Iranian Naval and Maritime Strategy


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The Iranian regime has among its strategic objectives expanding its power in the Middle East and rolling back U.S. influence in the region. Iranian leadership considers the Persian Gulf and much of Central Asia to be a “near abroad” where Iranian culture and interests should have significant influence. Recent developments confirm that Iran is committed to this ambition, has a strategy to realize this outcome, and is making significant progress towards it. Iran also clearly has ambitions to be a significant and relevant actor on the global stage, whose capabilities and intentions must be taken into consideration by superpower nations.

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Iranian Naval and Maritime Strategy

  1. 1. MIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12Christopher HarmerJune 2013Iranian Naval and MaritimeStrategy
  2. 2. Cover Photo: A starboard beam view of Iranian Alvand class frigate underway. (Photo: WikimediaCommons)All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part ofthis publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by anymeans, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or anyinformation storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing fromthe publisher.©2013 by the Institute for the Study of War.Published in 2013 in the United States of America by the Institute for theStudy of War.1400 16th Street NW, Suite 515 Washington, DC 20036.
  3. 3. MIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12Christopher HarmerIranian naval and MaritimeSTrategy
  4. 4. About Our Technology PartnersISW believes superior strategic insight derives from a fusion of traditional social science research and innovativetechnological methods. ISW recognizes that the analyst of the future must be able to process a wide variety ofinformation, ranging from personal interviews and historical artifacts to high volume structured data. ISW thanksits technology partners, Palantir Technologies and Praescient Analytics, for their support in this innovativeendeavor. In particular, their technology and implementation assistance has supported creating many of the mapsand graphics in this product.Praescient Analytics is a Veteran Owned Small Business based in Alexandria,Virginia. Our aim is to revolutionize how the world understands informationby empowering our customers with the latest analytic tools and methodologies.Currently, Praescient provides several critical services to our government andcommercial clients: training, embedded analysis, platform integration, andproduct customization.Palantir Technologies is working to radically change how groups analyzeinformation. We currently offer a suite of software applications for integrating,visualizing and analyzing the world’s information. We support many kinds ofdata including structured, unstructured, relational, temporal and geospatial.ABOUT THE AUTHORChristopher Harmer is a Senior Naval Analyst with the Middle East Security Project. He wrote the ISW Fact Sheet“Iran’s Submarine Force,” which addresses recent industrial developments in Iran that have increased the readinessand lethality of the Iranian submarine force.Prior to joining ISW, Harmer served for twenty years as a career officer in the U.S. Navy. Among his various postings,he served as the Deputy Director of Future Operations at the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet in Manama, Bahrain from February2008 to May 2009.Harmer graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a Bachelor’s degree in History. He received his Masterof Arts in International Relations from Troy University and has also studied at the U.S. Naval War College and theJohns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.acknowledgementsThe author would like to thank Kim and Fred Kagan, Jessica Lewis, and Aaron Reese for their valuable insightsthroughout the writing and editorial process, William Byers for research assistance, and David Stephenson for hisexpert work on graphics, formatting, and producing this work.ABOUT THE INSTITUTEThe Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organization. ISWadvances an informed understanding of military affairs through reliable research,trusted analysis, and innovativeeducation. ISW is committed to improving the nation’s ability to execute military operations and respond toemerging threats in order to achieve U.S. strategic objectives.
  5. 5. table of contentsexecutive summary.................................................................................. 06introduction............................................................................................. 09iranian naval exercises.......................................................................... 13iranian naval deployments and strategic engagements................ 20potential use of irin/irisl for logistics............................................ 25conclusion ............................................................................................... 29notes........................................................................................................... 32photos & mapsfigure 1 | timeline of iranian naval activity and regional events............ 11PHOTO 1 | ADMIRAL HABIBOLLAH SAYARI BRIEFING THE VELAYAT 90 EXERCISE..... 12PHOTO 2 | IRANIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD AT THELAUNCH OF THE JAMARAN-2........................................................................ 15PHOTO 3 | PRESIDENT AHMADINEJAD VISITING THE ISLAND OF ABU MUSA........... 17MAP 1 | MAP INDICATING LOCATIONS OF ABU MUSA AND TUNBISLANDS IN THE STRAIT OF HORMUZ............................................................ 18PHOTO 4 | IRIN HELICOPTER CARRIER KHARG............................................. 22PHOTO 5 | IRIN DESTROYER SABALAN.......................................................... 23PHOTO 6 | ADMIRAL PANTELEYEV AND ADMIRAL NOVELSKOY DOCKEDIN BANDAR ABBAS........................................................................................ 24MAP 2 | IRANIAN NAVY, RUSSIAN NAVY, AND CHINESE SUPERTANKERMOVEMENTS................................................................................................. 26PHOTO 7 | HELICOPTER CARRIER KHARG TRANSITING THE SUEZ CANAL.... 27PHOTO 8 | IRIN HELICOPTER CARRIER BUSHEHR DOCKED IN PORT SUDAN............ 28middle east security report 12 | Iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013
  6. 6. 6 www.Understandingwar.orgExecutive Summarymiddle east security report 12 | Iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013The Iranian regime has among its strategic objectives expanding its power in the Middle East and rolling backU.S. influence in the region.1Iranian leadership considers the Persian Gulf and much of Central Asia to be a “nearabroad” where Iranian culture and interests should have significant influence.2Recent developments confirm thatIran is committed to this ambition, has a strategy to realize this outcome, and is making significant progress towardsit. Iran also clearly has ambitions to be a significant and relevant actor on the global stage, whose capabilities and in-tentions must be taken into consideration by superpower nations.3Iran’s maritime forces, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy(IRGCN), as well as its commercial shipping fleet, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), are beingused in specific, definable ways to further Iran’s strategic objectives. In the recent past, Iran has decreased the size,scope, and geographic reach of several of its maritime exercises. Considered in isolation, a reduction in maritimeexercises might appear to be evidence that Iran’s maritime capability is in decline, or that it does not have adequateresources to execute maritime operations in support of its strategic objectives.A holistic view of the evidence, however, reveals that at the same time Iran has reduced the size, scope and reach of itslocal maritime exercises, it has also taken three distinct actions that reflect its broad, strategic ambitions. First, Iranhas reprioritized some of its local maritime exercises towards solidifying or expanding territorial claims in the Per-sian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Caspian Sea. Second, IRIN has significantly increased its long-range deploymentsin support of strategic relationships with key partners. Third, at the same time that IRISL is being used to supportIranian objectives logistically, IRIN may also be conducting similar operations. Taken as a whole, these three trendsindicate Iran is modifying and expanding its maritime activities in support of strategic objectives.Iran has physical control over the Persian Gulf islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb. These islandsare strategically located just outside the Strait of Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf. Although the United Arab Emirates(UAE) claims legal ownership of the islands, the physical possession of the islands is not in dispute — Iran has mili-tary garrisons and commercial ventures in place on each of these islands. By conducting short range exercises thathighlight control over the disputed islands, Iran hopes to solidify its legal claim to the islands, as well as highlightits military capability to potential enemies. Iranian claims to the disputed islands also factor into legal claims that itshould control access to the Strait of Hormuz.In a similar vein, Iran has used the IRIN to increase its territorial claims in the Caspian Sea. Iran has a standing, in-ternationally recognized claim to 12% of the Caspian Sea; Iran claims that it is actually due 20% of the Caspian Sea.In 2012, Iran launched the destroyer Jamaran-2 in the Caspian Sea, and also conducted a maritime minelaying andminesweeping exercise. This ship and the exercises are clearly designed to increase Iranian territorial claims to themineral-rich Caspian Sea and the lucrative caviar fisheries there.Iran has an existing relationship with China that extends far behind the commercial aspect of China importingIranian oil. China has exported significant military equipment to Iran, and provided key enabling technologies tothe Iranian military industrial complex. IRIN deployments to China serve to solidify that existing relationship andexpand it. By conducting long-range deployments to the Pacific, IRIN validates that it is a capable, reliable partnerthat China can trust.Iran and Russia are partners in supporting the Assad regime in Syria, and they have common interests in the CaspianSea and Caucasus region. At the same time IRIN is conducting long range deployments to the Pacific and solidify-ing Iran’s relationship with China, IRIN is increasing support to Russian Navy ships on long deployments. IRIN hasmade its base at Bandar Abbas available to the Russian Navy as a friendly and secure port where Russian Navy ships canrefuel, resupply, and make repairs. This practice makes Russian Navy deployments from their Pacific Fleet homeportof Vladivostok to the Russian Navy Base at Tartus, Syria far more sustainable.
