Over the last four decades, Iran has constructed its identity as a nation around opposition to the United States, locking it into a protracted geopolitical conflict with Washington. For Iranian defense planners, this has posed a significant challenge, as the United States has the world’s most powerful navy—and a string of allies across the Gulf on Iran’s southern border, posing a serious threat to Iran’s ability to defend itself in the event of a direct military conflict. To manage this threat, Iranian naval strategists have embraced a hybrid strategy combining conventional naval power and asymmetric warfare, including through medium- and long-range missiles and thousands of heavily armed speedboats designed to inflict disproportionate damage on any potential landing force.
Iranian Naval Capabilities
Beyond the capacity to inflict material damage, the strength of Iran’s asymmetric warfare strategy lies in the psychological costs that this military doctrine imposes on its rivals. By engaging in sabotage activities against commercial vessels or offshore energy infrastructures, Iran signals that freedom of navigation in the Gulf should not be taken for granted. Disruption episodes could paralyze trade and energy supply lines at any time, resulting in negative fallout that could impact the world economy. Indeed, Iran has used its capacity to halt maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea as leverage to extract concessions from its rivals and dissuade them from adopting policies that would harm Tehran’s strategic interests.
Iran also resorts to psychological threats in order to balance against the U.S. naval presence in the region. Indeed, Iranian naval forces occasionally engage in provocative actions—unsafe engagements at sea, low-intensity sabotage activities, and confrontational maritime exercises—that heightens Washington’s threat perception. From the three-day Great Prophet IX naval drill in 2015, when the IRGCN simulated an attack on a mock-up warship resembling a U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, to the institution of joint war games between Iran, Russia, and China in the northern Indian Ocean in 2019, to the attempt by an IRGCN support ship to capture a U.S. Saildrone Explorer USV in late August 2022, there is a long list of Iranian shows of force aimed at building psychological pressure on U.S. naval assets in the Gulf.
Credible combat capabilities have regularly backed up Iran’s psychological threats. The latest acquisition by the IRGCN is a case in point. Launched in early September 2022 from the Bandar-e-Abbas shipyard, the Shahid Soleimani catamaran missile corvette is a significant leap forward for the IRGCN’s capacity to project force well beyond the Gulf’s shallow waters. The first to enter into service among a batch of three vessels, the Shahid Soleimani warship is equipped with vertical launch systems to fire surface-to-air missiles and is believed to have advanced stealth capabilities. The ship also features a large helipad for vertical take-off and landing drones and attack helicopters. As Dr. Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, points out, “The new corvettes will likely enable sustained IRGCN operations farther into the Indian Ocean and perhaps beyond, including support for smaller and more covert speedboat missions.” With a claimed cruising range of 2,000 nautical miles, the Shahid Soleimani warship speaks of Iran’s desire to broaden the bandwidth of its naval outreach.
An Uneasy Balance
Although Iran’s hybrid naval tactics have proved capable of causing significant damage to commercial ships and energy infrastructure, their demonstration has come with significant liabilities for the regime in Tehran. Indulging in highly confrontational behavior throughout the Gulf is not a cost-free strategy for Iran, and it bears consequences that could undermine the country’s regional ambitions and international standing. Among the shortcomings of Iran’s bold tactics is the increasing presence of foreign actors—mostly U.S. and European navies—in the Gulf. The growing number of warships and air surveillance vehicles patrolling Gulf waters has drastically limited Iran’s ability to deflect the blame for its shadow operations, undermining a main pillar of its asymmetric strategy.
Moreover, Iranian naval strategists have increasingly come to realize that the country’s core assets in the Gulf are not immune to retaliatory measures by its rivals. Despite attempts to develop alternative military and trade hotspots on littoral areas outside the Strait of Hormuz, Bandar Abbas remains the heart and soul of Iran’s maritime operations. Projects supporting the decentralization of Iranian maritime hubs, such as the development of the blue-water ports of Chabahar and Jask, are expected to deliver meaningful results, but their implementation is proceeding at a slow pace. As long as these initiatives remain incomplete, Iran’s coastal-based military, energy, and commercial facilities will remain vulnerable to regional turmoil.
Finally, although Iranian military industries have made steady progress in developing and fielding a vast array of top-notch military assets and hardware, homegrown technologies still have some gaps to fill. Overconfidence in indigenous products and an unwarranted belief in the infallibility of its defense architecture could lead to tactical and strategic miscalculation.
Iran continues to perceive itself as a legitimate pillar of the Gulf’s regional security order. As such, it will continue to leverage its political weight to nudge its neighbors and global players into recognizing its status as a regional power. Therefore, as long as the Gulf region lacks a comprehensive maritime security architecture that accounts for the interests and concerns of all its littoral states, Iran is unlikely to abandon its current strategy of confrontation and brinkmanship. Aggressive signaling through low-intensity disruption operations is bound to remain a regular pattern in Iran’s naval doctrine until the right formula to reconcile conflicting threat perceptions in the Gulf is found.
The previous maritime harassment incidents have shed some light on three key lessons that might help decipher Iran’s outlook in future crises. First, it is apparent that Iran is equally capable of adopting conciliatory and muscular approaches in the maritime domain. The marked drop in attacks targeting Gulf countries-flagged ships over the past months and the recent announcement about the set up of a joint Iran-Oman-Pakistan Maritime Security Center to oversee vessels traffic in the Indian Ocean signal Iran’s timid, but growing, will to play a responsible role at sea. However, Iran tends to favor a belligerent posture when it perceives that its strategic interests (both regional and global) are threatened. Second, Iran prefers to carry out measured, localized retributions in a tit-for-tat fashion that allow it to limit collateral damage and rapidly scale down tensions if need be. Such a damage control policy helps Iran to make its voice heard while avoiding irreconcilable spats with its competitors. Finally, so far Iran has shown a tendency to avoid unnecessary risks in maritime confrontation. Although revolutionary fervor and ideological zeal play a significant role in the country’s decision-making, Iranian shadow war operations appear more oriented toward achieving tangible results and exercising pressure on its rivals rather than pursuing an ideology-driven agenda.
Although there is reason to believe that Tehran will continue avoiding the risk of being caught in an all-out military escalation in its backyard, aggressive demonstrations of Iranian strength and resolve in Gulf waters cannot be ruled out. The recent waves of popular protests in Iran have heightened the regime’s anxiety, and may affect its foreign policy. Traditionally, Iran has balanced against domestic threats by doubling down with crackdowns on national dissidents, heightening outward-looking inflammatory rhetoric, and increasing military operations across its borders. The mobilization of the regime’s repression machine, claims that the U.S. is fueling the unrest, and IRGC’s missile and drone attacks targeting Kurdish opposition groups in Iraqi Kurdistan indicate that Iran’s anti-contestation playbook is in full use. From the perspective of the Iranian leadership, brandishing the regime’s willingness to use force amid a severe crisis of legitimacy could signal to its rivals that domestic troubles do not alter the regime’s military effectiveness and its political will to maintain deterrence. Should domestic protests spiral out of control, Iran is likely to resume and escalate its risk-taking, confrontational approach in the waters off the Arabian Peninsula.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.