Tehran's new plan to dominate the region - and beyond
Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard practice attacking a naval vessel during military exercises in the Persian Gulf.
October 25th, 2011
10:30 AM ET

Tehran's new plan to dominate the region - and beyond

Editor's Note: W. Jonathan Rue is a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. A former active duty Marine officer, he served in Iraq from 2009–2010.

By W. Jonathan Rue, Foreign Affairs

While much of the world's attention focuses on Iran's nuclear program, Tehran has made considerable progress on another security front in recent years - steadily increasing the reach and lethality of its naval forces. The goal by 2025, if all goes as the country has planned, is to have a navy that can deploy anywhere within a strategic triangle from the Strait of Hormuz to the Red Sea to the Strait of Malacca.

Should such plans materialize - and Iran is making steady progress - Tehran would redraw the strategic calculus of an already volatile region. The Persian Gulf is home to some of the world's most valuable supply lines, routes that are vital to the global energy supply. In the last few years, Iran has invested heavily in a domestic defense industry that now has the ability to produce large-scale warships, submarines, and missiles. 

Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Iran has largely pursued a strategy of deterrence. Its ground forces, which number roughly 450,000, are trained and equipped to fight a prolonged, asymmetric defensive battle on its own territory. Likewise, Iran's air force can protect high value domestic targets such as the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and numerous military and political headquarters inside Tehran; it is incapable of long-range strike missions abroad. Iran simply does not possess the capability to project hard power into neighboring states.

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But Iran's navy is different. It is the best organized, best trained, and best equipped service of the country's conventional military establishment. More than a nuclear weapons program, which would likely function as a passive deterrent, Iran's navy is an active component of Iran's activist foreign policy. The country's leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly said that Iran's navy is the critical foundation on which its long-term development and prosperity rests.

Iran actually has two navies - the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and the vaunted Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN). The responsibilities of both have been expanding since 2007. The IRIN operates conventional surface and subsurface platforms and fulfills a more traditional naval role. It is now responsible for the Caspian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the blue waters outside the Persian Gulf. The IRGCN, which executes asymmetric operations with swarms of small boats that overwhelm the defenses of larger ships, has been tasked with defending the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. This reorganization reflects Tehran's desire to be a naval power that can deploy and operate well outside Persian Gulf waters (via the IRIN) while still retaining formidable coastal defenses in the Persian Gulf (via the IRGCN).

Evidence of Iran's growing naval assertiveness is already on display. In December 2010, Iran participated in a training exercise with Djibouti during a port call there. Tehran sailed away from that engagement with a partnership agreement that could allow Iran to use Djibouti as a logistical base supporting a larger and persistent Iranian presence in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Two months later, for the first time since 1979, Iran sent two ships through the Suez Canal to the Eastern Mediterranean, inducing the ire of both Israel and the United States. Neither country retaliated, but Israel closely tracked the ships as they sailed along the Israeli coast. This summer, Iran sent one of its Kilo class submarines to the Red Sea on a counter-piracy operation. Finally, Iran recently asserted plans to send naval patrols to the Western Atlantic. Although Iran probably doesn't have the capacity for such a mission, this kind of rhetoric speaks to Tehran's grand ambitions and is a way of emphasizing what it sees as the illegitimacy of the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

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On numerous occasions in recent years, IRGCN small boats have come dangerously close to U.S. and Western naval ships operating in the Persian Gulf. By all accounts, this is not an abnormal occurrence and usually ends with the small boat being turned away. But a recent change has increased the danger of escalation. Since 2005, Iran has been decentralizing command and control, not requiring subordinate commanders to get approval for all actions from senior leaders in Tehran. Thus, an IRGCN boat commander was able to take the initiative and capture a small crew of British sailors in 2007, a tactical action with strategic consequences. Should the IRGCN become more assertive, such engagements could spiral out of control.