  7. 7. 7www.Understandingwar.orgExecutive SummarySudan and Iran partner in the conveyance of Iranian military equipment bound for Iranian proxies or customers inthe Mediterranean. The majority of weapons transfer from Iran to the Mediterranean takes place via smugglers, whouse small, privately owned dhows to convey weapons and ammunition from Iran to the Sudan coast on the Red Sea,and from there via overland transfer to the Mediterranean. IRIN has been conducting recurrent port calls to PortSudan that serve to strengthen the relationship between Iran and Sudan. These port calls may also be used to transferweapons, ammunition, and other supplies directly from Iran to Sudan and vice versa.Along with conducting long-range deployments in service of the strategic relationships with China and Russia, theIranian regime may be using IRIN to conduct logistical transfers of high value military items or cash transfers betweenChinese oil purchasers and Iran. It is clear that the Iranian regime uses IRISL to conduct logistics transfers of lowervalue supplies both to and from Iran. Given that most recent long range IRIN deployments had a heavy cargo ship aspart of the deployment, it is possible that the Iranian regime is now using IRIN for a similar purpose.The totality of evidence indicates that Iranian maritime activity in support of the Iranian strategic objective of regionalpower and influence is evolving and expanding, not contracting. The Iranian regime is not in decline, and it is nota state that is isolated from the international community. Iranian strategic ambition is expanding, and the Iranianregime is using its maritime entities, namely, IRIN, IRGCN, and IRISL, to realize that strategic ambition.middle east security report 12 | Iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013
  8. 8. 9www.Understandingwar.orgiranian naval and maritime strategyBy Christopher HarmerMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12RecentIranianmilitaryexercises,deployments,andstrategicengagementsatseaindicatethatinternationaleconomicsanctions levied against Iran have not degraded the regime’s ability to procure existing lines of weapons, maintainmilitary readiness through training and exercises, and engage in strategic partnerships. In fact, long range Iraniannaval activity has expanded over the course of the last 18 months. This expansion has occurred simultaneously with thecontinued development of Iran’s nuclear program as well as Iran’s increasingly direct involvement in Syria. This paperexplores the question of how and why Iran has prioritized its long range naval activities.Broadly speaking, there are two possible explanationsfor Iran’s expansion from localized naval activity inand around the Persian Gulf to long-range deployednaval activity over the last 18 months. First, Iran hassignificant strategic relationships with Russia, China,Sudan, and Syria. It is possible that Iran has prioritizedits conduct of long range deployments in service ofthese strategic relationships. Conducting port callswith Iranian military vessels in China, Sudan, andSyria, and providing permissive port calls in Iran forRussian Navy ships on deployment strengthens theseexisting relationships and may serve as a foundation forexpanded cooperation.Second, Iran could be using its navy to function asa transportation network for high value materialand components. It appears that the Iranian Navymay be involved in the transportation of sensitivecargo, possibly to deliver weapons to proxies or toreceive materiel support from strategic partners. Thispossibility is supported by the shift in naval activityfrom high-intensity live fire exercises in home watersduring 2011 to extended maritime deployments in2012-2013, specifically to China, Sri Lanka, andSudan.This report will describe recent trends in Iranian navalexercises,deployments,andsignificantshippingactivityin2012-2013.ItwillexamineIranianandinternationalnews sources and interpret Iranian messaging aboutthese events. It will evaluate the significance of Iran’snaval activities through three lenses: Iranian navalreadiness, Iranian strategic partnerships at sea, andpotential for Iranian logistics at sea. This report willconclude with an assessment of the significance of theseactivities in the present context of Iranian strategicobjectives worldwide.The Impact of Sanctions on Iranian Military CapacityThe current round of legislative sanctions, combinedwith additional executive and administrative sanctionsfrom the U.S. Treasury Department, plus an assortmentof sanctions from the European Union (EU) havehad a significant cumulative impact on the Iranian oilindustry and domestic economy. Iranian oil exportshave dropped to 1.5 million barrels a day, the lowestsince 1986, during the Iran–Iraq war.4In terms ofthe domestic economy, the semiofficial Iranian newsagency Mehr News reported in March that the Iraniangovernment’s March estimate for annual inflation was31.5%.5Numerous Western analysts peg the actual figurehigher, concluding that inflation will be a major factorin the upcoming Iranian Presidential election.6Whilethere is some disagreement on the statistics, it is clearthat Iranian oil exports have dropped significantly, andthe Iranian domestic economy is suffering.Iran has pursued a number of parallel actions to workaround sanctions. On a state to state level, Iran hasaggressively pursued commercial relationships thatcontinue to provide funding to the Iranian regime viathe National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and NationalIranian Tanker Company (NITC). Although China,Japan, South Korea, and other Asian states are technicallyin compliance with sanctions, they still all importsignificant quantities of Iranian oil. China has actuallyincreased its imports of Iranian oil recently, with February2013 imports running well over 500,000 barrels per day,an increase of over 80% from February, 2012.7As well as exporting Iranian oil to China, Iran isimporting technical expertise from China to maximizeoil and gas production. As evidence of the strong andgrowing strategic relationship between Iran and China,both Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC)andChineseNationalOffshoreOilCompany(CNOOC)
  9. 9. 10 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013remain invested in various Iranian oil and gas projects.8In addition to formal state to state cooperation, Iranremains adept at state-based smuggling using foreigncompanies as front organizations or willing participantsin evading sanctions, as demonstrated by the extensiveoperation run by Greek shipping executive DmitrisCambis, who set up a network of 14 front companies inGreece to operate eight supertankers smuggling Iranianoil.9These two options to bypass sanctions, state-to-state cooperation and the use of foreign shell companiesto facilitate oil sales, generate cash flow. In terms ofactually smuggling manufactured goods, Iran has founda number of companies and businessmen across theMiddle East willing to smuggle what the Iranian economyneeds.10The flexibility of the Iranian economy inresponse to sanctions is perhaps best evidenced by barterdeals between Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan needs Iranianoil and gas; Iran needs Pakistani agricultural goods; bytrading oil for wheat, Iran has evaded restrictions onelectronic transfers using Western banks.11Sanctions have not dissuaded Iran from pursuing nuclearweapons technology, nor have the sanctions made itmaterially impossible for Iran to do so. Additionally, basedon the amount of materiel that Iran is providing to theAssad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iranianproxy organizations in Syria, it is clear that Iran retains theability to manufacture or distribute weapons. It likewise iscapable of conducting naval exercises and deployments.Two Navies, one Chain of CommandThe Iranian military is organized into two separateentities: the regular, or “Artesh,” military, and theIslamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Both theArtesh and IRGC military arms have land, sea, and airforces. In general terms, the Artesh military is organizedmore along traditional lines, while the IRGC is amilitary force that has significant political and economicactivity outside of traditional military roles. The IranianNavy is therefore also comprised of two separate butcomplementary organizations, each of which has distinctrole and geographic responsibility. Their separateequipage and culture reflects their distinct roles. Boththe Artesh Navy, formally known as the Islamic Republicof Iran Navy (IRIN), and the IRGC Navy (IRGCN), haverecognized the need to prioritize asymmetric warfarein order to present a credible threat to qualitativelysuperior Western militaries and have made this a core oftheir maritime strategy.12For most of Iran’s post-revolution history, IRIN andIRGCN have been competitors; starting in 2007, theJoint Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces conducted a majorreorganizationoftheIRINNavyandtheIRGCN,dividingtheir geographic responsibilities, with the IRGCN takingprimary control over all operations in the Persian Gulf,Strait of Hormuz, and Sea of Oman, and the IRIN takingresponsibility for all out-of-area deployments.13The ISWpublication “Iran’s Two Navies” details how the IRIN andIRGCN have, since the reorganization, cooperated moreclosely and effectively with each other. As a result, severalrecent Iranian maritime exercises show an increasedability for IRIN and IRGCN to exercise mutuallysupporting command and control relationships, as wellas to cooperate at the tactical level.While the IRIN and IRGCN are separate organizations,with unique equipage and geographically distinct areasof responsibility, they both ultimately report to theSupreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, throughthe Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).14TheIRGC and IRGCN have achieved a measure of autonomyand independence recently, but they are still subordinateand loyal to the Supreme Leader.15This loyalty ishierarchical, in that both the IRGC and IRGCN reportto the SNSC, and personal, in that the Supreme Leaderappoints leadership in both the IRIN and IRGCN.16Ultimately, although the IRIN and IRGCN are separateorganizations, they have a common chain of commandthrough the SNSC to the Supreme Leader. Froma strategic perspective, they function in a mutuallysupportive way. The IRGCN functions almost likean extremely well-equipped Coast Guard, assumingresponsibility for patrolling Iranian territorial watersand energy infrastructure in the Persian Gulf and Straitof Hormuz, and off the Makran Coast. The IRGCNequipage reflects the geographical responsibility forsecuring Iranian territorial waters and confined areas.IRGCN has hundreds of small, fast, agile patrol boatsthat, though limited in range, carry a fairly heavycomplement of weapons.17By assuming responsibilityfor the geography near Iran, the IRGCN frees up theIRIN to conduct longer-range deployments and strategicengagement with partner nations.Iranian Navy Model of ReadinessIt is important to note that the Iranian military uses adifferent model of combat readiness from the Americanmodel. The U.S. Navy model of readiness is based on
  10. 10. 11www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013figure 1 | timeline of iranian naval activity and regional events
