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History of Iran's Naval Forces and the Importance of the Strait of Hormuz

Source: U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence


A newly published report from the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence describes Iran's naval order of battle, as well as the Iranian Navy's history, strategic options, and favored tactics.



Following is Chapter 1 of the report. Full report is available here (pdf)


Chapter1: Brief History of Iran's Naval Forces


Iran's naval forces, like the country itself, have been shaped by the Islamic revolution, petroleum, and an often adversarial relationship with neighboring countries and the international community as a whole. These factors have influenced how Iran's naval forces are organized, how they are equipped and manned, and how they interact with external forces.


Iran has two naval forces: the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, or IRIN, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, or IRGCN. The IRIN is the naval branch of Iran's Artesh, the traditional military force that existed prior to the 1979 revolution. This force was the former Shah's Imperial Iranian Navy and was originally designed to be a blue-water force capable of demonstrating the power and prestige of the Shah's Iran. Today, it consists mainly of older, mid-sized naval combatants, such as corvettes and missile-equipped patrol craft purchased by the Shah from western nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The IRIN has not fully escaped the stigma of its pre-revolution loyalties and remains secondary in most respects to the IRGCN.



The IRGCN emerged after the Islamic revolution during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The revolutionary forces not only distrusted the former Shah's military, they greatly weakened it by executing many senior commanders and conducting purges to rid it of any loyalists to the Shah. This allowed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-the Ayatollah Khomeini's base of revolutionaries turned paramilitary internal security force-to take on a larger role in the country's defense. In addition to the original ground forces element, the IRGC also formalized an emerging naval component in the mid-1980s, following successful amphibious operations in the southern marshlands of Iraq. Over the intervening decades, the IRGCN has been politically favored over the IRIN and has capitalized on this status to acquire advanced weaponry and better platforms to develop additional capabilities.


Unlike many countries, Iran does not have a long naval history. The development of Iran's naval forces was kick-started by the discovery of Iran's petroleum deposits in the early 20th century and the country's subsequent need to protect its maritime commerce. However, the Shah's navy operated under the shadow of foreign forces until the 1970s when British stewardship in the Persian Gulf came to an end.


After the British withdrawal, Iran took a larger role in protecting the Persian Gulf sea-lanes, particularly escorting Iranian merchant ships. The Shah, awash with oil revenue, provided a large defense budget and the promise of new equipment with which the navy could carry out its expanding missions. In line with the government's cooperative relationship with the West, the Shah's navy bought frigates, destroyers, corvettes, and patrol craft and operated them largely according to NATO doctrine. Items ordered included modified SPRUANCE-class destroyers and diesel submarines from the United States and Germany. While some acquisitions were necessary for the navy's mission, others were more for the prestige that came with having one of the strongest navies in the region. So great were the Shah's ambitions that a few western countries sought to impose limits on the Shah's quest for regional power.


The Shah's plans to dominate the region's waters were ultimately terminated by the Islamic Revolution. In 1979, the Shah was deposed and the nation was transformed into the Islamic Republic of Iran, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran's ties with the West and the defense contracts that came with them were severed, leaving many Iranian naval aspirations unfulfilled. However, the remnants of the Shah's Imperial Iranian Navy survived to form the core of the new Islamic Republic of Iran Navy.


Soon after the revolution the Iranian forces experienced their most active period. During the Iran-Iraq War, both belligerents staged attacks against merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf. By one estimate, 546 commercial vessels were damaged, most of which were  Kuwaiti vessels attacked by Iran. Iranian naval the Strait forces executed hit-and-run attacks with small boats, fired naval guns from IRIN warships, boarded commercial vessels in search of material destined to support Iraq's war efforts, and attacked merchants using coastal defense cruise missiles.


