In a recent news release, Commander Alireza Tangsiri, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy, announced the integration of “radar-evading technology” into the Corps’ maritime forces.
“The high speed and high movement in operations has always been of great importance to the IRGC Navy…we are planning to increase the radar-evading capability and agility of the IRGC speed boats,” said Tangsiri. The commander added that the IRGC possess the “fastest boats in the world” and is trying to increase the speed of its boats to more than eighty knots per hour.
A Creeping Threat
This is not the first upgrade of Iran’s naval forces over the recent period. Nearly a month before Tangsiri’s announcement, international media reported that Iran had launched a domestically-made destroyer, allegedly armed with said “radar-evading stealth properties.” Iranian state television also claimed the new destroyer-class comes outfitted with a “flight deck for helicopters, torpedo launchers, anti-aircraft and anti-ship guns, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, and electronic warfare capabilities.”
The new line of ships was “the result of daring and creative design relying on the local technical knowledge of the Iranian Navy…and has been built with stealth capabilities,” Iranian navy shipyard chief Rear-Admiral Alireza Sheikhi told state-owned media.
The more recent news of enhancements to IRGC’s speed boat fleet shows that these naval upgrades are not sporadic but, rather, a calculated trend.
They Have a History
Any changes to Iran’s naval aptitude is very important to the United States. The reason for this fact is that Iran has quite the rap sheet when it comes to harassing the American navy.
During the Obama era, Iran began to regularly and systematically harass U.S. naval forces.
Iran would charge U.S. ships with fast attack craft, buzz fighter jets with drones, and even shine lasers at helicopters operating at sea.
The worst and most embarrassing incident occurred in January 2016, when Iran’s navy seized two U.S. Navy boats along with the ten sailors on board after the ship wandered into Iranian waters due to mechanical issues. They broadcast footage of the sailors, crying, in detention, on television across the country. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei awarded a military medal to the Iranian commander that lead the capture as well as four other sailors involved.
Later that year, Iranian ships continued to conduct unsafe and often taunting maneuvers around U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf on at least five separate occasions.
A Strategic Edge
From a strategic perspective, Iran has ample reason to invest in its navy.
The country’s positioning along the Persian Gulf puts it in constant close proximity to international naval assets. Having the means to address these foreign forces is certainly a top priority from a big-picture approach.
More specifically, however, Iran’s navy is the most capable of applying leverage on an international scale. Iran sits atop the Hormuz Strait, one of the most important waterways in the world. Twenty percent of total world-wide petroleum exports flows through the Strait. Any disruption—or even news of likely disruption—could significantly influence global oil prices. If the Strait was rendered completely out of use, it could actually cause a major energy crisis in the region and be devastating to the economies of other oil exporters. Furthermore, the Strait is vulnerable. The whole waterway is just 29 miles wide at its narrowest point. Plus, it’s not even a smooth ride through. The Strait’s snake-like curvature makes it incredibly easy to block.
For months now, the Iranians have been seriously considering the option of using a closure of the Strait as a threat on the international community. The exploring of the “Hormuz option” was kicked off following President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal last May, immediately after which the government of Iran began scrambling for options on how to maintain its own stability once U.S. sanctions returned over the coming months. The Ayatollahs put a multitude of strategies into play. They met with European diplomats to pressure them into continuing to support the deal. They issued threats to increase uranium production if the West fails to abide by its end of the Obama-era deal.
Finally, the Islamic Republic resorted to outright military intimidation. Back in August, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted a major naval exercise with maneuvers demonstrating the Corps’ ability to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. Now, with more naval upgrades on the agenda, it is not surprising Iran is set for yet another display of maritime force.
In early December, Iran announced an upcoming naval exercise in the Indian Ocean set to take place some time this winter. As Iranian military officials noted at the time, the purpose of the drill will be to incorporate new equipment into the navy’s arsenal. New Ghadir-class submarines, capable of launching subsurface-to-surface missiles, torpedoes and mines, as well as the recently launched stealth destroyers mentioned above, are set to take part. While not focusing on the Strait explicitly, this upcoming drill is without a doubt meant to be a reminder to the West of the trump card Tehran has up its sleeve—and even deliver an implicit threat.
Commander Tangsiri made illusions to this threat in his recent press conference as well. Commenting on the presence of “foreign troops in the Persian Gulf region,” Tangsiri asserted that while “they are present in the area […] our monitored waters,” his forces are “constantly monitoring them.”
Whether Iran intends to use its upgraded navy to harass American ships, or to close an international waterway, substantial improvements to Iran’s maritime capabilities will be an important factor in the ongoing schism between the Islamic Republic and its foes.