Given its geopolitical position, the Islamic Republic of Iran is among the rare world states that enjoy a collection of globally-strategic resources and interests. Iran has vast stretches of coast facing the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman in the south, which give the country access to the Indian Ocean. To safeguard its interests, Iran, therefore, needs to build up its sea power in balance with the country’s national development. Naval power both constitutes a significant element of national might and is indicative of a country’s strength in the high seas.
Maritime power: A geostrategic concept
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the historical and scientific aspects of maritime power were explained in theories of geopolitics, a turning point in the enhancement of military power in countries as separate political units. In that period of time, especially as the US established itself as a dominant power on land, Alfred Mahan — a senior American naval officer and strategist — put forward the theory that superiority at sea is a decisive factor in a political unit’s power. In his book titled ‘The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future’ published in 1897, Mahan listed a set of elements that could turn a political unit into a global power — namely geographical position, natural resources, culture, population, the size of a country, the extent of economic development, technological capabilities and water resources. Mahan views supremacy at sea as the main and most essential condition for emerging as a superpower on the word stage.
Following in Mahan’s footsteps, his British contemporary Julian Corbett — a naval historian and geostrategist — was of the opinion that protecting shipping lines is a much more demanding task than keeping safe the roads built on land. A political unit, according to him, will never succeed in taking control of the seas unless it adopts the right strategy.
Iran’s Navy — in its modern form — was officially founded in 1923. A few years later, Iranian Navy cadets were sent to Italy and warships were ordered from Italian firms. Nonetheless, the young Navy of Iran was caught off guard in 1941, when its forces came under attack by Britain off the country’s southern coasts, a raid that severely undermined the Navy’s combat readiness.
When World War II came to an end, the then government in Iran once again drew attention to the importance of sea power and moved to rebuild the Armed Forces, the Navy in particular. This time, Iran turned to the United States as it moved to regain its strength in the Persian Gulf’s geostrategic area. The 1979 Islamic Revolution brought a major transformation in the Navy. In line with the post-Revolution policy of self-sufficiency in military training, Iran stopped sending cadets abroad and founded instead a military academy of its own, named the Imam Khomeini Naval University of Noshahr, which comprise the departments of Marine Navigation and Captainship, Electrical Engineering and Marine Communications, Marine Mechanics and Marine Corps Commissioning. In the course of the ex-Iraqi regime’s war on Iran in the 1980s, the Islamic Republic’s Navy engaged in battles with enemy warplanes and helicopters over the sea and escorted some 10,000 commercial ships to Iranian ports.
With the end of the eight-year war, the Iranian Navy then saw a fundamental change in the nature and level of the threats facing the country as the Iraqi regime invaded Kuwait in 1990 and trans-regional countries beefed up their military presence in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. Some military observers believe that Iran learned from those conflicts that large combat ships were vulnerable to aerial and missile raids. That is why the naval forces of Iran’s Army and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have based their strategy on swarming tactics, in which small-sized missile-launching speed boats sail forward in large numbers during the offensive and then retreat to take cover in the hidden bases set up along the country’s long coasts.
Numerous reports have emerged since the early 1980s of Iran’s tremendous efforts to fortify its naval defenses. The design and manufacture of Jamaran-class frigates as well as the promotion of Alvand-class frigates are signs that the Iranian Navy is advancing other goals besides establishing superiority in local waters. This was especially reflected in pinning the adjective “strategic” to the Navy and placing charismatic commander Real Admiral Habibollah Sayyari at the helm for a decade. If we consider “attacking the enemy’s game plan” as the basis for success in devising and implementing a military strategy, it is possible that Iran is — according to the existing information — working quietly to consolidate its classic naval combat skills besides the non-classic ones (within the framework of the IRGC’s Navy) first in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman and then in waters as far south into the Indian Ocean as the 10th degree North Latitude. The country would then make plans to achieve more ambitious goals such as conducting military operations at a greater distance. Although such a prospect would be unlikely without reaching a certain level of aerial combat capabilities, there is hope that the country will be able to build a strong collection of military forces by paying more attention to aerial war skills and strategists at home as a supplement to the Navy, with the ultimate and sublime goal of safeguarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s national interests.