Tehran’s national security strategy aims to secure Iran’s four enduring strategic objectives:
- Ensure Continuity of Clerical Rule
- Secure the Nation From Internal and External Threats.
- Become a Dominant Regional Power.
- Attain Economic Prosperity
Iran’s conventional military strategy is based on deterrence and the ability to retaliate against an attacker. Its unconventional warfare operations and network of militant partners and proxies enable Tehran to safeguard its interests in the region and attain strategic depth from its adversaries. The Gulf state depends on both conventional and unconventional naval forces to support the strategy. (For more on the unconventional forces, see “Need to Know,” pp. 10–11, February 2020.)
The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) hews to a more conventional, traditional strategy and doctrine focusing on forward presence and naval diplomacy missions. IRIN has approximately 18,000 personnel and is considered Iran’s “blue water navy,” with its larger and more traditional surface ships (compared with the IRGCN). The IRIN is geographically divided into four naval departments (NDs), with the central IRIN headquarters in Tehran:
- First ND: Headquartered at Bandar Abbas, responsible for the Strait of Hormuz, and which also includes IRIN’s Southern Forward Naval Headquarters (SFNHQ) that coordinates across all southern IRIN NDs
- Second ND: Headquartered at Bushehr (Arabian Gulf) and Jask (Gulf of Oman
- Third ND: Headquartered at Chah Bahar (Gulf of Oman)
- Fourth ND: Headquartered at Bandar Anzali (Caspian Sea)
IRIN areas of operation include the Caspian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and out-of-Gulf operations. All but ignored since the end of the Iran-Iraq “tanker war” (other than its submarines), the IRIN is finally undergoing a major recapitalization program to replace its aging surface fleet and augment its submarine force, which is the crown jewel of IRIN’s naval order of battle.
One of the IRIN’s key missions is to conduct out-of-area operations and naval diplomacy beyond the Strait of Hormuz. Since 2009, the IRIN has maintained near-continuous out-of-area naval deployments for counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, foreign port visits, and bilateral exercises with regional navies. IRIN leaders tout the navy’s presence in the “Golden Triangle”—an area bounded by the Strait of Malacca, Bab al-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz, where substantial maritime commerce occurs—as evidence that it protects international shipping while gaining experience in the operating area. Despite its obsolescent platforms, the IRIN has been moderately effective in maintaining readiness and sustaining operations.
The IRIN’s fleet comprises primarily traditional surface combatants and submarines. Most of the IRIN’s surface ships are old, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, and include three British-built Vosper Mk 5 class corvettes and several French-built Combattante class patrol craft. Iran has built several of Combattante patrol craft and three new-design Jamaran-class corvettes, which closely resemble Iran’s lone Vosper Thornycroft corvette but with modifications, such as a helicopter flight deck. The domestically built Moudge class includes three completed and four in-construction frigates.
Mines and Mine-layers (MIW)
Naval mines are critical to Iran’s strategy in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. Iran has an inventory of more than 5,000 naval mines, which include contact and influence mines. Both the IRIN and IRGCN have devised strategies to deploy mines rapidly while improving force survivability. Iran has a variety of ships that can lay mines.
Iran has four classes of submarines in its order of battle. Iran’s largest and most capable subsurface platforms are the three Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines it purchased from Russia in the 1990s. The IRIN also has 14 North Korean-designed Yono-class midget submarines, which it can arm with Iranian Valfajar heavyweight torpedoes. In February 2019, Iran revealed its first submarine-launched antiship cruise missile, the Jask-2, which can be launched from the Yonos. Iran also has a single domestically designed and produced Nahang midget submarine, which could serve as a special operations platform. Also in February 2019, the IRIN officially commissioned its first coastal submarine, the Fateh. Iran claims the Fateh-class, Iran’s largest domestically built submarine, can launch both torpedoes and ASCMs. Iran is also building a 1,300-ton attack submarine known as the Besat. According to Iranian press reports, the Besat will be approximately 60 meters in length, capable of diving to 300 meters, and able to sustain 12 knots surfaced and 20 knots submerged. It likely will have six torpedo tubes, capable of deploying torpedoes and mines, as well as submarine-launched ASCMs
The Bottom Line
The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency warns: “Each of [Iran’s naval] forces is becoming increasingly survivable, precise, and responsive.” The Office of Naval Intelligence underscores the challenges facing Iran and U.S. forces in the Gulf region:
Many variables will influence the specific path Iran pursues regarding its naval forces. Regional security issues, diplomatic agreements, military leadership, and economic vitality will factor into Iran’s calculus in shaping its naval strategy, force composition, and operations. Regardless of these factors, Iran’s naval forces will remain a key component of Tehran’s national defense strategy, and it will likely continue to develop new capabilities and proficiencies. As the future story of Iran’s naval forces unfolds, it is likely to remain a tale of two navies.
Sources: Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies (Washington, DC: Office of Naval Intelligence, 2017); Iran Military Power: Ensuring Regime Survival and Securing Regional Dominance (Washington DC: Defense Intelligence Agency, 2019); Meghann Meyers, “As tensions spike with Iran, a look at how we got here,” Military Times, 3 January 2020; and Thomas Trask, et alia, “Contesting Iran's Gray Zone Strategy,” Real Clear Defense, 18 Oct 2019.
*The exact numbers for many Iranian small boat types are unknown, but the IRGCN has hundreds of small boats throughout the Persian Gulf.
Sources: Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies Iran and Military Power: Ensuring Regime Survival and Securing Regional Dominance.