  11. 11. 12 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013highly trained personnel, equipped with advancedcommunications, transportation, and weapons systems,with significant time dedicated to complex trainingscenarios, capable of worldwide deployments lastingup to a year or longer. In any conventional, traditionalconflict, the American Navy would be qualitativelysuperior to any combination of IRIN, IRGCN, andIranian land forces.The Iranian military recognizes that it cannot competewith the American military or other potential adversariesin terms of a traditional military conflict. As a result, theentire Iranian military model of readiness is based on theconcept of asymmetric warfare.18This is largely a result oflessons learned during the Iran–Iraq war of 1980-1988.At the start of the war, Iran was at a severe qualitativedisadvantage compared to Saddam Hussein’s forces. Inthe years immediately preceding the war, Iraq had spentsignificant resources building a very capable militaryequipped with the most modern Soviet equipmentavailable at the time.19On the Iranian side, revolutionaryforces had purged or executed much of the seniorleadership of the Iranian military in the aftermath ofthe 1979 Iranian Revolution.20As a result, when Iraqinvaded Iran, it quickly became apparent that Iraqiforces were better equipped, better led, and much morecapable. In response, Iran was quickly forced to adoptasymmetric tactics, including “human wave” assaults toclear minefields.21Additionally, during the Tanker War of the 1980s, IRINand IRGCN tried to function as a “near peer” competitorto the U.S. Navy by engaging in various iterations ofdirect combat; the results were disastrous, as the U.S.Navy routinely destroyed numerous Iranian patrolboats, observation platforms, and shore installations.22In particular, the U.S. Navy-led Operation PrayingMantis inflicted severe damage on the IRIN, sinking fiveIranian ships, including the frigate Sabalan.23As a result of these combat experiences, the Iranianregime recognized that it fundamentally cannot, andwill not be able to, compete with any of its adversariesin a head-to-head conventional conflict. The results ofthe Second Gulf War of 2003, in particular the use ofprecision guided munitions including cruise missilesand bombs, strongly reinforced this understanding.The asymmetric tactics the Iranian regime adopted inextremis during the Iran-Iraq war have become thefoundation for the entire Iranian military doctrine.24This commitment to asymmetric warfare is practicednot just by the Artesh and IRGC, including Quds Force,but also by other Iranian agencies, including the CyberPolice.25PHOTO 1 | admiral habibollah sayari briefing the velayat 90 exercise (Source: ISNA, Hemmat Khahi)
  12. 12. 13www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013Because of this commitment to asymmetric warfare, theinability to purchase conventional maritime vessels frominternational vendors, and a lack of industrial capacityto produce conventional maritime vessels indigenously,IRIN and IRGCN procurement strategy in the 1980sfocused on obtaining or producing hundreds of smallercraft capable of conducting swarm attacks, laying mines,and other asymmetric tactics.26The Iranian model ofmaritime readiness, for both the IRIN and IRGCN,reflects this strategy of asymmetric warfare. Unlike theU.S. Navy, the IRIN and IRGCN do not require complexexercises to maintain readiness. Given that Iranianpatrol boats, warships, and submarines are in positionto fire their weapons as soon as they get underway fromtheir home ports, the asymmetric maritime warfaremodel of Iran assumes that any maritime conflict will befought at close range, without complex interdependentpositioning of ships beforehand.27Numbers and speedwill be of greater importance in this context thanadvanced training.The entire IRIN fleet numbers about 175 totalcombatant and logistics vessels. Of these, less than tenof the combatant vessels are over 750 tons displacement,giving them enough onboard fuel and supply storageadequate to conduct long range deployments.28The factthat the IRIN is currently equipped for short-range,asymmetric warfare, with numerous small, short-rangevessels, but has relatively few vessels capable of selectedlong-range deployments validates the premise that out-of-area deployments are not about power projection,demonstrating long-range military capability, orsupplanting asymmetric warfare roles.Because Iranian maritime strategy does not requirelong-range deployments or complex, simultaneousship movements at sea, Iranian naval exercises arefocused on exercising basic capabilities, ensuring thatif the IRIN and IRGCN need to fight, they can executetheir short-range, short-duration, and technologicallysimple asymmetric warfare tactics capably. The IRINand IRGCN are nowhere near as capable at traditionalmaritime combat as the U.S. Navy — but they do not needto be; they only need to be capable of reliably exercisingsimple asymmetric tactics.Open Source Reporting of Iranian ExercisesIranian exercise data in open source largely originateswith one of several Iranian news organizations: FarsNews Agency, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA),Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), MehrNews Agency, Sepah News, Press TV, or other mediaoutlets. Some of these outlets are directly owned by theIranian government; others are merely approved by thegovernment. Regardless of the exact ownership of thesemedia outlets, there is little independent reporting ofIranian maritime exercises; most data about Iranianmaritime exercises is generated by the regime, fed tostate-owned or state-controlled media outlets, and thenpicked up by international news outlets. As a result,reporting on Iranian naval exercises is dependent onthe Iranian state providing details regarding how manyand what type of ships were used. For some largerexercises, however, there is significant internationalreporting, and although the exact type and numberof ships involved may not be independently verified,the time and geographic reach of the exercise is.Additionally, the widespread usage of social mediaand cell phones to take and post pictures has yieldeda tremendous amount of open source intelligence interms of pictures of Iranian vessels, especially in port.The Iranian port calls to China and Sudan, and transitof the Suez Canal, were not only widely covered byofficial media, but also received extensive social mediacoverage as well.29Iranian Exercise Messaging StrategyThe Iranian regime clearly pursues a messaging strategywith respect to its maritime exercises that operatesin conjunction with official press coverage. Thismessaging strategy is largely directed by the IRGC, andthe statements given by various members of the regimeshow a high degree of consistency.30As part of this IRGCdirected messaging strategy, the Iranian regime seeks tomaximize publicity when conducting exercises, in orderto give the impression of high military capacity. Withdirect military superiority in the Persian Gulf or Gulfof Oman not possible, the Iranian government displaysmilitary strength as a deterrent to potential enemies.This projection of strength in turn enables the executionof other strategic tasks, including supporting the Assadregime in Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah as a proxyinstrument against Israel.31On a regular basis, senior Iranian military leadershipbrief exercises to the public through the state-ownedor state-controlled Iranian media.32The immediateintended recipient of this messaging strategy is theIranian public, but high-visibility briefings by seniorIranian military leadership also reach regional and
  13. 13. 14 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013international audiences.33Additionally, the Iranian regime uses the state-controlledmedia to spread clearly inaccurate reporting about Iranianmilitary capability. Such was the case in July of 2008 whenSepahNews,themediaarmoftheIRGC,publishedaphotopurportedly showing a successful simultaneous launch offour missiles. Shortly after releasing the photo, numerousWesternmediaoutlets,includingtheNewYorkTimes,TheChicagoTribune, and the LATimes, picked up the image and reprintedit.34Shortly after the image starting circulating on theinternet,severalwebsitespointedoutthatthemissilelaunchhad obviously been digitally altered. Further investigationultimately revealed that one of the missiles had failed toignite; rather than acknowledge the failure of one missileto launch, Sepah News altered the photo and released it.35In a similar move, when Iran unveiled its “stealth jet,” theQaher 313, aviation experts quickly concluded the aircraftwas little more than a highly detailed model, with no abilityto even fly, let alone any actual combat capability.36It is clear that Iran has a messaging strategy with respect toexercises, and seeks to maximize visibility and publicitysurrounding them. The Iranian regime is willing toportray its military capability in an effort to convincedomestic and international audiences that it is morecapable than it actually is.IRANIAN NAVAL EXERCISESA Marginal Decrease in Size, Scope, and Intensity of Maritime ExercisesEven in light of Iran’s messaging efforts to overemphasizethe size, scope, and intensity of their exercises, thereare some aspects of Iranian maritime exercises thatare relatively transparent; the location and durationof exercises, for example, are virtually impossible toconceal, especially when they take place in heavilytrafficked bodies of water such as the Persian Gulf, Straitof Hormuz, or Gulf of Oman. The size, scope, durationand intensity of local exercises, including Velayat 91,Fajr 91, and Fath 91, have marginally decreased in 2012-2013. This reduction is most clearly visible in the directcontrast of the Velayat 90 and Velayat 91 exercises,describedbelow.Atthesametime,theIRINhasincreasedits long-range deployments. IRIN and IRGCN continueto conduct sustainment training via unnamed exercisesthat maintain readiness and reinforce Iranian claims todisputed territory such as the Tunb Islands in the Straitof Hormuz and territorial waters in the Caspian Sea.December 26, 2011 - January 7, 2012: Velayat 90The Velayat series of exercises is an annual, large scale,multi-service, live fire, signature exercise that has takenplace every December since at least 2005.37 The exerciseoriginates in the Iranian Navy Headquarters port ofBandar Abbas, directly at the midpoint of the Strait ofHormuz. This is Iran’s highest-profile military live fireexercise. Although it is a maritime-centric exercise, it alsoinvolves every major organization in the Iranian militaryincluding the Artesh land, air, and sea forces, and theirIRGC equivalents, including the IRGC Quds Force.Velayatsimulatesbothdefensiveandoffensiveengagementsand takes place over a huge area, from the Persian Gulf,through the Strait of Hormuz, across the Gulf of Omanand into the Indian Ocean. Iranian media organs give theexercise maximum coverage, with plenty of videos showinglive fire participation including ships, hovercraft, andsubmarines firing missiles, torpedoes, and guns.38In addition to the traditional Iranian  media outlets ofFars News, Press TV, and Mehr News, the Iranian regimehighlights the Velayat series of exercises via social mediasuch as Twitter and Facebook.39 Russian state-owned orcontrolled media typically give in-depth and favorablecoverage to Velayat, with a particular focus on live fireexercises.40This is a high quality exercise, with virtuallyevery capability of the Iranian military being exercised. In December of 2011, Velayat 90 was announced witha planned duration of ten days, and an announcedgeographic reach as far as the Gulf of Aden.41It involvedat least twenty surface ships and at eight submarines.42By all accounts, according to both Iranian media andexternal Western media, including press releases fromU.S. Navy Fifth Fleet in Manama, Bahrain, Velayat 90did last at least ten days, from about December 26, 2011,to January 7, 2012, with significant geographical reach, atleast as far as the Gulf of Aden.43The Velayat 90 involveda massive number of ships dispersed across severaloperational areas. At the time, there was significantinternational interest over Iranian threats to close theStrait of Hormuz. At one point, a rumor on Wall Streetthat Iran had closed the Strait of Hormuz “until furthernotice,” caused crude oil prices to spike dramatically.44Retired Major General Amos Yadlin, who served as headof Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Military Intelligence,described Velayat 90 as “one of the largest navalmaneuvers in its history,” explicitly designed to “highlightthe potential cost of any possible confrontation.”45
