulf—still should raise concerns about the security of Western interests in this vital region.
Unlike Iraq, Iran has an extensive coastline on the Petrian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Strait of Hormuz. Tanker traffic passing through the Strait of Hormuz moves within ten miles of the Iranian mainland or the three islands recently annexed.
Other nations are close to the world’s main trade routes, but—for the most part—they belong to the family of nations. Iran’s aggressive foreign policy in itself should be enough to concern Western leaders. But, the commander of Iran’s Navy, Rear Admiral Abbas Mohtaj, has gone even further, stating that his fleet will exercise “control over the Strait.” This is not necessarily a hollow boast' Like the German Navy of World War II, the Iranian Navy is configured for only one particular task. Effective control of the strait would not require a balanced, Western-style fleet; it could be done easily by the ships, mines, submarines, and missiles either in Iran’s arsenal or soon to be in it. In other words, the Persian Gulf very easily could become Iran’s mare nostrum.
One possible scenario would be a replay of the Tanker War, in which Iran exacts tribute from nations—both importers and exporters—dependent on Persian Gulf oil for their economic well-being. Fought with modern aircraft, ships, and submarines armed with modern torpedoes, mines, and missiles—instead of small boats armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns—such a conflict would have far greater ramifications than the one in the mid-1980s.
A Challenge Unanswered?
The West—particularly the United States—must develop immediately a politico-military posture to deter Iranian adventurism. The sparring between Egypt and Iran in April 1993 over Iran's intention to station warships in Port Sudan proves that forceful diplomacy can work against the Iranians. Soon after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak heard of the plan, he sternly warned Teheran that if it carried through the plan and sent the warships, he would “hit them immediately.” Iran backed down.
Nevertheless, the challenge posed by Iranian politico-military policies is becoming more worrisome because the Persistent conflicts in the Balkans, Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia have eroded the West’s willingness to Police the globe. As events unfold, we may see that even the most resolute political leadership by the United States Will not check Iran’s ambitions. The Bush administration’s efforts in 1992 to isolate the Iranian regime failed. Similar proposals offered by Secretary of State Warren Christopher have been virtually ignored by Japan and the European nations, which are major providers of advanced industrial and technological equipment to Iran.
There also are questions among U.S. allies about the willingness of the United States to fulfill its role as the leader of the West. What about the political will of the United States to make the commitments necessary to ensure the security and stability of the Persian Gulf? There ls an increasing reluctance among U.S. political leaders j to make the type of unwavering international commitments that were characteristic of the Cold War era. Although it Was retracted hurriedly by the Clinton administration, a remark made by Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff during a May 1993 briefing to reporters summed up an attitude shared by many political leaders in Washington: We don’t have the influence, we don’t have the inclination to use military forces, and we certainly don’t have the money.”
Certainly, some will claim that the specter of another response on the scale of the Persian Gulf War would deter any Iranian aggression. It is very doubtful, however, that | toe United States and its allies would be able to marshal the same formidable force that was sent to fight Iraq. Western nations are slashing their defense budgets. For example, U.S. defense spending has been lowered to a little less than 3% of gross national product—a level not seen since the years between the two World Wars. In naval terms, this translates into a force structure that, by 1998, will consist of 12 aircraft carriers—possibly as few as 10—and about 320 other warships.
A Policy That Deters
The dilemma for U.S. policymakers, therefore, is how to deter Iran from flexing its military muscle in the Persian Gulf. Judging from the reaction to the deployment of a large number of U.S. troops to the region during the Gulf War, a permanent U.S. military presence on the ground in the region would not be welcomed. Therefore, the United States will have to depend on naval forces to buttress its political commitments.
But how can we do so, with a drastically smaller naval force structure? With a carrier fleet of a dozen—or fewer— ships, a continuous U.S. naval air presence in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman cannot be maintained. The situation calls for the innovative use of available resources.
- Antisubmarine Warfare Preparations: Placing an undersea listening system on the floor of the Persian Gulf and its entrance would allow the tracking of Iranian submarines and surface units and would assist in the identification of friends, foes, and neutrals. Such a system also would allow the U.S. Navy to create an acoustic profile of the Gulf and its approaches.
- A New Naval Presence: The shrinking U.S. aircraft carrier fleet means that full carrier battle groups may not be available for the presence mission. Therefore, the U.S. Navy should develop a new type of force package. Preferably, it should be centered on an air-capable amphibious ship with embarked attack helicopters. During the Persian Gulf War, attack helicopters proved to be better than jet aircraft for the mission of attacking Iraqi warships.
- Intelligence: To counter the threat of fixed and mobile antiship missiles, provisions must be made to ensure that information derived from intelligence sources—including human intelligence and remote sensing—is made available to naval commanders in a timely fashion.
- Multilateral Cooperation: Since its inception in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been more effective politically than militarily. Most military cooperation in the Gulf has been bilateral—and ineffectual—in nature. The United States should seek to participate in GCC-sponsored naval exercises and patrols.
That the security of the Persian Gulf region is vital to the economic well-being of the West—indeed, of the world—is widely acknowledged. That Iran hopes to dominate the region—if not control it—also is plain. What is unclear is whether this looming threat to the Gulf and the world will be countered—and by whom. Deterrence requires both willpower and capability. By the end of the decade, unless the United States makes a firm commitment and takes steps to back it up, any questions about the politico-military future of the Persian Gulf may already have been resolved—in favor of Iran.