Iran's emboldened navy is also increasing the country's influence throughout the region. The navy is the only service with the operational reach to visit countries that do not share a border with Iran. These visits help foster good political relations, but, more important, they provide a foundation for military-to-military ties that can also yield operational benefits. For example, using ports in places such as Djibouti as resupply points allows Iran to increase the length and duration of deployments to waters outside its navy's traditional areas of operation. More worryingly, such an extended reach could also allow the IRIN to deliver weapons to various Iranian proxy groups abroad.

Moreover, the United States must now contend with the presence of IRIN ships well outside the Persian Gulf. This has enormous implications for U.S. military planners and commanders - for example, it could force the U.S. Navy to implement increased force protection measures in waters, such as the Red Sea, that were once considered less volatile. Iran could soon have the ability to deny the U.S. entry through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf.

In many ways, the origins of Iran's naval buildup stem from embargoes that the U.S. slapped on Tehran during its war with Iraq, more than two decades ago. Since then, Tehran has sought what it calls "self-sufficiency." It has invested heavily in a domestic defense industrial base. Employing Chinese, Russian, and North Korean technology, Iran has begun building its own ships, submarines, and missiles.

That industry is now producing. In 2010, the IRIN put its first domestically manufactured traditional surface combatant, the Mowj class destroyer, to sea. Tehran has also built four Combattante II class guided missile patrol boats. In August 2010, it expanded the Peykaap/Tir class line, a fast-attack craft capable of carrying anti-ship cruise missiles and hitting a cruising speed of 55 knots. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence says that these programs "demonstrate Iran's ability to produce mid- to large-size ships" and "will likely be followed by others."

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Iran is also producing its own submarines and missiles. It has added multiple Ghadir class mini-subs to its order of battle since the reorganization. In 2007, Iran had only three in service. Now it has eleven, with another nine expected in the next three years. In 2008 Tehran announced the opening of a production line for a larger, more potent submarine platform, the 1,000 ton Qa'em class. It is working on its own missile designs, too, by reverse-engineering older Chinese models. The IRGCN test fired one such missile last spring, claiming an effective range of 186 miles. Last month, Tehran announced that it had begun full production of one based on those tests.

Reaction to the buildup in the Gulf has been mixed. For most of the six states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran's nuclear program remains the dominant regional security concern. With the United States' Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain and serving as the prime guarantor of maritime security across the region, the GCC has displayed little angst over Iran's growing naval power. Saudi Arabia, however, has been taking Tehran's growing assertiveness seriously. According to news reports, Riyadh is looking to spend another $30 billion to upgrade the Royal Saudi Navy (on top of the $60 billion arms deal that Washington and Riyadh signed in 2010). Final word on the new agreement could be announced by the end of the year.

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Washington, meanwhile, has responded in a few different ways. Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen suggested last month that Tehran and Washington link up a hotline to avoid miscommunication and prevent accidental tactical naval engagements from spiraling out of control. Tehran rejected the idea, presumably because it would give legitimacy to an ongoing U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Asked about Iran's September announcement that it would deploy naval vessels to the U.S. Atlantic coast, White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the possibility, saying that the White House did not take such pronouncements seriously.

Iran will obviously never reach naval parity with the United States, but the GCC countries, even with their newer, Western-supplied ships, would likely find themselves on the losing end of a naval engagement with Iran, mainly because of their minimal force numbers and their inability to coordinate any naval campaign. As long as the United States continues to provide maritime security in the Middle East, the GCC will be able to rest easy. But Iran has a head start and the GCC should start thinking about implementing a naval modernization and development plan of its own.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of  W. Jonathan Rue.

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Topics: Iran • Military • United States

soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. hass

    What a bunch of scaremongering nonsense. Iran's navy is absolutely miniscule compared to a massive US military armada parked on Iran's doorstep, and we regularly threaten to bomb them (in violation of international law.) So who is being "assertive" and "dominating"???

    October 25, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Reply
    • hass

      PS – arms dealers love articles like this.