  14. 14. 15www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013Against this backdrop of extreme international interest,Iranian public officials cast the Velayat 90 exercises as adirect indication of Iranian territorial sovereignty andregional dominance. Zohreh Elahian, a member of theNational Security and Foreign Policy Committee of theIranian Parliament, stated that, “The exercises send animportant message to the whole world, especially thecolonialist powers … and also show the power of Iran’sarmed forces, particularly the Navy.” Elahian added thatif required, Iran absolutely had the ability to take controlof the Strait of Hormuz.46 AlongwithIranianlawmakers,IranianArmychiefAtaollahSalehi said the exercises had forced the United States Navyto move an aircraft carrier out of the Gulf because of Iran’snaval exercises, and Iran would take action if the shipreturned. “Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy’scarrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because ofour drill. I recommend and emphasize to the Americancarrier not to return to the Persian Gulf. ...we are not inthe habit of warning more than once.”47Velayat 90 was high visibility, high intensity, lasted tendays, had significant geographical reach, and was pairedwith confrontational public assertions by both Iranianstate officials and military leadership.December 28, 2012 - January 02, 2013: Velayat 91Incontrast,Velayat91ranforjustsixdays,fromDecember28,2012toJanuary02,2013.Theexercisehadareducedgeographical reach as well, with no mention of reachingthe Gulf of Aden.48The Velayat 91 exercise was muchsmaller, much less ambitious in size, scope, reach, andduration, with little to no accompanying commentaryfrom the Iranian political leadership.49Velayat 91 onlyinvolved a handful of surface ships and submarines, farfewer than Velayat 90.Although it is reasonable to assume that sanctions have hadan impact on Iranian military resourcing, it would be amistake to assume the decreased size, scope and intensityof Velayat 91 as compared to Velayat 90 was due solely totheimpactofsanctions.GiventhatIranhassimultaneouslyadded long range deployments at the same time as itdecreased the scope of its maritime exercises, it seemsPHOTO 2 | iranian president mahmoud ahmadinejad at the launch of the jamaran-2(Source: Fars News Agency, Hamed jafarnejad)
  15. 15. 16 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013more reasonable to conclude that Iran has made a strategicdecision to reallocate resources (fuel, spare parts, supplies,etc.) from local exercises to long-range deployments. Iranhas the ability to conduct expensive, long-range navaldeployments to China, Syria, and Sudan, and the IslamicRepublic has prioritized these for strategic reasons overVelayat 91 while facing budgetary constraints. Sanctionshave surely had some impact on Iranian militarycapabilities, but not on Iran’s ability to deploy naval forcesat a long distance in support of strategic objectives.The comparison of Velayat 91 and Velayat 90 gives theclearest indication that Iran is making a strategic decisiontoreduceexerciseintensityinordertofacilitatelong-rangedeployments in support of strategic engagements with keypartners. At the same time, Iran is conducting enoughexercises to maintain its baseline of maritime readiness.Baseline Readiness / Territorial ExercisesWhile a comparison of Velayat 91 and Velayat 90 showsthat Iran has decreased the size and scope of its signatureannual live fire exercise, it is important to keep in mindthat Iran continues to conduct baseline maritime trainingexercises, with a focus on core competencies, such asecuring Gas and Oil Platform (GOPLAT) infrastructurein the Persian Gulf, reinforcing territorial claims to thedisputedTunbislandsintheStraitofHormuz,reinforcingterritorial claims in the Caspian Sea, and conductingrescue and relief operations. The following five exercisesare an example of Iranian maritime exercises that focuson these baseline core competencies.September 17 – 18, 2012: Launch of Jamaran-2, CaspianSea Minesweeping Exercise:Iran and Azerbaijan are at odds over a number of issues,includingcompetingterritorialclaimsintheCaspianSea.Iranian Press originally reported the Caspian Sea exerciseasfocusingonminelayingandminesweeping.50Oncloserinspection, it appears this exercise was actually part of abroader Iranian effort to secure its territorial claims inthe Caspian Sea. Iran has an unchallenged claim to about12% of the Caspian Sea, but it does not have the technicalcapacity to fully exploit the existing resources underneathits established territorial waters. Starting in 2002, Iranbegan a public relations campaign claiming it actuallywas due 20% of the Caspian Sea.51Iran’s expanded claimdirectly conflicted with Azerbaijan’s existing claim, whichwas internationally recognized. The disputed sections ofthe Caspian Sea are rich in mineral, oil, and gas deposits,as well as fisheries, including the highly profitable tradein Sturgeon caviar.52The ongoing Iranian claims to 20%of the Caspian Sea have led to what the Caspian ResearchInstitute refers to as a “low grade Cold War.”53To underscore the extent of Iranian commitmentto protecting and possible expanding its interests inthe Caspian Sea, in March, 2013, Iran launched thesecond indigenously produced Moudge Class destroyer,Jamaran-2, at the Caspian Sea port of Bandar Anzali.54President Ahmadinejad, Iranian Defense MinisterBrigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, and Chief of Staff ofIran’s Armed Forces Major General Hassan Firouzabadiall attended the launch ceremony.55Although Iran’s motivation in expanding territorial claimsin the Caspian Sea is clear, it seems odd that Iran wouldprioritize deploying a warship and conducting navalexercises in the Caspian Sea over other strategic priorities,suchasdevelopingthenuclearprogram,evadingsanctions,conducting long-range naval deployments, all whileresupplying Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Although thelow-grade tension between Iran and Azerbaijan on theirland border and in the Caspian Sea gets comparativelylittle attention, it is a sign of Iranian resiliency and depthof industrial capacity that the Islamic Republic is able toconduct significant exercises and launch indigenouslyproduced ships along multiple fronts.December 25 – 28, 2012: Fajr 91Fajr 91 was an IRGCN exercise designed to protect oil andgasfieldsandequipmentintheAsaluyehandSouthParsoilregions.56BasedonYouTubevideosrelatedtotheexercise,IRGCN conducted a wide range of operations includingcombat capability, search and rescue, civil engineering,and environmental response. Smaller ships were shows inthe videos, consistent with IRGCN capabilities.57Fajr 91 is an example of a short-range, short-durationexercise designed to validate basic military competencies,which simultaneously serves a strategic purpose ofreinforcingIran’sclaimtonaturalresourcesinthePersianGulf. The location of the exercise, inside the PersianGulf, and the infrastructure element of the exercise,protecting Gas and Oil Platforms (GOPLATS), showsthat Iran is aggressively defending its existing territorialwaters, and is prepared to defend the disputed territorialwaters around the Tunb Islands and Abu Musa.
  16. 16. 17www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013The timing of the Fajr 91 exercise, overlapping thelarger Velayat 91 drill, shows the capability of IRGCNto conduct parallel command and control of trainingand operations. Although this is a standard capability ofWestern Navies, it is a relatively new capability for IRINand the IRGCN, and shows that the greater cooperationresulting from the 2009 reorganization is enabling morecomplex interactions between the two.Although the Pars gas field is nominally equally dividedbetween Iran and Qatar, Iran historically has not drawnnearly as much gas out of the field as Qatar.58Qatariextraction is largely done by high technology capablepartners, including Exxon Mobil, Shell Global, andother Western corporations.59Unlike Qatar, Iran doesnot have access to the highest technology and bestpractices employed by Western firms to exploit its naturalgas resources in the Pars field; as a result, Iran mustself-finance and develop these fields. While Iran lagsbehind Qatar in exploiting the Pars field, it is increasingexploration and production.60The full array of Iranian media, along with Russian andChinese media outlets, gave coverage to Fajr 91.61Ofparticular interest, Chinese media reports highlightedFajr 91’s location in the Pars gas fields, and Iran’s claim toequal ownership with Qatar of the Pars gas fields.62Thismay be partially due to ongoing business negotiationsbetween Iran and the China National Petroleum finance and develop sections of the Pars gas field thatbelong to Iran.63Part of Iran’s strategy to bypass sanctions involvesbuilding the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. In March of2013, President Ahmadinejad of Iran and PresidentZardari of Pakistan held a public groundbreakingceremony in Chahbahar, Iran to start construction onthe joint section of the pipeline.64Iran’s ability to source gas into the Iran-Pakistan pipelineis dependent on access to the Asaluyeh and South Parsoil and gas regions. Fajr 91 was a highly visible sign ofIranian commitment to its partners that it is able toprotect its maritime gas fields, and additionally validatedthat Iran is capable and willing to conduct high visibilityexercises in close proximity to each other.January 13 – 15, 2013: Unnamed IRGCN Exercise, AbuMusa and the Tunb IslandsIn an unnamed exercise in January, IRGCN reportedlytested new equipment, new tactics, and response tonatural disasters.65The exercise was based out of BandarAbbas, and took place primarily within the Strait ofHormuz, with a few maneuvers in the Persian Gulf andGulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz.This unnamed exercise is part of a series of ongoingPHOTO 3 | president ahmadinejad visiting the island of abu musa (Source: IRNA)
