September 27, 2022

Iran’s naval capability and its larger strategic implications

Iran’s democracy and its strong leadership calibrated alternative strategies to go forward with its military agenda and enhanced indigenous defence productions. Iran is doing all these things with a definite strategic agenda and achieved significant successes. This is commendable.

By Shibdas Bhattacharjee

International geo-strategic dynamics is a ceaseless affair and calibrations of new equations and chemistries are quite normal here. Here perceptions sometimes prove to be deceptive. After all, the difference between what was and what has been more evident in this context. Recently, a certain report caught my attention. The GlobalFirepower.com of the United States of America published the ranking of different countries as per military logistics. The report is about global ranking in defence sector of different nations. This exposes some key inputs. But the fact that has surprised me is Iran’s rank in some important areas of defence and logistics. The most important one is definitely in certain important sectors of naval power. Iran is never considered a big naval power. But the report discloses Iran ranks in the top 10 in important naval sectors. This is true that many reports publish every year regarding global ranking. There is no reason of accepting all these or rejecting any. However, reports always bear special significance for a journalist as these are the crude materials on which things are judged and analyzed to find out the logic; credibility, acceptance, significance, implications, and outcomes. After all, these are the criteria news or reports are made bar code scanning. Naturally, this made me interested.

Apart from some parts of the naval sector, Iran ranks in the top 10 in some other key areas of military and logistics. Let me first share the list of the key areas of defence where Iran ranks in the top 10. I am starting with the naval power of Iran. Here is the report regarding Navy Fleet Strength:  

There are some significant inputs in this report. The first one is the rank of India. Another one is the exclusion of some nations in the top 10 like the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, South Korea, and some others. But for me, the most interesting part of the report is the rank of Iran, which is surprising. There is controversy whether China has already outplayed the US in maritime supremacy. Nobody knows exactly. Now Iran emerging as a maritime superpower is something really tough to accept. Is there any specification of the logistics that different countries have in the given time? Of course, there is. Then what about Iran? Well, here is the specification below:

I neither ratify nor ignore this. Technical specifications of the types of equipment and utility levels and effectiveness in a naval conflict are not the arena of my discussion. Rather, my interests grew to know more about Iran and its naval security design. The first thing I found was Admiral Hossein Khanzadi of Iran navy saying: “while the Americans are 12 miles away from our waters we are not afraid of them, but they have been terrified by the presence of the naval fleet of the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Atlantic Ocean, and this fear is since Iran’s naval presence shatters the superiority of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean.” 

This is enticing to see the depth of the Iranian defence structure and more particularly naval capabilities. As per the report, Iran’s Navy Fleet Strength is 398 larger than Egypt, Thailand, India, and Indonesia. The report shows Egypt having 316, Thailand 292, India 285, and Indonesia 282 Navy Fleet respectively. As stated above, Iran’s global ranking is six. The countries that are ahead of Iran in Navy Fleet Strength are China leading the table with 777, Russia 603, North Korea 492, United States 490, and Colombia 453.

There is nothing new in Iran challenging the United States of America. But keeping aside the part of the report I have stated, one point is there; Iran is challenging the US, not in land-locked Central Asia, but America’s naval strength. American naval power and maritime strategic bases in the West Asia has always been strong. This is the strong point of Washington in the given time when strategic interests of the US licking dust in the vast region of Central Asia and adjoining Southeast Asia. Is American maritime supremacy sinking too? This is no doubt an important one. This is enticing to see the depth of the Iranian defence structure and more particularly naval capabilities. As per the report, Iran’s Navy Fleet Strength is 398 larger than Egypt, Thailand, India, and Indonesia. The report shows Egypt having 316, Thailand 292, India 285, and Indonesia 282 Navy Fleet respectively. As stated above, Iran’s global ranking is six. The countries that are ahead of Iran in Navy Fleet Strength are China leading the table with 777, Russia 603, North Korea 492, United States 490, and Colombia 453. That means in this context, Iran is not only ahead of India but other important nations like the UK, France, Italy, Germany, and South Korea, Japan, and the rest of the world. If this is the reality, it bears great strategic significances particularly maritime power dynamics in the Arabian Sea as well. 