Iran's use of naval mines during the war was, however, the most notable aspect of the maritime front of the war. During the very first escort mission of re-flagged tankers by U.S. Navy ships in July 1987, the Kuwaiti super tanker AL REKKAH, re-flagged as the United States super tanker BRIDGETON, struck a mine. Two months later, the United States caught the IRIN's IRAN AJR-class landing ship IRAN AJR laying mines off the coast of Bahrain. Then in April 1988, USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS hit an Iranian mine, initiating the retaliatory Operation PRAYING MANTIS by U.S. forces. This list is not all-inclusive, and many other incidents of Iranian mine strikes occurred throughout the course of the war.


Today, Iran's naval forces protect Iranian waters and natural resources, especially Iran's petroleum-related assets and industries. Iranian maritime security operations guard against the smuggling of illegal goods (especially drugs) and immigrants, and protect against the poaching and stealing of fish in territorial waters. Additionally, Iran uses its naval forces for political ends such as naval diplomacy and strategic messaging. Most of all, Iranian naval forces are equipped to defend against perceived external threats. Public statements by Iranian leaders indicate that they would consider closing or controlling the Strait of Hormuz if provoked, thereby cutting off almost 30 percent of the world's oil supply.


Importance of the Strait of Hormuz


The U.S. Department of Energy estimated that in 2008 Gulf nations produced 29.8 percent of the world's oil supply, much of which transited the Strait of Hormuz. Additionally the Persian Gulf region produced 29.1 percent of the natural gas for export to the world's markets. Closure of the Strait of Hormuz would require the use of overland routes to transport oil out of the Persian Gulf. Currently the Saudi Arabia East-West Pipeline has the capacity to move five million barrels per day to the port of Yanbu on the Red Sea, well short of the average 17 million barrels per day that currently transit the Strait of Hormuz.


Iran would not be immune to the economic impact of a Strait of Hormuz closure. Iran's exports of crude oil and petroleum products alone in 2006 accounted for 74 percent of the total value of Iran's exports and were equal to 29 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). By volume, roughly 87 percent of Iran's imports and 99 percent of its exports are by sea. The vast majority of this trade transits the Strait of Hormuz. Figure 1-1 (page 4) shows the leading countries for Iranian imports and exports.


Closing the Strait of Hormuz would cause Iran tremendous economic damage, and therefore Iran would probably not undertake a closure lightly. However, given the importance of the Strait, disrupting traffic flow or even threatening to do so may be an effective tool for Iran.


The other Persian Gulf countries are also dependent on trade via the Strait of Hormuz. Exports from many of these countries consist primarily of crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) going to world markets. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) ports of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the busiest in the region and account for 88 percent of the UAE's GDP. Most UAE trade involves these Persian Gulf ports and therefore must transit the Strait. Iraq's import dependence is less than the other countries in the region; about 55 percent of its imports by value come over land from Syria, Turkey, and Jordan. Figure 1-2 (page 4) shows imports/ exports for Persian Gulf countries (other than Iran) as percentage of GDP as well as percentage of value of GDP that transits the Strait for those countries.

The world as a whole, especially industrialized nations, would experience a serious economic impact from a sustained closure of the Strait of Hormuz due to greatly reduced supplies of crude oil, petroleum products, and LNG. According to Reuters, "Any military action in the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf would knock out oil exports from OPEC's biggest producers, cut off the oil supply to Japan and South Korea, and knock the booming economies of Gulf states." In 2007 the Strait of Hormuz accommodated outbound exports of about 16 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products. These exports amounted to about 40 percent of all seaborne oil exports. Most of the oil exported via the Strait goes to Asia, the United States, and western Europe. An average of 15 large crude oil tankers per day transited Hormuz in 2007, as well as other tankers transporting petroleum products and LNG. Of note, about 19 percent of global LNG exports transited the Strait outbound from Qatar and the UAE in 2007. The importance of the Strait of Hormuz will likely continue to increase over time.


In addition to the high volume of energy related maritime traffic, a large volume of other civilian traffic uses the Strait on a regular basis.

... Payvand News - 11/30/09 ... --

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