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Bad Moon Rising

October 25, 2011

Continuing my streak of being able to talk (un)intelligently about only two things, I’ve got an essay up at Foreign Affairs on Iranian naval developments and expansion.

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.

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.

You can read the rest of it here.

  1. October 25, 2011 11:44 am

    Your point about Iran building its military-to-military ties by expanding its naval capabilities is a good one, but I think there’s an even greater threat. As the navy extends the range of Iranian influence (bad, but not insurmountable) and its conventional military (still easily countered by the US), it also extends the range of the IRGC. History has shown the IRGC has the stomach to execute less than traditional hostile operations against Iran’s enemies, and having the sort of partnerships and bases you mention will only make it easier for them to operate in other regions.

    I don’t think it’s too outlandish to say that they’ve noticed the success Israel has had with intelligence and covert action with its widespread network across Europe and the Middle East. Israel may be the “little Satan,” but Iran can still learn a thing or two from them. They can’t fix the asymmetry in conventional forces against the US and its allies, so surely they will seek to fill the gap with unconventional capabilities as the IRGC provides. It’s a matter of not hitting the threshold that makes the US or a Gulf country respond with military action. Considering how war-weary the US public has become and how little desire the Gulf countries have for going to war (at least without an enthusiastic American lead), that provocation threshold may be quite a bit higher now.

    • wjrue permalink
      October 26, 2011 9:57 am


      Good point about IRGC expansion to follow naval expansion. We’ll see what happens; it will be interesting to watch.


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