      October 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Reply
      • Thinker23

        Hass... If you believe that it is "in violation of international law" for the US to threaten to bomb Iran you MUST agree that it is in violation of the very same law for Iran to threaten to erase Israel from the map. Further, while the American threats to bomb Iran are mostly a figment of your imagination the Iranian threats to Israel are VERY REAL. Still further, it is only logical to assume that the US should prepare for such Iranian adventure.

        October 25, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Due to sanctions, the wings of the Iranian planes are clipped. So the Iranians focus on strengthening their navy instead. Good idea!

        October 25, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
      • Jesse

        for Thinker 23, it's all about Israel, & nothing else!

        October 25, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Hass... It is RACISM to discriminate people (or countries) by their ethnicity or race. Do you think that it is OK for Iran to threaten Israel but it's NOT OK for the US to threaten Iran? YES OR NO?

        October 25, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Daniel

      To answer you question above, hass, it's the United States, Great Britain and France who seek to become dominant everywhere!!!

      October 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Reply
      • Occupado

        If standing up to tyrannical mass murderers, hunting them down and killing them before they do more harm is world domination, then, yes, Great Britain, France and the United States (i.e., Barack Obama) seek to dominate the world.

        And kudos to them for doing it.

        October 30, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Jesse

      hass, that Thinker23
      hass, if you don't acknowledge (Thinker 23) now, he'll have heart attack & die any minute now.
      Let's not forget Thinker 23, the Zionist movement is the biggest racist movement in the world today.
      Israel is showing more racism than S. Africa did 20 yrs ago.
      Israel is engaged in a slow & systematic genocide of defenseless Palestinian women & children.
      Take a Zanac boy!

      October 25, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Reply
      • Thinker23

        I'm not sure how you arrived to this bizarre conclusion but here are the FACTS: ALL citizens of Israel have the very same equal rights guaranteed by the state laws regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion or gender. Further, if Israel was "engaged in genocide of Palestinians" the number of Palestinian Arabs would not INCREASE SIX TIMES since 1948. On the other hand, the number of Jews living in the Arab countries DECREASED by 99% during the same period of time. Even the number of Jews in the pillar of Islamic democracy Iran DECREASED by 80% since the Islamic Revolution. Try to compare these numbers and you'll know WHO is racist here.

        October 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  2. Ali Mostofi

    You are mixing up the ambitions of The Hezbollah Party in Iran with what Iranians want.

    October 25, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • shahin

      Hezbollah want the word "Islam" written on the eyelids of every man, woman and child in the world whereas Iranians just want to be able to wear short shorts and to openly have relationships with one another like every other normal people in the world.
      You see why this regime wont last long...

      October 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  3. The Fed-up 99%

    And the misinformation campaign continues! At least the majority of the world is awake now, it won't be long before the rest join us.

    October 25, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
    • Occupado

      You aren't 99 percent. You aren't even one percent.

      You just don't know it yet.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  4. Onesmallvoice

    Unfortunately, Iran doesn't yet have the military strenghth to effectively challenge NATO which has it's own designs for the region. The United States, Great Britain and France are currently endeavoring to dominate that part of the world and Iran is in the way. So let's just hope that people wise up and see this simple fact. Besides, the current wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan prove as much!!!

    October 25, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  5. TP

    Sounds like target practice to me

    October 25, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  6. RCDC

    I pray Iran will stay humble and peacefull to the world. It needs good ambassadors to solve its problems with the world and not weapons, terrorist and ships.

    October 25, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Reply
    • Jesse

      The problem isn't Iran, the problem is The US & its problem-child Israel!

      October 25, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Reply
  7. Jesse

    CNN, stop using your Zionists connections/proxy to bash & demonize Iran.
    Sooner or later an average American viewers will see the light & realize that CNN is the liberal wing of the Ziono-propaganda machine. Stop it CNN, stop your dirty games.

    October 25, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Jesse... You should find a good Jewish psychiatrist and tell her that CNN is using its Zionists connections/proxy to bash & demonize Iran. Maybe, she will listen and she is your only hope.