  17. 17. 18 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013exercises conducted by the IRGCN in the Strait ofHormuz; according to IRGCN Rear-Admiral RezaTorabi, this was the fifth such tactical-level exercise.66Previous exercises were not identified by timeline,participating units, or geographic reach.Based on the relatively low publicity given to the previousfour exercises in this unnamed series of exercises, and inlight of the geographic location in the Strait of Hormuz, itseems likely that the purpose of this exercise is to validateIranian ability to defend and reinforce their garrisons onthe islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa,as well as reinforce Iranian claims to all three islands. Iranhas occupied the three strategically vital islands, locatedjust inside the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf,since 1971, and the United Arab Emirates has consistentlydisputed the Iranian claim to the islands.67The islands areof great importance for three reasons. First, to establishlegal claim for underwater mineral rights; whichevercountry has legal claim to the islands can use that claimto establish territorial waters and exploit mineral rightsin the Persian Gulf. Second, because the three islands areperfectly situated to host military surveillance operationswhich provide direct visual monitoring of all maritimetraffic on the Persian Gulf side of the Strait of Hormuz.Third, because Iran has previously claimed that it legallycan control access through the Strait of Hormuz, andsolidifying ownership of the disputed islands wouldincrease the area under this claim.68International maritime law holds that territorial watersextend 12 nautical miles from a given state’s shoreline.This definition is codified in numerous treaties,including the United Nations Convention on Law ofthe Sea (UNCLOS). Although the U.S. governmenthas never ratified UNCLOS, it does recognize certainprovisions of the treaty as binding, including the 12nautical mile territorial waters definition.69The U.S. Navy follows an interpretation of internationalmaritime law that holds all vessels have the right of“transit passage” through the Strait of Hormuz.70At itsnarrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz is only 21 nauticalmiles wide; as a result, the territorial waters of Omanand Iran, located on either side of the Strait, converge,meaning any vessel that transits the Strait of Hormuzdoes in fact pass through either the territorial waters ofIran or Oman. Based on the current “traffic separationscheme” in use through the Strait of Hormuz, vesselsinbound to the Persian Gulf exercise right of transitpassage through Iranian territorial waters, and vesselsoutbound from the Persian Gulf exercise right of transitpassage through Omani territorial waters. This trafficseparation scheme was originated by the Internationalmap 1 | map indicating locations of abu musa and tunb islands in the strait of hormuz
  18. 18. 19www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013Maritime Organization, and based on U.S. Coast Guarddirectives applies to all U.S. flagged vessels transiting theStrait of Hormuz.71Iran has asserted that it can refuse right of transit incertain cases, although this claim is not internationallyaccepted.72If Iran were to gain undisputed possessionof the Tunb Island and Abu Musa, the U.S. Navy wouldreject the claim that Iran controls access to the Straitof Hormuz.73Legal claims may be of little import in aconflict, however, and Iran has repeatedly threatened toclose the Strait to maritime traffic.On November 3, 2012, IRGC unveiled a new base atBandar Lengeh, just 40 miles north of the Tunb Islands,and made specific reference to the role that BandarLengeh would play in reinforcing the Tunb Islands andAbu Musa.74Shortly after Iran unveiled the new base atBander Lengeh and publicly linked it to the Tunb islandsand Abu Musa, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Ministerof State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Mohammed Gargash,reiterated that the three islands belonged to the UAE,and called on Iran to enter into negotiations with theUAE over the islands sovereignty.75The Iranian responsewas unequivocal and calculated for maximum domesticpolitical impact. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, HosseinAmir-Abdollahian, stated in early December 2012 that“The Islamic Republic of Iran considers it its legal rightto exercise sovereignty over the Iranian islands of theGreater Tunb, the Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa,”76Given the timeline of events, with Iran inaugurating thenew base at Bandar Lengeh in November of 2012, andassociating it with occupation of the Tunb Island andAbu Musa, the UAE call for negotiations regarding thelegal status of the islands later in November, the highlypublic Iranian response rejecting calls for negotiation inDecember, and the unnamed IRGCN exercises in theStraits of Hormuz in January 2013, it seems clear thatthese localized, individual events are part of an Iranianstrategy to increase their legal claim over access to theStrait of Hormuz.As a final indicator of how important the Iranian regimeconsiders the islands to be, Iran’s senior leadership,both political and military, have visited the islandrepeatedly as part of the Iranian effort to solidify theirclaim. In April 2012, President Ahmadinejad visitedAbu Musa and held a rally with several hundred localresidents.77In May of 2012, IRGC Commander MajorGeneral Mohammad Ali Jafari and IRGCN CommanderAdmiral Ali Fadavi visited all three disputed islandsand the military garrisons.78In April 2013, MansourHaqiqatpour, Vice-Chairman of the parliament’sNational Security and Foreign Policy Commission, led adelegation of parliamentarians to visit all three disputedislands.79Representatives from the executive, legislative,and military branches of the Iranian regime have visitedthe disputed islands in the past year.January 20 – 22 2013: Joint Iranian – Omani NavyRescue and Relief DrillThe Iranian and Omani Navies conducted an unnamedjoint exercise focused on rescue and relief, in theNorthern Arabian Sea just outside of the Strait ofHormuz.80The stated purpose of the exercise was toconduct rescue and relief operations at sea; the realpurpose was to maintain and expand the underlyingstrategic relationship between Oman and Iran. Of all thepeninsular Arab states, Oman has by far and away thebest relations with Iran, maintaining an ongoing securityrelationship and mutually beneficial trade agreements.81In July of 2009, Sultan Qaboos of Oman visited Iranfor the first time since the Iranian Revolution of 1979;this visit was part of a trend towards greater economicand military cooperation between Iran and Oman.82In 2010, Oman and Iran agreed on a formal securitycooperation agreement, which the Iranian parliamentapproved.83Part of that agreement was a commitmentto hold annual, joint Navy rescue and relief drills. Thisexercise in January 2013 reflects that agreement, andprovides the basis for further cooperation in the future.Followingthisexercise,IranianRearAdmiralHabibollahSayyari of the IRIN announced that the joint exercise in2014 will be held in the Persian Gulf.84Moving the drill from the Gulf of Oman, outside theStrait of Hormuz, to the Persian Gulf, inside the Straitof Hormuz, is a small shift geographically, but representsa significant increase in the strategic impact of theexercise, for four reasons. First, by holding the drillinside the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, wherethe IRGCN has been designated the lead organization,Iran can highlight the growing cooperation between theIRIN and the IRGCN. Leading an exercise with a foreigncountry participating will highlight the importance andprofessionalism of the IRGCN. Second, by holding thedrill in the Persian Gulf, Iran maximizes the propagandavalue for the Iranian domestic audience and advertises tothe Shi‘a population on the Arab peninsula that Iran has
  19. 19. 20 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013Arab partners who are willing to work with Iran on botheconomic and security issues. Third, holding the drill inthe Persian Gulf reinforces Iranian claims that they canactually exercise some level of control over the Strait ofHormuz and the Persian Gulf, especially since they areconducting the drill with Oman. Oman supports theinterpretation that, since Iranian and Omani territorialwaterscovertheentireStraitofHormuz,thetwocountriesshould have greater control over access to the Strait.85As part of the exercise, Omani ships pulled into BandarAbbas prior to the exercise, and Iranian ships visitedthe Omani port of Salalah.86Rescue and relief drillsare easy, low-cost, low-complexity training exercisesthat focus on a core humanitarian capability that bothnavies use during real world operations. Fishing shipsand small cargo dhows are constantly getting in trouble,and both navies do real world rescues on regular basis.So this is a core capability the fleets need to exercise, andrepresents a convenient mechanism for Oman and Iranto work together without expending too many resources,or sharing too many secrets.January 27 - 30 2013: IRGCN Fath 91:The“Fath91”exercisewasathree-dayexerciseconductedby the IRGCN in and around the Straits of Hormuz,Persian Gulf, and out into the Gulf of Oman, in lateJanuary 2013. IRGC Marines as well as air defense, navalpatrol, missile, and vessel units took part.87 There wereno foreign participants. IRGCN vessels are typically smaller than their IRINcounterparts and are optimized for high speed, highmaneuverability tactics consistent with asymmetricwarfare at sea.  In geographic terms, the IRGCN hasprimary responsibility for all maneuvers and operationsin the direct vicinity of the Straits of Hormuz and intothe Persian Gulf, and may occasionally take command ofIRIN Navy vessels in this geographic area.88The IRGCN Rear Admiral Seifollah Bakhtiarvandobserved that the primary purpose of Fath 91 wasto exercise “operational defense plans based on anasymmetric warfare doctrine and appropriate forcurrent events.”89 In this context, the “current events”probably refer to Iran’s ability to conduct asymmetricwarfare against the U.S. Navy. This statement regardingcurrent events may have also referred to the U.S. Navyannouncement, three days prior to Fath 91, that budgetsequestration would possibly result in planned CarrierStrike Group deployments to the Persian Gulf beingcancelled.90Along with that purpose, strictly focusedon exercising the skills required to conduct asymmetricwarfare at sea, he indicated that a second focus was“Practicing coordination procedures between forces indifferent areas.”91These two statements indicate thatwhile Fath 91 had limited geographic reach and unitparticipation, it exercised the command and controlrelationship between IRIN and IRGCN.Although Fath 91 had a relatively short duration andlimited geographic reach, it does show that the IRGCNis maintaining baseline capabilities consistent withtheir model of military readiness, and provides furtherevidence that Iranian political and military leadership isovertly signaling the importance of asymmetric warfaretactics to not only the U.S. Navy, but to their domesticpopulation as well.The exercise received coverage in numerous Iraniangovernment press organs, including Fars News,Mehr News, Press TV, and multiple Western newsagencies.92 The Russian state owned news agency, RiaNovosti,  is one of several Russian news agencies thatcovers Iranian military exercises including Fath 91.93IRANIAN NAVAL DEPLOYMENTS AND STRATEGICENGAGEMENTSA Deliberate Strategy to Increase Deployments and StrategicEngagementsWhile it is clear that Iran has marginally reduced the sizeand scope of its maritime exercises, the reasons behindthis are debatable. In the absence of any evidence to thecontrary, one could assume that Iran has reduced itsmaritime exercises because of resource shortages causedbysanctions.However,giventhatIranhassimultaneouslyincreased its long range naval deployments to theMediterranean and Pacific, and conducted increasedstrategic engagements with Russia, China, and Sudan,and Syria, it seems reasonable to conclude that Iranhas not decreased its focus on maritime exercises out ofnecessity, but as part of a considered strategy to reallocateresourcestohighervalueactivities.Thisviewissupportedby a statement from Navy Commander Rear AdmiralHabibollah Sayyari in April of 2013 when he said that“The golden triangle of Malacca, Bab el-Mandeb andthe Strait of Hormuz is an important triangle and is theNavy’s point of concentration as recommended by theLeader.”94If the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei,