Similarly, Iran occupies a very important position in the context of the submarines; the modern age naval capability depends a lot on this. The report shows Iran with 29 submarines stands powerful in the global ranking. Iran’s rank is five just behind China with 79 submarines, USA 68, Russia 64, and North Korea 36. India ranks eight with 17 submarines. Report places not only Iran ahead of India but the countries like South Korea ranking six with 22 and Japan with 20 Submarines. The other two countries placed in the top 10 are Turkey ranking nine with 12 submarines and Colombia 10 with 11 submarines. Surprisingly, the names of some important naval forces like the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, and some others are not there among top 10. The UK ranks 11 with 11, France ranks 13 with 10 submarines.  

This is true that in the case of naval capabilities, Iran initiated an extended drive. The reason mainly seems to establish supremacy in the Arabian Sea. Now, maritime supremacy has always been a matter of concern in this region. Things become complicated considering strenuous US-Iran relationships as well as the American proxies in the region like the Arab World and particularly Israel. This is true that America’s relations with some other countries like Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are not good. Hostilities and conflicts between America-led NATO and Iraq, Turkey, and Syria have been prominent issues so far. After Afghanistan and Iraq, Turkey and Syria have also tested American strength; be in the form of ISIS or anti-US state policies of these nations. But America has always neutralised its opponents because of its dominating status in most of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations and Israel. In the Arabian sea, the American naval base has been powerful since World War II. 

But both in case of strategy and trajectory, Iran has always been a different nation. Statistics show that the American embargo has failed to subdue Iran. Rather, the sanctions made on Tehran by the US and its European allies have made Iran more assertive against the United States. Not only in terms of military logistics, but the development index of Iran shows that American sanctions on Iran have failed miserably. Iran’s democracy and its strong leadership calibrated alternative strategies to go forward with its military agenda and enhanced indigenous defence productions. Iran is doing all these things with a definite strategic agenda and achieved significant successes. This is commendable. American approach of judging every nation with the criteria of Afghanistan or Iraq is the wrong one. So also, things have changed substantially in this region during the last two decades. Americans ignored the fact of the Chinese forward march, Iran’s engagement with China, new age Russian doctrine, and Tehran’s intimacy with Moscow. Similarly, Iran leads the Shia Islamic world. This is true that the Shia-Sunni rift has been a major cause of conflict in this region. But Iranian leadership has handled this tactically so far. Iran knows that despite Sunni Islamic nations Syria and Turkey will support Iran both in the name of Islam and anti-US policies. Naturally, Iranian leadership made efforts to expand the relationship with other anti-US forces; be the Islamic nations or China and Russia.

So also, Iran’s nuclear power is a hidden strategy. None but America often hypes on the issue of Iran’s nuclear proliferation. Americans always blame China for this and sometimes expresses suspicion of the Russian approach. The point is: it is impossible to measure the nuclear capability of Iran in the given time. But is undeniable that Iran has not stopped its nuclear programme anyway. Iran’s approach against the US is assertive. Unlike other nations, Tehran is outspoken against Washington; something like “do what you can?” This is commendable and praiseworthy in Iran’s success in maintaining solidarity, peace, and democracy amid hostile and volatile neighbourhood. This shows a mirror to America. 

But the point was the naval power of Iran. I am not saying that the reports stated above should be taken for granted. But some recent incidents indicate something different. In case of the authenticity of any event, I always relied on the BBC. I grew up listening to BBC and feel even in this age of Electronics and social media, BBC’s credibility has not declined. Let me quote some parts of a report of the BBC on September 2 this year under the caption UK and the US blame Iran for deadly ship attack. The report stated, “The UK and the US believe Iran was behind a tanker attack that killed two people, and have vowed to respond, calling it a violation of international law. The MV Mercer Street, operated by an Israeli-owned firm, was attacked off Oman on Thursday. A British national and a Romanian citizen were killed. The statements came after Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said there was “evidence” that its longstanding foe Iran was responsible. Mr. Bennett warned that “we know how to send a message to Iran in our way”, while Tehran rejected what it called the “baseless accusations”. Now look at Iran’s reply as stated in the same report of the BBC, “Iran warned the UK, US, and Israel that any actions in response to the drone attack on the tanker will be met with a severe and decisive answer. The attack on the MV Mercer Street appears to be the latest escalation in an undeclared “shadow war” between Israel and Iran. For months there have been several attacks on both Israeli and Iranian-operated vessels, which are seen as tit-for-tat incidents, though casualties are rare. Iran has also accused Israel of targeting its nuclear sites and scientists.” 

