Iran has two independent naval forces: the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), whose existence predates Iran’s 1979 Revolution, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), which evolved separately in midst of the Iran-Iraq war (1985).

Both the IRIN and the IRGCN continue to operate as distinct services, with parallel chains of command. Despite the fact that both forces have as their primary mission to protect Iran’s maritime interests and defend the Islamic Republic from sea-based threats, deep-seated institutional rivalries between the IRIN and the IRGCN mask even deeper structural and cultural differences between the two services.

The IRIN, for instance, with its larger, longer-range surface assets, is considered to be more of a blue water navy, while the IRGCN, whose inventory consists primarily of small fast-attack craft, is more ideally suited to be a coastal defense force. The IRIN is also more professional in the Western sense. Based on their interactions with IRIN and IRGCN vessels in the Persian Gulf, US Navy personnel routinely account for the erratic behavior of IRGCN vessels by noting that — unlike the IRIN — the IRGCN “doesn’t speak Navy.”[1]

True to its origins, the IRGCN has essentially remained a “guerrilla force at sea,” paralleling the structure of IRGC ground forces on land. Relations between the ranks are less hierarchical, more informal than they are in the IRIN.[2] The IRIN tends to place a greater premium on training, whereas the IRGCN, with its more decentralized command structure, prioritizes revolutionary élan and innovation over procedure.

Because of its revolutionary nature and ideological underpinnings, the regime in Tehran regards the IRGCN as more politically reliable than the IRIN. Iran’s naval procurement and acquisition, which has been heavily weighted toward asymmetric areas traditionally regarded as the preserve of the IRGCN — fast attack craft, coastal defense cruise missiles, mines, etc. — also suggests that Iranian military planners regard the IRGCN as better equipped to confront a technologically superior adversary, such as the US Navy, than the IRIN. These views have probably been compounded by the IRIN’s performance during the Iran-Iraq war, when, despite its early successes against the Iraqi Navy,[3] it received a drubbing at the hands of the US Navy during the so-called Tanker War (1985–1988).

As a result of its presumed ideological and organizational deficiencies, the IRIN has often been in a poor position to compete for resources with the IRGCN. For at least two decades following the formation of the IRGCN, the IRIN languished, with the only significant additions to its inventory being its three Russian-supplied Kilo class submarines.

However, in recent years, the IRIN’s reputation appears to be enjoying a revival within Iran’s military establishment. Not only has it significantly expanded the breadth and nature of its acquisitions, but it appears to have successfully defined a new role for itself — in the words of Iran’s Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamenei — as Iran’s “strategic force.”[4]

Mission, Organization, and Capabilities

The traditional mission of the Navy has been to protect Iran’s territorial waters, ports, and islands, and to secure its sea lines of communication and claims to natural resources in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Along with the IRGCN and the Iranian Coast Guard,[5] Navy patrols routinely interdict smugglers, drug traffickers, and vessels that illegally fish in Iranian waters.

The Navy also serves as a deterrent against potential adversaries, such as the United States. In Iranian military circles, the Navy, because of its geographic reach, is generally regarded as Iran’s first line of defense in the event of a conflict with extra-regional powers. Finally, Iran also uses its Navy for political ends, to engage in naval diplomacy and strategic messaging.[6]

The IRIN is organized into four naval districts, with headquarters located at Bandar Abbas, Jask,[7] Chabahar, and Bandar Anzali. Together, the IRIN’s four operational zones encompass the southern littorals of the Caspian Sea, the northern Gulf of Oman, and the Strait of Hormuz. In the case of the latter, the IRIN’s 1st District at Bandar Abbas is co-located with a similarly designated IRGCN headquarters,[8] suggesting that the two services have overlapping responsibilities in this strategically significant area.

The IRIN also continues to occupy bases inside the Persian Gulf, although the Gulf itself is now under the operational control of the IRGCN as a result of a major naval reorganization that began in 2007. That same reorganization witnessed the establishment of the IRIN Southern and Northern Fleets,[9] each of which theoretically has jurisdiction over IRIN forces deployed from Iran’s southern and northern littorals.

In terms of its overall size, the IRIN is the smallest of Iran’s conventional military services, with a total complement of around 18,000 active duty personnel.[10] It is also the smaller of Iran’s two naval forces — the IRGCN is assessed to have slightly larger complement of 20,000. Draftees are expected to serve 18 months in the Navy. Officers, who earn the equivalent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Imam Khomeini Naval Academy in the town of Nowshahr, are obliged to serve longer terms than their enlisted counterparts.

