The foreign and defense policies of Iran are deeply intertwined with the geography of the Gulf. Historically, the Gulf has had two countervailing, competing effects in informing Iran’s perception of its southern border. On the one hand, the Gulf has been identified as a major source of local insecurity. Foreign powers have traditionally exploited this vulnerability as a conduit to intervene in Iran’s domestic affairs, limit its political autonomy, and undermine its territorial integrity. Considered the country’s soft underbelly and the most logical point of entry for outside interference, it is not surprising that elites in Tehran have reacted to developments in the maritime domain with a mix of wariness and prudence. On the other hand, as the country with the longest coastline along the Gulf, Iran perceives these waters as its natural sphere of influence. By transforming its unique geography from a potential liability into a strategic asset, Iran has often envisioned the Gulf as a space to manifest its ambitions for regional leadership, project power, and bolster its political clout even if it meant interference in its neighbors domestic affairs and creating destabilizing activities.
The dual role of the Gulf in Iran’s threat perception still profoundly influences the country’s foreign policymaking and military doctrine. From Iran’s viewpoint, the Gulf is a space where it can both reap significant geopolitical gains and suffer deep losses. How Iran reconciles these countervailing tendencies, and whether it prioritizes an assertive posture or a cautious approach, depends on how Tehran’s political and military leadership perceives and reacts to the maritime activities of its adversaries.
Iran’s Threat Environment
Iran’s Gulf policy has a reciprocal relationship with the geopolitical makeup of the strategic body of water. If Iran’s perception of external existential threats heightens, a confrontation-driven attitude should be expected from Tehran. On the contrary, if regional tensions subside, Tehran would likely adopt a cooperative stance. The extreme fluctuation in Iran’s Gulf posture is not a symptom of its leadership’s decisional inconsistency, but rather an expression of strategic acumen. As Dr. Abdolrasool Divsallar, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, points out, the Iranian elite sees the capacity to rapidly adjust its foreign policy to the constantly evolving security environment of the Gulf as “an essential tool to guarantee the regime’s survival.”.
The implementation of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran heightened Iranian perceptions of insecurity and persuaded the country’s leadership to balance through a hawkish, belligerent approach in the Gulf. As Dr. Ali Bagheri Dolatabadi, Associate Professor at Yasouj University, and Dr. Mehran Kamrava, a Professor at Georgetown University Qatar, highlight, “With the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the pursuit of bellicose policies towards Iran, the country’s deterrence strategy became offensive, again with added emphasis on the role of the naval forces.” Although Iran-U.S. tensions have quietly lowered during President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, accompanying a modest drop in naval incidents, Tehran remains very cautious of the massive U.S. military presence near its southern border.
Lessons of the Past
Iran derives its sea power from a mix of existing capabilities from the Shah era and recent developments under the Islamic Republic. In his bid to turn Iran into the strongest military power in the Gulf, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi embarked on an ambitious program of naval expansion and modernization. Expensive acquisitions of Western-made warships and foreign training programs tailored to enlarge the ranks of Iranian navy personnel formed the bedrock of the Shah’s military buildup. Though some of the fruits of the Pahlavi era’s arms race—such as three Alvand-class frigates and ten Kaman-class fast attack crafts—are still in service today, Iran’s naval warfare tactics have evolved dramatically since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The paradigm shift in the Iranian naval doctrine was not an immediate result of the country’s political overhaul, but rather the outcome of a trial-and-error learning process experienced by the new regime during the Iran-Iraq War. Iran’s severe losses in the war, as well as the occasional semi-open confrontations with the United States that the conflict brought about—commonly known as the “Tanker War” —exposed the flaws and vulnerabilities of the Shah-era navy and shed light on different pathways for Iran to develop its naval power more effectively.
Financially exhausted and internationally isolated, Iran was in no condition to challenge the United States’ naval supremacy in the Gulf. It was clear to Iranian defense planners by 1988 that regardless of their efforts to assemble a strong navy, Washington’s naval assets would have the upper hand in a conventional conflict. In this context, Tehran recognized that the vast blue-water navy that the Shah had envisioned would be an easy target for U.S. retaliatory attacks and ultimately did not serve Iran’s primary goals in the Gulf: protecting the country from foreign interference, fully controlling the body of water and the essential Hormuz Strait Waterway, and containing American power-projection capabilities. Acknowledging that reaching numerical and technological parity with Washington was practically impossible prompted Tehran to develop alternative, creative solutions to offset U.S. conventional superiority.