      October 25, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Reply
      • Jesse

        Thinker/Stinker 23, apparently you've had some experience in that area, can you recommend one? of your own kind?

        October 25, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Jesse... Use the Yellow Pages to find a psychiatrist.

        October 25, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Occupado

      The Zionists don't have to bash and demonize Iran. Akmadinajad and his meshuginnah mullah friends do a pretty good job of it without Zionist help.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  8. Leroy

    I don't see anything at all wrong with developing their naval power; if America can do this why can't any other country? It's their part of the world, their Persian Gulf. What's the issue?

    October 25, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Did someone say that Iran CAN NOT develop their naval power?

      October 25, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Reply
      • Jesse

        Relax thinker, so edgy tonight aren't we?
        Israel will be safe, relax!

        October 25, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Jesse... You did not answer my question: Did someone say that Iran CAN NOT develop their naval power?

        Don't forget that refusal to answer questions is RUDE.

        October 25, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
      • Jesse

        Thinker 23,
        America & NATO in concert with the massive Israeli/Saudi Lobbies are against Iran developing any form of defense what so ever! Navy is one aspect of it. If you don't believe me that US/Israel don't want Iran to develop defense, look at the sanctions. Do some readings. Sanction go way over & beyond nuclear tech, it includes more 90% defensive weapons.
        S-300 Russian rocket was the very latest example. Before being a parrot here, please READ on this subject.
        ps. I wasn't rude & answered you. I hope that you'll show the civility to read on this subject instead of just arguing.
        Please read on this.

        October 25, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
      • The Phrophet Mohammed

        Oh Iran can develop their naval power and they did. They bought two Ranger Bass boats and one tracker bass boat, not to mention two row boats, a canoe and twelve Kayaks. Quite impressive if you ask me. I just hope they didn't buy any Ugly Stick fishing poles and Mitchell 300 reels, if they did- Look Out world, Iran is a Superpower. God forbid they get a deal on Rapalas Crank baits...

        October 25, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • Jesse

      Thinker 23
      Let me add that this Navy-expansion of Iran is based on their own home-grown technology. They could never buy destroyers from anyone under the current sanctions. To answer your question more completely, we're in NO POSITION to tell them not to develop technology, we pushed them into it. They would NOT listen to us ANY MORE. We've lost all leverage, thanks to our pro-Zionist congress, & stupid diplomacy. We now can only resort to FORCE! The question is: Are we in the position today to use force?

      October 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Reply
      • RCDC

        US are prepared for anything. But we (USA) are trying to promote peace and not war.

        October 25, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Jesse... I do not see any reason for the US (or Israel) to use force against PEACEFUL Iran. On the other hand, both Israel and the US will have to use force in case Iran will attack Israel or another country (Saudi Arabia, for example). I can only repeat what I've said earlier: neither the US nor any other country is in a position to tell Iran what it can or can not do. Iran is a sovereign state. It will do whatever Iranian leaders consider to be necessary and Iranian people will have to take responsibility for the results.

        October 25, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  9. Thinker23

    Jesse... Being AGAINST something and declaring that he/she/them CAN NOT or DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT to do it are two different things. As an example you may consider that your Mom may be against allowing you to drive a car. This, however, does not necessarily mean that you CAN NOT DRIVE or that it is ILLEGAL for you to drive. Iran has EVERY RIGHT to develop all LEGAL types of weapons and it will have to take the responsibility for the results of its actions. Still, neither Israel nor the US like such Iranian actions considering Iranian threats to destroy Israel. You may recall that neither Israel nor the US threatened to destroy Iran.