Anecdotal evidence from interviews conducted in 2010 suggests that the IRIN is regarded more highly by Iran’s populace than the IRGCN, both for its high degree of professionalism and for its apolitical nature. However, many enlisted still prefer to serve in the IRGCN, where the training is regarded as easier, relations between the ranks are more relaxed, and the benefits are generally better.[11]

Little is known about the force’s structure below the district level, although the IRIN has employed organizational concepts familiar to Western navies, such as flotillas, for its out-of-area deployments. In contrast to the IRGCN, which has focused its efforts on developing a smaller, more maneuverable force, the backbone of the IRIN consists mostly of older, mid-sized surface combatants, including its three British-supplied Sa’am class (Mark 5 Vosper) frigates;[12] one new domestically-produced variant, the Jamaran; two smaller Bayandor class corvettes (delivered in the 1960s), and 14 Kaman class (Combattante II) guided missile patrol craft.

Most of Iran’s larger surface combatants are armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, including the Noor — a domestically-produced variant of the Chinese C-801. The IRIN is also assessed to have seven mine warfare ships, 44 coastal and inshore patrol craft, approximately ten amphibious ships, and a replenishment vessel — the Kharg — the largest Iranian military vessel by tonnage.[13]

According to Jane’s, the IRIN’s aviation branch “is one of the few air elements in any Gulf navy,” with 2,000 personnel, three aging P-3s, other assorted maritime patrol craft, and helicopters.[14] The IRIN also has two brigades (approximately 2,600 personnel) of naval infantry, whose primary responsibility probably involves protecting Iran’s vulnerable offshore energy infrastructure and its islands in the Persian Gulf.

Rounding out the IRIN’s order of battle are its submarines: three Kilo class diesel subs, supplied by the Russians in the 1990s; seven Yono class midget subs, supplied by North Korea and now domestically-produced; and one Nahang class midget sub, also domestically-produced. Whereas the primary function of the IRIN’s Kilos is assessed to be anti-surface warfare (ASW), the midget subs — whose range is much more limited than the Kilos — probably have additional functions, including covert mining and the delivery of maritime special operations forces (MARSOF).

The late Admiral Ashkbus Danehkar, referring to the deterrent value that submarines provide against a technologically superior adversary, noted that the Navy prioritized submarines in its acquisitions process because extra-regional powers “were confronted with a handicap — they were not experienced in subsurface warfare in the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman … Submarines could, on a purely self-sufficient basis, detect surprise attacks launched from far distances and abort them.”[15]

Trends in Iranian naval acquisition and domestic production indicate a strong emphasis on self-reliance — a lesson learned from the Iran-Iraq war when spare parts were hard to acquire due to foreign sanctions. Current acquisition efforts appear to be focused along four separate lines of development, including medium-heavy submarines,[16] midget submarines, large surface assets, and medium-size missile patrol craft. The IRIN has also been retrofitting its aging surface combatants with upgraded equipment and weapons systems.

Challenges and Reorganization

Despite these modest improvements, the IRIN has been challenged by persistent problems with maintenance and readiness. Most of the IRIN’s surface fleet is Western in origin. Without the ability to send these ships to foreign shipyards for overhaul and repairs, Iran has been forced to service them domestically to the best of its ability. As a result, according to the Office of Naval Intelligence, “Approximately half of the IRIN’s missile-armed surface combatants are in very poor material condition, limiting their readiness and operational endurance.”[17] Iran’s three Kilo subs and its P-3 Orion aircraft are also well overdue for overhauls, although the Russians have apparently been assisting the Iranians with a domestic refit of one of its KILO subs, the Tareq.[18]

The IRIN and the IRGCN also continue to suffer from a lack of coordination, compounded by the difficulties associated with having a bifurcated system of command and control. The Joint Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, recognizing that this was a significant vulnerability that Iran’s enemies could exploit, initiated a major reorganization of Iran’s naval forces in 2007, involving the realignment of each service’s areas of responsibility and the opening of several new naval bases along Iran’s littorals.

As a result of this reorganization, the IRGCN has assumed exclusive operational control over the Persian Gulf, while the IRIN has shifted its focus to the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, and the Caspian Sea.[19] Concurrent with this reorganization, new IRIN naval districts and district headquarters have been established outside of the Gulf. As of 2011, the division of effort between the two services was still ongoing. Presumably, in the event of a conflict, the IRGCN will assume operational control over existing IRIN bases and assets inside the Persian Gulf, while the IRIN will assume operational control over IRGCN bases and assets outside of the Gulf.[20]

The benefits associated with this realignment have been three-fold. First, it has reduced the need for the two services to coordinate and deconflict their operations in times of crises. Second, it represents a logical division of effort, given that the IRIN’s larger surface assets and submarines are better suited to operating in the deeper, less confined areas outside of the Persian Gulf, whereas the IRGCN’s smaller, more nimble assets are better suited to operating inside the Gulf. Third, it has allowed the IRIN to focus and prioritize its efforts further afield, by conducting long-range patrols and out-of-area operations, therefore extending Iran’s strategic depth. Thus, the realignment has essentially set the stage for the IRIN to redefine its role as a strategic force, and, as a result, increase its utility in the eyes of Tehran’s leadership.