Despite the mismatch in firepower, Iran has repeatedly refused to accept U.S. naval supremacy in the Gulf. As the bankroller of the Shah’s regime and one of the most prominent supporters of Saddam Hussein’s war efforts in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States was perceived by Iran’s leadership as an existential threat to the regime’s survival. The massive presence of American troops and military assets throughout the Middle East only adds to Tehran’s anxiety. Indeed, U.S. deployments have acted as a catalyst for the expansion of Iran’s asymmetric and unconventional assets..
The unique geography of the Gulf has played a critical role in inspiring Iran’s new naval doctrine. As a semi-enclosed body of water littered with archipelagos of small islands and few navigable passages, the Gulf is a challenging operating environment to control. The Gulf’s shallow waters significantly reduce the maneuverability of blue-water vessels, forcing them to cruise on narrow navigation routes, zig-zagging through a dense network of Iranian-controlled islands. Moreover, the Gulf’s extreme climate conditions, frequent dust and sand storms, and high levels of humidity can inhibit radars, target acquisition sensors, and communication systems—even for the most technologically advanced warships.
Asymmetric Warfare and Iran’s Naval Doctrine
Building on the fighting experience of the 1980s and the region’s geographical features, Iran has resorted to hybrid warfighting tactics—a mix of asymmetric and conventional means—to counter the United States’ advantage in conventional warfare.
Iran’s asymmetric naval warfare resembles a guerrilla-style mode of fighting. It revolves around using “swarm boats,” lightly armored and highly mobile speed boats armed with multi-rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, and sea mines. While these platforms are especially suited to carry out patrol-and-reconnaissance activities, speed boats have gradually become the centerpiece of Iran’s at-sea asymmetric warfare. Laden with heavy weaponry and equipped with high-power engines, swarm boats are versatile and flexible assets capable of engaging in a wide range of low-intensity disruption operations, such as naval boarding actions, swarming attacks, and offensive minelaying. The multitude of small bays on the Iranian coastline and the Gulf’s islands offer natural shelters where speedboats are harbored and concealed while not conducting raiding operations at sea.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN), not the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Navy (IRIN), is tasked with controlling the body of water. Relying on its extensive asymmetric warfare expertise, the IRGCN is better versed than a conventional blue-water navy to operate in the shallow waters of the Gulf and engage in littoral warfare. The IRGCN’s headquarters is in Bandar Abbas, close to the Strait of Hormuz, the point of major friction in the Gulf. The revolutionary elite corps has developed a tight network of outposts and lookout stations extending from Arvan in the estuary of the Shatt Al Arab river to Chabahar in the Gulf of Oman that allows it to carry out operations across the entire Gulf. The maritime harassment campaign conducted between April and September 2019 highlighted the IRGCN’s mastery over a plethora of hybrid warfare tactics. Through a series of sabotage activities targeting energy infrastructures and commercial ships, the seizure of oil tankers, and provocative actions against U.S. warships, the IRGCN has proved its capacity to plan and carry out complex missions featuring an integrated use of fast attack crafts, booby-trapped boats, unmanned surface vessels (USV), and unmanned air vehicles (UAV).
Iran’s top-notch missile arsenal is another critical component of the country’s multi-layered defense strategy. The development and use of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles serves two distinct, but complementary purposes. On the one hand, the offensive capacity of advanced missiles already dovetails with the dynamics of asymmetric warfare. The range of indigenously developed missiles allows Tehran to leverage light payloads to provoke contained damage, guarantee a margin of deniability for its actions, and avoid major retaliations by its adversaries. A prominent example of this strategy may be seen in the drone and missile attacks against the Saudi oil processing facilities of Abqaiq and Khurais in mid-September 2019. On the other hand, Iran’s air assets can also be traditionally deployed as defensive devices with an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) role. The downing of a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk BAMS-D surveillance drone by an Iranian surface-to-air missile in June 2019 is a case in point.
These measures will not make the Iranian naval forces equal in strength to the United States. But they will offset many of Washington’s strengths in an open battle—and are ideally tailored to the conditions of the Gulf and Iran’s existing material limitations. Moreover, they credibly threaten to inflict a serious blow against the United States or its allies if they attempt to attack Iran through the Gulf, with relatively little risk for Tehran. This fact has allowed Iran to continue its overarching tendency toward confrontation with its adversaries—a tendency which, while protected by Iran’s naval and missile arsenal, comes with its own geopolitical drawbacks for the country.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.