  20. 20. 21www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013did give direction that the IRIN should be focused onoperations between the Strait of Malacca, leading fromthe Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, the Strait ofBab el-Mandeb, leading from the Gulf of Aden to theRed Sea, and the Strait of Hormuz, this would indicatea considered strategy to reallocate resources to highervalue activities.The IRIN recently conducted two significant andunprecedented out of area deployments, to the PacificOcean and the Mediterranean, as well as a series ofrecurring deployments to Sudan. Although long-rangedeployments are common for U.S. Navy operations, theyrepresent a significant advancement in capabilities forthe Iranian Navy. Iranian long-range naval deploymentsare not taken in preparation for conducting militaryoperations at a long distance from Iran, because IRINis not likely to conduct traditional military operationsin the Pacific. IRIN will, however, continue to supportand expand Iranian strategic engagements with China,Russia,Sudan,andSyria,anditslong-rangedeploymentsseem designed to support such strategic outreach.Reciprocal outreach from strategic partners to Iranreinforcesthisconclusion.WhiletheIRINwasconductingits first long range deployment to the Pacific Ocean, andcontinuing an ongoing series of deployments to Sudan,the Russian Navy began what appears to be a series ofport calls to Bandar Abbas, Iran.Iranian leadership sees the expanded long rangedeployment capability of IRIN as part of a long termstrategy to expand Iranian influence; this observation isconfirmed by statements of Iranian military leadership,including Admiral Sayyari, who said that the Iraniandeployment to the Pacific was a prelude to “Iran’spresence in the Atlantic Ocean,” adding that a constantand extensive presence of Iran in international waterswill be on top of the Navy’s agenda.95It is reasonableto conclude that the Iranian regime has decreasedemphasis on live fire maritime exercises in order todevote resources to long-range deployments.January – March 2013, Iranian 24thFleet Deploymentand Strategic Engagement with ChinaThe Iranian Navy destroyer Sabalan and the helicoptercarrier Kharg departed Bandar Abbas on or aboutJanuary 26, 2013 for the longest range deploymentin Iranian naval history.96Designated the 24thFleet,the news was reported by both Iranian governmentmedia outlets as well as Arab news outlets in the GulfCooperation Council, including Al Arabiya, which takesa generally hostile view of Iranian military activities.97The 24thFleet transited from Bandar Abbas, out theStrait of Hormuz, across the Indian Ocean, through theStraits of Malacca and into the Pacific Ocean.This is believed to the be the first time in history thatIranian warships have entered the Pacific Ocean, and iscertainlythefirsttimesincethe1979revolution.Althoughthe exercises conducted on this deployment seem to havebeen some version of sustainment training rather thanhigh intensity exercises, the distance and location of thedeployment are significant. Both Iranian vessels pulledinto the Chinese port of Zhangjiagang on March 4, 2013and left on March 7, 2013. The port call was highlightedby the usual Iranian media outlets, including a videoclearly showing both ships in the Chinese port.98Westernmedia confirmed the port call.99After departing Zhangjiagang, the 24th fleet proceededto Sri Lanka, where it anchored offshore from the portof Colombo on March 21, 2013. There the 24thFleethosted a series of distinguished visitors and guests.100This long range deployment to China and Sri Lankaserved as a strategic engagement more than a validationof Iranian maritime combat capabilities. This is thelongest range movement in the history of the IranianNavy, at the far reach of Iranian logistics capabilities.Still, the fact that an Iranian destroyer and helicoptercarrier went from Persian Gulf to the Pacific and backshows that Iranian vessels are in good material condition,and that they have the maintenance and supplies to getdownrange and back.Although there was no reported exercise interactionwith the Chinese Navy, there was significant interactionbetween Iranian and Chinese Navy Officers. Video ofthe port call in China showed dozens of Chinese Navyofficers visiting both Iranian ships, and the Iraniandelegation visiting Chinese military and civilianleadership ashore.101There are a number of reasons China and Sri Lanka arevitaltoIran’slong-termstrategicplans.Chinaisthesinglelargest importer of Iranian oil, and remains a steady, ifsubtle, political ally at the United Nations.102China hasplayed a significant role in the development of Iranianmilitary capabilities, including its nuclear program.103Virtually all of Iran’s anti-ship cruise missile capability
  21. 21. 22 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013is of Chinese manufacture or is based on Chinesetechnology transfer to Iran.104In addition to Chinesepurchases of Iranian oil, there are significant financialties between Iranian and Chinese manufacturers andbanks.105Numerous Chinese companies have been sanctioned bythe U.S. Government for transferring both weapons andtechnology to Iran; prominent among these is the stateowned China National Precision Machinery Importand Export Corporation, which has been sanctioned byboth the U.S. State Department and the U.S. TreasuryDepartment.106In January of 2013, just off the coast of Yemen, theYemeni Coast Guard, operating in cooperation withthe US Navy, interdicted and seized a civilian smugglingvessel. That vessel, though crewed by Yemeni civilians,had departed from Iran and was carrying significantmilitary cargo, including Chinese-made Man PortableSurface to Air Missiles (MANPADS).107The US andYemeni authorities claimed that this particular vesselwas resupplying Houthi rebels in Yemen, and seized iton those grounds.108It is unlikely, however, that the Houthi rebels needMANPADS,sincetheYemeniregimeisnotusingaviationassets to prosecute their campaign against the rebels.Rather, it seems more likely that there is a covert Iraniantransshipment point in Yemen for military supplies andequipment elsewhere. There is an established maritimesmugglingroutefromIrantoSudan,akeytransshipmentpoint for Iranian resupply of both Hamas in Gaza andHezbollah in Lebanon.109Clearly there is an extensive and ongoing militarytechnology relationship between Iran and China thatgoes beyond just manufactured equipment transfer. It ispossible that the Iranian naval deployment to China wasin service of this relationship. Of particular interest inthis regard is the cargo capability of the Kharg. Althoughthe Kharg is officially designated a helicopter carrier,it is not a purpose-built helicopter carrier. Rather,the Kharg was originally built in Great Britain as areplenishment ship intended for sale to Iran prior tothe revolution in 1979; after legal maneuvering, it waseventually transferred to Iran in 1984.110The Kharg isa purpose-built supply ship, capable of carrying heavycargo, including weapons and ammunition and indeedhelicopters, in secure conditions.If the Chinese government wanted to transfer specificmilitary equipment to Iran, and do so with the extrasecurity that a military cargo ship provided, the Khargwould be a good vessel to carry heavy cargo includingweapons and ammunition. Yet the smuggling ofPHOTO 4 | irin helicopter carrier Kharg (SOURCE: UKOWSKIONIRAN.COM)
  22. 22. 23www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013MANPADS on a dhow suggests that both governmentswould prefer to keep these technology transfers plausiblydeniable by moving such equipment through smugglingvessels.It is possible that the Kharg was carrying currency. Chinais paying for all the Iranian oil it is importing. U.S.sanctions against financial clearing houses have made itdifficult for China to pay for Iranian oil in electronicallydenominated currency.111China has apparently paid forsome of its Iranian oil in Chinese currency, the Yuan.112There has been some speculation that China has paid forIranian oil imports with gold.113Currency and gold needto be moved physically if they cannot move electronically.It also is possible that the Chinese government is payingfor Iranian crude oil via some type of barter; as evidenceof this, cheap Chinese manufactured goods have floodedthe Iranian domestic market recently.114A separatepossibility is that China is paying for at least some of itsIranian oil imports by transferring critical weapons ortechnologytoIran,suchastheChineseSAMsinterceptedoff of the Yemeni coast.If China is paying for some of its Iranian oil importsby bartering weapons or technology to Iran, the Khargwould be a perfect vessel to transport such items.While the Iranian government would not need to use amilitary cargo ship like the Kharg to transfer low costmanufactured goods from China to Iran, it would needto use a ship like the Kharg if the goods being transferredas barter were high value, politically sensitive weaponsor munitions from China. The Kharg would be ideal fortransferring such cargo; the presence of a heavily armeddestroyer such as Sabalan would prevent any pirates fromattacking the Kharg, and deter any foreign Navy fromattempting to board. These same considerations applyif the purpose of the visit was to receive payment forIranian oil in gold or cash. In this scenario, the Khargwould function as the cargo vessel, and the Sabalanwould function as the armed escort.As further evidence that the relationship between Chinaand Iran is a long term strategic relationship, on March21, 2103, the Chinese supertanker Yuan Yang Hu, whichis owned by China’s state owned Dalian Ocean ShippingCompany, pulled up to Iran’s Kharg Island facility in thePersian Gulf and onloaded two million barrels of crudeoil; this is the first recorded instance since sanctions wentinto effect of Chinese tankers directly carrying Iraniancrude oil.115Given that this was the first Chinese tankerto load oil at Kharg Island since sanctions started, andgiven that this happened just two weeks after the Iranian24thfleet pulled into port in China, it is likely that thesetwo events are related. The Yuan Yang Hu is apparentlynow committed full time to the Iran-China trade route;on May 31, 2013, the supertanker returned to KhargPHOTO 5 | irin destroyer sabala (SOURCE: Fars News Agency)