The report shows Iran with 29 submarines stands powerful in the global ranking. Iran’s rank is five just behind China with 79 submarines, USA 68, Russia 64, and North Korea 36. India ranks eight with 17 submarines. Report places not only Iran ahead of India but the countries like South Korea ranking six with 22 and Japan with 20 Submarines. The other two countries placed in the top 10 are Turkey ranking nine with 12 submarines and Colombia 10 with 11 submarines.

Let me quote here some parts of the BBC report published just a few days ago on August 29, “US President Joe Biden has said that if diplomacy does not resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, America “is ready to turn to other options. He was speaking in Washington after the first face-to-face talks with Israel’s new prime minister Naftali Bennett” Iran reacted assertively. As per reports published in The Times of Israel on August 28, under the caption After Biden’s warning to Iran, Khamenei fumes: ‘Americans truly have no shame stated “the top Iranian official said that Biden’s comments constitute an illegal threat to another country and give Tehran the “right to a reciprocal response.”  More so the report stated quoting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking against US leadership in the trade-mark style, “America’s current administration is no different from the previous one because what it demands from Iran on the nuclear issue is different in words, but the same thing that Trump demanded, The Americans truly have no shame on the nuclear issue, and even though they withdrew from the JCPOA… they now talk in a way and make demands as if it was [Iran] that withdrew.” The message is loud and clear, Iran is stubborn to give a befitting reply to the US and its proxy Israel. 

But what about Iran’s naval power? Let me refer to news published in The Siasat Daily on July 15 under the caption Rapidly emerging naval power of Iran. The report stated, “The Iranian navy has indigenously developed and produced a wide variety of speed boats, missile launchers, frigates, destroyers, warships, helicopter carriers, support crafts, submarines, hovercrafts, reconnaissance vessels, and whatnot, including a floating naval port named Makran, which is currently stationed in the Atlantic Ocean, guarded by Iran built naval ship the Sahand Destroyer. This is the first time the Iranian navy has rounded the southern tip of Africa to enter the Atlantic Ocean after regular calls over the past few years at Syria’s Mediterranean ports and the friendly ports of the Indian Ocean, ranging from Indonesia, Malaysia, and India, to the east African coast, where near the Horn of Africa in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea it maintains a regular presence to protect oil tankers and merchant vessels from pirates.”  Moreover, Iranian navy has formally commissioned the Markran, a former oil tanker it says has been transformed into a “forward base ship.” This vessel could provide a platform for more persistent maritime operations in and outside the country’s own littoral areas.               

All these prove but one important point; growing apprehension of the United States regarding Iran’s naval power in the given time. Another report by Navy Recognition also indicates this. Here is the report: 


Source- Navy Recognition, Belgium

In fact, not only navy but Iran seems enhancing defence power in other sectors as well.

Another significant fact is Iran’s rank as a power in the West Asia region. The report with which I began the topic also shares power dynamics of different region. I feel following is worth mentioning:

This is true that in the case of naval capabilities, Iran initiated an extended drive. The reason mainly seems to establish supremacy in the Arabian Sea. Now, maritime supremacy has always been a matter of concern in this region. Things become complicated considering strenuous US-Iran relationships as well as the American proxies in the region like the Arab World and particularly Israel.

Naturally, the upsurge of Iran as a naval power has great strategic ramifications not only in the Arabian Sea but the vast area of the Indian Ocean Region. This is bound to build new chemistry in the existing global equation. Additionally, Iran’s credibility in the Islamic world seems a proven reality today. Things can be better understood if one looks at the present Afghan situation. US withdrawal from Afghanistan has provided Iran the scope to play its larger strategic game-plan. The reality is: in the given time, it is only Iran that seems to be the actual stakeholder in Afghanistan. Iranian diplomacy proves that Tehran did sufficient homework to deal with the Taliban and handle the issue of the Shia-Sunni rift. This will make countries like China more dependent on Iran to take forward Beijing’s strategic agenda in the days. India is no exception as far as its role in Afghanistan is concerned. Fact is: whatever be Iran’s naval power as per global parameters, one thing is true that the Iranian navy has subdued the US and the NATO not only in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf regions but far beyond in the Atlantic. Iran has proved that its strategy is a solid one against US hegemony. Despite sanctions and embargoes, Iran has proved that it is a major strategic power in the region and evolving power in global affairs. This is commendable. I don’t know whether this analysis will break the myth or not. But one thing is sure, this has opened up a new horizon of strategic affairs which I feel is an important one from India’s perspective. Someone might have different argument that I respect.  

-The writer is an Assam-based strategic affairs analyst and columnist. He writes under a specific column of ‘Sagacious Beholding.’ The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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