A New Direction

The architect of this transformation within the IRIN — or at least, the individual who was appointed to implement it — is Rear Admiral Habobollah Sayyari, who was selected to head the IRIN in 2007. Sayyari, an Iran-Iraq war veteran whose career in the IRIN stretches back to the pre-revolutionary period, described the genesis of the IRIN’s transformation in an interview he gave to the Iranian Student News Network in 2009:

On the 7th of October 2009, at the Nowshahr Naval Academy student graduation ceremony, the Supreme Leader made a remark which hadn’t crossed our minds before. He said that the Navy today is a strategic force in many parts of the world and in our country, and it should be regarded as such. This opened up a whole new horizon for us, and we realized that whatever we had done up until then, wasn’t what his imminence had in mind. After he delivered these remarks, meetings were held and we conducted different studies. We came to the conclusion that a strategic force is a force that is capable of having a presence in the free seas, meaning that we leave the Persian Gulf.[21]

Public statements by Navy officials suggest that the IRIN endeavors to extend its reach within an area bounded by four strategic maritime chokepoints: the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca in South East Asia, the Bab al-Mandeb off of East Africa, and the Suez Canal.[22] It is, perhaps, no accident that this area also encompasses a majority of the world’s major sea lines of communication, including its principal energy trading routes.

In pursuit of its objective to play a more prominent role on the world stage, the IRIN has engaged in several out-of-area deployments, most notably to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, where the IRIN has been conducting counter-piracy operations alongside the NATO, Russian, Chinese, and Indian navies. On at least one occasion, an Iranian submarine has accompanied these long-range patrols in order to “collect data.”[23] The IRIN has also embarked on an extensive campaign of naval diplomacy. Since 2009, IRIN vessels have conducted several high profile port visits to Sri Lanka, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, and Syria. On the way to the Syrian port of Latakia, two of the IRIN’s vessels — the frigate Alvand and the replenishment vessel Kharg — transited the Suez canal and entered the Mediterranean, the first vessels to do so since the 1979 Revolution.

While the significance of these deployments is largely symbolic, they nevertheless represent a technological achievement on the part of the IRIN, at least by regional standards. Read moreover, by planting the Iranian flag in locations as far afield as the Mediterranean and the Southern Indian Ocean, the IRIN has signaled its aspirations to play a more dominant role on the regional stage.
 


[1]. Interviews with US naval personnel, Washington, DC, 2009-2011.

[2]. Interviews with former Iranian military personnel, 2010.

[3]. In Operation Movared (Pearl) (November 28, 1980) for instance, the IRIN was assessed to have destroyed 75% of the Iraqi Navy’s operational capacity. Movared is still defined as a textbook operation by the IRIN. It is also commemorated every November as “Navy Day” in Iran. See .

[4]. Islamic Republic of Iran News Network Television (IRINN), July 5, 2011.

[5]. The Iranian Guard is a subordinate element of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) — also known by their Persian acronym NAJA.

[6]. Office of Naval Intelligence, “Iran Naval Forces: From Guerrilla Warfare to Modern Naval Strategy,” Fall 2009.

[7]. The IRIN 2nd District Headquarters moved from Bushehr (inside to the Persian Gulf) to Jask (outside of the Persian Gulf) in October 2008 as part of a major naval reorganization. See Hossein Aryan, “Iran’s Navies Flex their Muscles,” RFE/RL, May 11, 2010.

[8]. David B. Crist, “Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.-Iranian Confrontation at Sea,” Policy Focus #95, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009.

[9]. Interview with Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, IRIB 1, July 30, 2011.

[10]. “Iran Navy,” Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment, September 1, 2011.

[11]. Interviews with former Iranian military personnel, 2010.

[12]. Although the Iranians classify their Mark V vessels as destroyers, their overall displacement (1,100 tons) suggests that they are more akin to frigates. By way of comparison, a US Arleigh-Burke class destroyer has a displacement of more than 8,000 tons when fully loaded.

[13]. “Iran Navy,” Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment.

[14].  “Iran Navy,” Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment.

[15]. Saff, February 20, 2000, pp. 40–42.

[16]. Iran’s Maritime Industries Organization has stated that it is producing a new 450-ton submarine, the Qa’em. Fars News Agency, November 26, 2009.

[17]. Office of Naval Intelligence, “Iran Naval Forces.”

[18]. Office of Naval Intelligence, “Iran Naval Forces.”

[19]. See Office of Naval Intelligence, “Iran Naval Forces,” and Joshua C. Himes, “Iran’s Maritime Evolution,” Gulf Analysis Paper, Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2011.

[20]. Interview with Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, IRIB 1, 30 July 2011.

[21]. Interview, Iranian Student News Network, 31 July 2011.

[22]. Recent claims by IRIN officials that they wish to expand their reach to encompass the Atlantic Ocean are generally regarded as bluster, and beyond the IRIN’s capabilities, at least for the foreseeable future. See “Iranian Navy to Dispatch Squadron to Atlantic, UPI, 18 July 2011.

[23]. “Iran Sends Sub, Warship on Red Sea Patrol,” Agence France Press, 30 August 2011.