  23. 23. 24 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013Island for a second load.116As a final indication of the depth of the relationshipbetween Iran and China, on July 31, 2012, the U.S.Treasury Department designated the Chinese Bank ofKunlun as being in violation of sanctions for processinghundreds of millions of dollars in transactions for atleast six Iranian banks.117China’s Bank of Kunlun is awholly owned subsidiary of China National PetroleumCorporation (CNPC), a state owned company.118CNPC is heavily invested in both Iranian and Iraqi oilfield development.119This designation is significantbecause it coincided with a record amount of Iranianoil imported by China. In July of 2012, China importedapproximately 590,000 barrels of oil a day fromIran, a significant increase over 2011 figures.120Thisdesignation is also significant, because it was the firsttime the US government directly confronted a Chinesestate-owned company for violating sanctions. TheChinese government protested the action, with ChineseForeign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang respondingto the designation by stating that “China is stronglydissatisfied, is firmly opposed to it and will raisesolemn representations to the U.S. from both Beijingand Washington.”121If the designation was intended todissuade China from continuing its partnership withIran, it failed; since this designation, Iranian oil exportsto China have continued, the IRIN conducted a port callin China, and a Chinese state-owned supertanker hasmade two port calls at Kharg Island to load Iranian oil.China and Iran have only deepened their relationshipsince this designation.Although the Iranian Navy has not conducted any overt,direct, military-to-military contacts in the public spherewith North Korea, such as port calls, there is a significantrelationship between North Korea and Iran. In manyways, China serves as an umbrella for this relationship,facilitating the exchange of hardware and technologybetween North Korea and Iran.122This military-to-military relationship between Iran and North Koreawould be easy for the U.S. and its allies to disrupt if itwas conducted directly. Because the relationship betweenNorth Korea and Iran is at least partially facilitated byChina, it is much more difficult for the U.S. to disruptit. The exchange of technology and hardware is mostobvious in Iranian missile systems, many of which arederivative of North Korean systems.123Increasingly,North Korean and Iranian missile systems are based onmutually beneficial and coordinated research and benefitfrom Chinese cooperation and involvement.124TheChinese energy strategy in the Middle East is benefitsfrom its increasingly close relationship with Iran.125In terms of the relationship with Sri Lanka, in 2012,over 90% of Sri Lanka’s imported oil came from Iran.126This extensive economic relationship is alone reasonenough for Iran to prioritize managing and expandingthe strategic relationship. In June of 2013, IranianDefence Advisor of the Islamic Republic of Iran ColonelPHOTO 6 | Admiral Panteleyev and Admiral Novelskoy docked in Bandar Abbas (SOURCE: UKOWSKIONIRAN.COM)
  24. 24. 25www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013Abrahim Rouhany called on the Commander of theSri Lanka Navy, Vice Admiral Jayanath Colombage atthe Naval Headquarters in Colombo.127This visit cameimmediatelyaftertheSriLankangovernmentwasaccusedby the U.S. of violating sanctions by importing Iranianoil. Sri Lanka Economic Development Minister BasilRajapaksa reacted negatively to the accusation, allegingthat smaller countries such as Sri Lanka were beingsingled out for persecution, while larger countries in theregion evaded punishment.128Iran’s relationship withSri Lanka is neither as extensive nor as important as itsrelationship with China. Still, the port call to Colomboand the follow on visit from the Iranian Defence Advisorindicate that Iran intends to continue building economicand strategic ties with Sri Lanka.December 19, 2012: Russian Udaloy Class DestroyerMarshal Shaposhnikov docked at Bandar Abbas.  The Russian Udaloy Class Destroyer MarshalShaposhnivok docked in Bandar Abbas in December2012, with heavy media interaction in Iran includingtelevision coverage of the event.129Although this was notan exercise, it is important for two reasons. First, this isa convenient stopover point for Russian ships from thePacific fleet, homeported in Vladivostok, transiting tothe Middle East or Mediterranean. The U.S. Navy hasmultiple overseas bases in the Middle East, includingBahrain in the Persian Gulf, and Diego Garcia in theIndian Ocean. The Russian Navy has no bases in theIndian Ocean or Persian Gulf. Having access to BandarAbbasmakeslongrangedeploymentsfortheRussianNavyto the region much more feasible. Although it is possibleto deploy ships from Vladivostok to the Mediterraneanwithout a secure port call enroute, having access to aport enroute with all the support elements of a militarybase makes that very long distance deployment part of aviable ongoing routine. Second, Russian Admiral SergeiAlekminsky indicates that this port call is the first ofmany for the Russian Navy in Iran, stating, “I hope thatnext year, by decision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,it will be possible to organize a visit of our ships to Iran… There is a wish to see [the Iranian navy], because theyare also developing.”130The port call by the Russian Navy in December of 2012represents a significant shift in the dynamic between theRussian government and the Iranian government. TheRussian government is actively supporting Iran and Syriapolitically at the UN; this statement indicates the intentexists to expand passive political cooperation betweenRussiaandIranintoactive,ongoingmilitarycooperation.The recent Russian decision to activate a standing navytaskforceintheEasternMediterraneanwillbesupportedby their use of Bandar Abbas as a logistics stopover pointfor Russian ships transiting from the Pacific Fleet tothe Mediterranean and returning.131At least six of theRussian ships currently in the Mediterranean are fromthe Pacific fleet; three of them stopped in Bandar Abbasfor a port call in April, 2013.132April 20, 2013: Three Russian Pacific Fleet Vesselsdocked at Bandar AbbasFollowing the port call in December, three Russianships from the Pacific Fleet pulled in to Bandar Abbason April 20, 2013, en route to the Mediterranean,where they have since joined the newly formed RussianMediterranean squadron.133The flotilla consisted ofthe destroyer Admiral Panteleyev and the amphibioustransport ships Peresvet and Admiral Novelskoy.Shortly after these Pacific Fleet vessels arrived in theMediterranean, Russian Navy Commander AdmiralViktor Chirkov indicated that the Russian Navy wasplanningonapermanentpresenceintheMediterranean,stating, “Overall, we plan to have five or six warships andsupport vessels [in the Mediterranean Sea], which willbe replaced on a rotating basis from each of the fleets —the Black Sea, Baltic, Northern and, in some cases, eventhe Pacific Fleet. Depending on the scope of assignmentsand their complexity, the number of warships in the taskforce may be increased.”134Having access to the Iranian port facilities at BandarAbbas as an en route logistics point will be extremelyuseful to the Russian Navy’s plans to rotate ships fromthe Pacific fleet into the Mediterranean. Having astopover point where ships can pull in and rest, refuel,and replenish supplies is a requirement for worldwidedeployments. The Russian practice of pulling intoBandar Abbas midway between Vladivostok and theEastern Mediterranean is functionally no different thanthe Iranian practice of pulling into the Colombo, SriLanka, halfway between Iran and China. To that end,the Russian Navy’s activity in Bandar Abbas should notbe considered a singular development, isolated fromother regional issues.These two strategically significant developments —
  25. 25. 26 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013Russian port calls at Bandar Abbas and the establishmentof a Russian standing naval task force in the EasternMediterranean are connected. Without assured accessto Bandar Abbas, the Russian Navy cannot consistentlymove ships from the Pacific to the Middle East; withassured access to Bandar Abbas, the deployment ofRussian Navy ships from Vladivostok to the MiddleEast and on to the Mediterranean is sustainable on anongoing basis. That in turn enables the permanentcreation of the Mediterranean task force, and permitsadvanced Russian arm sales to Syria.POTENTIAL USE OF IRIN AND IRISL FOR LOGISTICSSUPPORTThe Iranian regime is providing significant, ongoing,and essential support to the Assad regime in Syria,Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iranian proxy organizationsin both Syria and Lebanon. That support is renderedin a number of ways, including direct financialsupport, transfers of military equipment, supplies, andammunition, shared intelligence, and providing directmilitary training to leadership and personnel. On May1, 2013, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) andthe Critical Threats Project (CTP) of the AmericanEnterprise Institute (AEI) published “Iranian Strategy inSyria,” that details Iranian support to Syria, Hezbollah,and affiliated Iranian proxy groups.135This studyconcluded that Iran’s commitment to the Assad regime,Hezbollah, and Iranian proxies is intended to keepAssad in power as long as possible and ensure that evenif Assad falls, Iran will still have significant influence inSyria and Lebanon.The majority of Iran’s supply of weapons and equipmentis self-produced; the Iranian Defense IndustriesOrganization (DIO), the industrial arm of the Ministryof Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MOFADL),has a number of subordinate companies inside Iranthat manufacture the vast majority of Iran’s militaryequipage.136DIO uses that industrial capacity to supplythe Assad regime, Hezbollah, and Iranian proxymap 2 | iranian navy, russian navy, and chinese supertanker movements
  26. 26. 27www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013organizations in Lebanon and Syria; as a result, theU.S. Department of Treasury has designated numerousorganizations and individuals affiliated with DIO asbeing in violations of sanctions.137While DIO produces most equipment, ammunition, andweapons that Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Iranian proxiesneed, those supplies still require transport to the enduser. IRIN and the Islamic Republic of Iran ShippingLines (IRISL) are part of the Iranian supply chain fordistribution of weapons, ammunition, and equipment.Iranian Naval Support to SyriaThe majority of Iranian materiel support to the Assadregime in Syria travels by air.138In addition to aerialresupply, Iran has, in the past, provided maritimeresupply of Syria via Iranian Navy ships docking atTartus, Syria.139This route of resupply, however, entailssignificant risk in that it requires Iranian vessels to passthrough the Suez Canal, and travel in close proximity toIsrael. Using the Iranian Navy to transport supplies toSyria via Sudan, and from there via overland smugglingroutes, reduces the risk to the Iranian Navy.Indications that the Iranian Navy is being used as amethod of resupply for Syria are further supported bythree observed Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines(IRISL) port calls to Libya. While IRISL is ostensiblya commercial cargo line, it has been sanctioned by theU.S. Department of Treasury for extensive ties withthe Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).140Inpractice, IRISL functions under the direct control ofIran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics(MODAFL).141February 2012 IRIN logistical deployment to SyriaAlthough Iran provides the majority of its logisticalsupporttoSyriaviaairtransfer,IRINdidvalidateitsabilityto conduct a long-range maritime supply of Syria by thedeployment of the Iranian destroyer Shahid Qandi andthe cargo ship Kharg to the Mediterranean in Februaryof 2012. Those IRIN ships transited the Suez Canal andproceeded to pull pierside at the Russian Naval Facility inTartus, Syria.142This deployment was similar to an IRINdeployment to Syrian in 2011, conducted by the Iraniandestroyer Alvand and the cargo ship Kharg.143Theselong-range deployments by IRIN to the Mediterraneanshow that the Iranian regime is extremely flexible in howit supports and moves supplies to Syria, Hezbollah, andits proxy organizations. Now that Russia has establisheda standing navy squadron in the Eastern Mediterranean,and established a routine of port calls at Bandar Abbas,the ability of IRIN to deploy to the Mediterranean opensup the possibility of Russian–Iranian naval cooperation insupport of their common ally, Syria, with Russia’s navalbase at Tartus providing support. It is clear that the Iranian regime has long term interestsin the Mediterranean; these two IRIN deployments toPHOTO 7 | helicopter carrier kharg transiting the suez canal (SOURCE: UKOWSKIONIRAN.COM)