    October 25, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
    • Jesse

      Thinker 23,
      No leader, gov't official, military official of Iran, ever threatened to destroy Israel. Now, you'll have to eat your words, as I'm proving to everyone that you're simply engaging in dirty propaganda activities.
      Thinker 23 PROVE IT! Prove to us through a viable, susbstantiating, verifiable proof that Iran or any of its leaders/officials EVER threatened to DESTROY Israel? PROVE IT, OR apologize to the rest of us for insulting our intelligence!
      On the other hand we have several times threatened Iran with military actions. We have troops to their south (Persian Gulf), East (Afghanistan), West (Iraq), North & Northwest (Turkey, Azerbaijan Republic).
      Thinker 23, I'M COUNTING ON YOUR INTEGRITY. Prove your claim or apologize to us for insulting our intelligence.
      SHOW INTERGRITY Thinker 23.

      October 25, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Reply
      • Jesse

        Thinker 23,
        I rest my case. You were engaging in pro-Israel propaganda craps.
        You clearly showed that you have no integirty.
        No Zionist on this planet has integrity at all.
        That's why I wasn't holding my breath for you to prove your claim.
        Get a life!

        October 26, 2011 at 11:21 am |
      • Thinker23

        Jesse: No leader, gov't official, military official of Iran, ever threatened to destroy Israel.

        This is a blatant lie, pure and simple. Now, if you insist that I "show my integrity" here is a proof:


        October 26, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Jesse... If you were not satisfied by my reply above here are a couple more proofs of my integrity for you to enjoy:



        by the way, I'm NOT counting on YOUR integrity, Jesse. I believe that it does not exist.

        October 26, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  10. pouya

    First Question:
    CNN needs to clarify if this guy has any association with Pentagon and other military organizations as most military advisers are talking points for the Pentagon.

    Second Question:
    Is Iran's navy sailing in the Persian Gulf threatening America's Navy sailing 6000 miles away from our shores?

    Finally, I hope the Saudi's go on a buying binge. With their government already in $50 billion debt, will likely get closer to economic collapse. Despite all the negative publicity, Iran's navy is a reflection of its national economic growth. IMF estimated this year Iran will be the 12th largest economy in just 5 to 7 years.

    October 25, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Reply
    • The Phrophet Mohammed

      @ pouya

      "Second Question:
      Is Iran's navy sailing in the Persian Gulf threatening America's Navy sailing 6000 miles away from our shores?"

      Yes but not only that they are spreading lies and threatening the US and US interest across the globe. Which is wrong for such a wimpy pathetic country to do.

      "Finally,..... Despite all the negative publicity, Iran's navy is a reflection of its national economic growth. IMF estimated this year Iran will be the 12th largest economy in just 5 to 7 years."

      Holy Crap!!!! They must be selling Stupidity to their neighbors! Genius really, no wonder their economy is so great! I guess there really is not stooping them now- they will never run out of Lies and Stupidity, the only way the US will ever be able to keep Iranians out now is to implement a IQ test at the border.

      October 25, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Reply
      • The Phrophet Mohammed

        The Prophet has Spoken!

        October 25, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
      • The Prophet Moses

        Dear colleague, (@ prophet Mohammed)
        The name Mohammed sound a bit inadequate for a high IQ genius that you are.
        Perhaps Bumpkin would be a more appropriate name, or even better Homer Simpson.
        You sound like a real idiot.
        By the way, I just added the 11th commandment, shut your mouth!

        October 26, 2011 at 11:16 am |
      • Thinker23

        The Prophet Moses... Did you disagree with ANYTHING your learned collegue have said? If so WHAT WAS IT? Please consider that as long as you can not answer this question it will mean that you've AGREED WITH EVERY WORD.

        October 26, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  11. Sassan

    Enough is enough – the international community and the free world must stand side-by-side with the Iranian people in getting rid of this brutal, barbaric, primitive, apocalyptic, and illegal regime that has oppressed the Iranian people for so long and are now about to acquire messianic and apocalyptic weapons.

    October 26, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Reply
    • Occupado

      It can only happen if some part of the Iranian military defects and joins the counter revolution. Same thing with Syria.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  12. Occupado

    We're gonna fight these morons some day. Some day they'll go one step too far and do something on American soil and we won't have a choice.

    And we will be unprepared.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Reply

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