The Buzz

The Iranian Threat to the U.S. Navy May Be Overblown

While it might be easy to discount such a lightweight force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Naval Forces and the Islamic Republic of Iran Naval Forces have numbers on their side and the ability to mount complex, multidirectional attacks with antiship missiles against much larger foreign naval vessels.

Iran’s naval forces are some of the smallest but most aggressive in the region. Decades of sanctions and embargoes have strangled the navy’s attempts to modernize, leaving a smaller than expected naval force whose most intimidating features are homebrewed frigates, coastal missile batteries and swarms of fast, lightly armed fast-attack craft. Despite their size, the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf and its proximity to a major portion of the world’s oil supply mean that Iran’s naval forces have a great deal of say over global access to one of the most important waterways in the world.

Iran is historically a land power, relegating air power to a respectable second-place priority. Iranian sea power is traditionally third on the list of priorities, and the least important of all. Iran’s navy under the shah was modest: in 1976 the Imperial Iranian Navy had just four frigates with Sea Killer and Seacat guided missiles. These were backed up by twenty-five patrol boats, six minesweepers and a pair of landing craft. A naval air transport battalion operated thirty-five Bell helicopters capable of landing on oil rigs and the Persian Gulf’s many small islands.

The shah had plans to more than double the size of his navy. The navy would receive three ex-Tang-class submarines, four modified Spruance-class destroyers and twelve patrol boats with Exocet antiship cruise missiles. The sale of most, if not all, of this equipment was canceled after the shah was deposed and replaced with a theocratic government under the supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Under the new regime, the Imperial Iranian Navy became the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN.) The new regime was openly hostile to the United States and the West, and the sale of the submarines and destroyers (which went on to become the U.S Navy’s Kidd class) failed to go through.

The Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988 was primarily a land and air war, and although the two countries shared a sea border, no significant naval battles were recorded. Instead of attacks from the sea, both countries preferred to launch attacks on seaborne targets from the air using bombs and missiles—particularly against the other side’s oil shipping and seaborne oil platforms.

One area where the Iranian Navy saw action was against the U.S. Navy in 1987–88. Iranian forces mined the Strait of Hormuz to disrupt oil shipping in the area, resulting in the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts sustaining damage from a mine. President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. air and naval forces to conduct a punitive attack on Iranian naval assets in the region. Operation Praying Mantis saw the sinking of the patrol boat Joshan (armed with Harpoon missiles), the sinking of the frigate Sahand and the disabling of the frigate Salaban. Over a period of forty-eight hours, the U.S. Navy caused more damage to the Iranian Navy than Iraq had caused in eight years of war.

The 1980s also saw a second navy Iranian naval force spring into existence: the naval arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is a paramilitary organization separate from Iranian regular forces. The IRGC Naval Forces were initially an ad hoc force largely consisting of hundreds of fast speedboats, many made by the Swedish firm Boghammer, armed with 12.7-millimeter machine guns, RPGs and 107-millimeter rocket launchers. The IRGC excelled at harassing local naval traffic and threatening to “swarm” much larger foreign navy ships, especially U.S. Navy vessels. The IRGC lost three speedboats, destroyed or put out of action during Operation Praying Mantis. The IRGC also controlled Iran’s Chinese-made Silkworm missile batteries, which dotted the Iranian coastline.

Western arms sanctions and embargos have constrained Iran’s ability to rebuild. Today, the IRGC Naval Forces maintain a fleet of ten Chinese-made Houdong coastal patrol boats, each armed with Ghader antiship missiles. According to the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, the IRGC also has forty-six smaller Chinese and North Korean patrol ships with antiship missiles or torpedoes, and capable of speeds of up to forty or fifty knots. The IRGC still maintains a fleet of speedboats, or fast inshore attack craft armed with infantry support weapons and capable of laying mines.