  27. 27. 28 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013the Mediterranean show that Iranian regime has thecapability and the strategic ambition to deploy ships tothe Mediterranean and use those ships to convey suppliesto allies, or load supplies for transfer back to Iran.August - September 2012 IRISL Ships Sail to Libya In September, 2012, at least three IRISL ships that hadbeendesignatedbytheU.S.TreasuryDepartmentasbeingin violation of sanctions sailed to the Mediterranean,where they pulled pierside or anchored off of the threeLibyan ports of Benghazi, Sirte, and Misrata.144At leastone of the IRISL ships, the Parmis, departed fromBandar Abbas, Headquarters of the IRIN and IRGCN,and made intermediate stops in Dubai and Egypt beforeproceeding to Libya. IRISL ships fly civilian “flags ofconvenience,” from a number of different nations,but in reality, they are a functional subsidiary of theIRGC.145It is possible that the IRISL ships in Libyawere not delivering weapons or ammunition to anygroup there, but were instead taking receipt of weaponspurchased on the open market. After Qaddafi’s regimein Libya collapsed, a significant amount of weapons andammunition formerly under his control was dispersed towhoever could seize or buy it. The UN released a reportin April 2013 that indicated weapons from Libya hadbeen transported to Mali, Syria, Sinai, and a numberof other regions.146Although Iran manufactures mostof its own weapons, equipment, and ammunition, it ispossible that IRISL ships traveling amongst Libyan portsin September of 2012 were there to pick up purchases ofLibyan arms from the open market, and from there forfurther transport to the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollahin Lebanon, and other Iranian proxies.Ongoing Iranian Navy Port Calls, Port of Sudan The Iranian Navy pulls into Port of Sudan on a regularbasis. This serves several strategic interests of the Iranianregime. First, there is a significant, ongoing smugglingroute running from Iran to Sudan, then overlandthrough Egypt into the Gaza strip. This is the primaryresupply route for Hamas, and is typically resourced withmultiple small private cargo ships emanating from Iran.PHOTO 8 | IRIN helicopter carrier Bushehr docked in port sudan (Source: IRINN)
  28. 28. 29www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | Iranian Naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013According to a 2011 US Congressional Research Report,“Smugglers ship weapons up the Red Sea through Sudanand then overland through the Sinai desert until theyreach tunnels in the divided town of Rafah.”147By transferring most small weapon and ammunitionshipments via multiple small ships, the Iranian regimemakesitvirtuallyimpossiblefortheU.S.NavyandNATOallies to interdict the flow. Western Navies are equippedwith relatively large surface ships that are optimized forlong-range, long-duration deployments, but are simplytoo big to effectively interdict the thousands of privatecargo dhows active in the Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden,and Red Sea. Iranian Navy port calls to Port Sudanmaintain the strategic relationship between the Iranianregime and Sudan. As long as the strategic relationshipbetween Sudan and Iran is intact, Sudan will allowa permissive operating environment for smugglersoperating near the Port of Sudan and Sudanese Red Seacoastline.However, small smugglers cannot provide adequateshipping or security for certain outsize military cargo,including larger surface-to-surface rockets. The Iranianregime uses cargo ships of the Islamic Republic ofIran Shipping Lines (IRISL) for that sort of transfer.IRISL has been designated by the U.S. Department ofTreasury as being in violation of multiple violations ofregulations relating to ongoing sanctions.148In June,2011, the Manhattan District Attorney (DA) released a317 count indictment against IRISL. In it, the DA stated,“Today our office is shining a spotlight on the fraudulentactivities of IRISL, which has been sanctioned by theUnited States, the European Union, and the UnitedNations for its role in the proliferation of weapons ofmass destruction.”149ByconductingregularportcallstoPortofSudan,IranianNavy vessels maintain access for IRISL ships to do thesame. One of the recent port calls by the Iranian Navyincluded the Bushehr, which was originally purpose-built for IRISL by the Iran Shipbuilding and OffshoreIndustries Complex Co. (ISOICO) as a cargo vessel, buthas since been redesignated as an IRIN naval vessel.150If the Iranian regime has outsize cargo bound for HamasviaSudanthatistoobigtobeshippedviaprivatesmugglers,or too valuable to be shipped via IRISL, the Bushehr is asuitable vessel to move such cargo. Because it is a purposebuilt cargo ship, it can carry any large cargo that Iran’sDefense Organization Industry (DIO) produces; becauseit is an IRIN vessel, US Navy and NATO vessels willprobably not take the provocative step of boarding andsearching it. Although the US Navy regularly boards andsearches private dhows in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, andGulf of Oman, it does not do so with IRIN vessels.151Inthe below picture, the Bushehr — with what appears tobe a 30 mm cannon on the foredeck — pulls pier-side inPort Sudan on December 08, 2012.152BecausethereisalwayssomeriskofinterdictionbytheU.S.Navy and its NATO and EU partners, Iran has bypassedsome of that risk by setting up munitions factories inSudan. In October of 2012, the Israeli Air Force (IAF)conducted a long-range strike against a large munitionsfactory in Khartoum, Sudan.153Although Sudan and Irandenied that the munitions factory had any links to Iran,political leadership of the Sudanese opposition insistedthat the factory was designed, built, and owned by Iran’sIslamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).154Based onthe extensive record of Iranian transfers of weapons andammunition through Sudan, it is likely that both IRISLand IRIN ships were used to transport the equipment andsupplies needed to build and equip the factory.Over the last eight months, IRIN has conducted at leastfour formal port calls to Port Sudan.DATE LOCATION SHIP, TYPEOctober 29,2012Port Sudan155Kharg, helicoptercarrier / cargoShahid Naqdi,destroyerNovember 30,2012Port Sudan156Jamaran, destroyerBushehr, helicoptercarrier / cargoDecember 8,2012Port Sudan157Jamaran, destroyerBushehr, helicoptercarrier / cargoMay 23, 2013 Port Sudan158Jamaran, destroyerThree of the four port calls that IRIN conducted to PortSudan during this time period included a helicoptercarrier / cargo ship. The routine presence of a heavycargo ship indicates that the port calls may be used totransfer cargo between Iran and Sudan.The significant, ongoing military to military contactbetween IRIN and Sudan suggests that Iran sees its
  29. 29. 30 www.Understandingwar.orgMIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 12 | iranian naval and maritime strategy | christopher harmer | june 2013relationship with Sudan as an important part of itsregional strategy and a key enabler for logistical supportfor Iranian allies and proxies.CONCLUSIONThe Iranian regime has among its strategic objectivesexpanding its power in the Middle East and rolling backU.S. influence in the region. Its significant militaryexercises, strategic engagements with partners, andthe provision of materiel and funding to its allies andproxies are undertaken with the intent of furtheringthese goals. Although Iran has decreased the size, scope,and intensity of some of its maritime exercises, it hasdone this as part of a considered strategy to increase longrange naval deployments and strategic engagements withkey partners, not as a result of inadequate resources.The Iranian Navy is nevertheless still focused on itsimmediate environs, especially the Straits of Hormuz. Byconducting short- to medium-range maritime exercisesthat reinforce territorial claims to the disputed TunbIslandsandAbuMusa,theIranianregimeportraysitselftoitsdomesticaudienceasactingfromapositionofstrength,standing up for historical Iranian claims, and defendingthe territorial integrity of the state. This portrayal ofstrength is also intended to influence an internationalaudience — Abu Musa and the Tunb islands are excellentstrongpoints from which to conduct asymmetric warfareoperations. High level political and military delegationvisits to the islands convey the importance of the Iranianclaims to both domestic and international audiences.As a practical matter, reinforcing claims to these islandsconveys significant potential revenue from expandedunderwater mineral rights. Perhaps most importantly,from a strategic perspective, clear ownership of theislands would give Iran a much stronger position inthis important waterway. The U.S. and others do notacknowledge Iranian assertions that it can legally closenavigation of the Straits, but in a conflict environmentthis may be a moot point if Iran is able to take advantageof these strategically located islands.Iran’s exercises in the near abroad also fit into its strategyfor the Caspian and Caucasus region. Iran wants toincrease its territorial claims from 12% to 20% of theCaspian Sea in order to increase its share of the mineralrights and lucrative fisheries there. Iran supports thisclaim by dedicating significant industrial resourcesto build relatively large, high-capacity ships such asthe Jamaran-2 destroyer, and conducting maritimeexercises. Iran strengthens this claim by leveraging itsrelationship with Russia into cooperation in the CaspianSea. Both Russia and Iran see tension between states onthe Caspian Sea as a purely regional issue, and cooperatein opposing international influence.159In contrast,Azerbaijan welcomes international influence in theregion, and is an active member of the NATO IndividualPartnership Action Plan (IPAP).160Along with these practical considerations in the CaspianSea, Iran wants to extend its influence northward intothe Caucasus. Although Iran’s strategic ambition ofpower projection is most apparent in the Persian Gulfand the land corridor running from Iran throughIraq to Syria and Lebanon, Iran also tries to exercisesignificant social, religious, and cultural influence overthe majority Shia population of Azerbaijan.161Iranianterritorial ambition in the Caspian Sea and its desireto exert influence over the majority Shia populationof Azerbaijan are emboldened by its growing strategicrelationship with Russia as well as China.Despite the fact that Russia and Iran do not have identicalinterests in the Caspian and Caucasus region, they haveenough in common to cooperate on specific priorities,such as banding together in opposition to the proposedTrans Caspian Gas Pipeline.162This pipeline, supportedby the United States, would run underneath the CaspianSea, and then transit Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkeybefore reaching its terminus on the Mediterraneancoast, where it would enter the international markets.163Iran’s support of Russian ships at Bandar Abbas is beingreciprocated by Russia in the Caspian Sea, as Russian Navyofficials have announced their Caspian Sea Fleet HQ atAstrakhan will be opened for Iranian ships to visit.164Russian and Iranian naval cooperation in the PersianGulf and Mediterranean is now extending to the CaspianSea as well. Russian and Iranian strategic cooperation inSyria is now being replicated with strategic cooperation inopposing the US supported Trans Caspian Pipeline. Thestrategic relationship between Russia and Iran is not static— it is growing in both intensity and geographic reach.SpecificindividualChineseinterestsintheCaspian regionalign with Iranian and Russian interests. China needssecure sources of natural gas. The Trans Caspian Pipeline— which would take gas to the West, away from China —wouldnotservethispurpose.AlthoughChinahasdeclinedto join Iran and Russia in open opposition to the TransCaspian Pipeline, China has invested in two competingpipelines, the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline and the