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The Gate of Tears: Interests, Options, and Strategy in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait

By Jimmy Drennan


Some were surprised by the news that four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger and may have even wondered “why do we have troops in Africa?” Some also agree with the recent bipartisan call from Congress to end U.S. military support to the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. In this context, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, the narrow waterway between the Arabian Peninsula and northeast Africa, might sound inconsequential, but is in fact critical to U.S. national security interests.

Arabic for “the Gate of Tears,” the strait could not be more appropriately named. Situated at the center of the some of the world’s most critical humanitarian disasters and economic issues, it is a decisive point for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the global economy more broadly. To the north lies Yemen, a failed state where 17 million people face starvation, over a million people are stricken with cholera while thousands have died from the disease, a diphtheria outbreak has emerged, and multiple regional actors and terrorist networks vie for power in a bloody conflict that has claimed over 5,000 civilian lives in three years.

To the south lies Africa where fragile states like Somalia battle famine and Islamic militant groups. Atrocities abound at sea as well. Refugees cross the Bab-el-Mandeb to the north and south because both sides seem to be the better alternative. In March 2017, 42 refugees fleeing from Yemen to Sudan were shot and killed by an attack helicopter, which apparently mistook them for militants.1 In August 2017, smugglers threw over 300 Somali refugees into the water near the Yemeni coast, drowning up to 70, in the span of 24 hours after reportedly sighting authority figures on shore.Just last week, 30 African refugees drowned en route from Aden to Djibouti, after their boat capsized amid gunfire from smugglers.

Meanwhile, the Bab-el-Mandeb serves as a critical artery for the global economy. 52 vessels and 4 million barrels of oil transit the strait per day, making it the fourth busiest waterway in the world, and the only one surrounded by chaos. In the last year, two merchant vessels and five naval ships have been attacked with cruise missiles, explosive boats, and small arms in the southern Red Sea, while the very real threat of mines exists lurking in the water.

Yemeni and Somali civil wars, humanitarian disaster, and the economic importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb form a complex dynamic in which to develop U.S. foreign policy. The key for policymakers is to determine what U.S. national interests are at stake and what actions must be taken to protect them. After careful consideration of the issues surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb, it becomes clear that the U.S. can ill afford to do nothing. On the other hand, it may also be unaffordable to secure U.S. interests by leading multilateral stabilization efforts via intervention within Yemen and Somalia. Fortunately, a third alternative is available via American seapower. Applying maritime influence to enable other elements of national power can contain threats to national security and the global economy, while providing a path to mitigate human suffering in the long term.

U.S. National Interests and the Strategic Calculus

The debate over U.S. national interests will not be settled here, but for simplicity’s sake and the purpose of meaningful analysis, the following definitions from the July 2000 Commission on America’s National Interests will be used:3

  • Vital – Vital national interests are conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance Americans’ survival and well-being in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment).”
  • Extremely Important – Extremely important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would severely prejudice but not strictly imperil the ability of the U.S. government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “Prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in important regions, especially the Persian Gulf.”
  • Important – Important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would have major negative consequences for the ability of the U.S. government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “discourage massive human rights violations in foreign countries.”

Due to the importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to the global and, consequently, U.S. economies, the U.S. has a vital national interest in maintaining the free flow of commerce through the Strait. Even if the U.S. did not depend on the 1.5 billion barrels of oil (currently $98B) annually that flow through the Strait, allies in Europe would certainly feel the economic impact if shipping companies re-routed their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope in the event of crisis or conflict. Inflated maritime insurance rates and an additional 10 days transit time from the Middle East to the U.S. would have considerable worldwide ripple effects to which the U.S. economy would not be immune. Moreover, as one of two primary sea lines of communication to the CENTCOM AOR, the U.S. also has a military interest in maintaining freedom of navigation through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. In October 2016, the U.S. was forced to respond with Tomahawk missile strikes into western Yemen when the USS Mason came under anti-ship missile fire from the Yemeni coast. Further attacks would increase risk and necessitate additional escorts for Bab-el-Mandeb Strait transits.

Conversely, the U.S. has no vital national interest in broader involvement in the armed conflicts in Yemen and Somalia; however, its interests are clearly impacted by the growing threat emanating from Yemen. In western Yemen, Saudi Arabia along with eight other regional allies, are fighting a brutal war against separatist Houthi rebels who aim to establish an anti-Western Shia government in Yemen. In December 2017, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley provided material evidence to the international community that Iran provides missiles and advanced weaponry to the Houthis, enabling them to target vessels transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and strategic locations inside Saudi Arabia, threatening the U.S. national interest in free flow of commerce and advancing its own interest in promoting its regional hegemony.4,5 In January 2018, the Houthis threatened to close the Red Sea to international shipping if the Saudi-led Coalition continued its advance toward Hudaydah, a strategically important Houthi-held port critical to the flow of humanitarian aid. If the Houthi threat is credible, Iranian-aligned forces could now threaten another vital maritime chokepoint, in addition to the Strait of Hormuz which Iran has often threatened to close. Growing Houthi influence and capabilities in Yemen also impose costs and shift the balance of power in relation to Iran’s regional opponents, primarily Saudi Arabia, and allows Tehran to expand its influence elsewhere. Saudi Arabia may have felt compelled to intervene in Yemen’s civil war as the tide shifted in favor of the Houthis because the prospect of bordering an Iranian-aligned state would prove strategically disadvantageous.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley briefs the media in front of remains of Iranian “Qiam” ballistic missile provided by Pentagon at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2017. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

In eastern Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS-Yemen maintain presence, despite UAE-led counterterrorism operations, due to lack of effective governance and internal security. Despite pressure from the West, AQAP remains a threat to the U.S. homeland, and the prominence of ISIS-Yemen continues to grow as the extremist caliphate is gradually eliminated in Iraq and Syria. Without a doubt, the U.S. has a vital national interest in supporting its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners in their counterterrorism efforts and in defense of their borders, but it does not benefit from becoming directly entangled in the fight.

Similarly, Somalia provides a safe haven for terrorists who would do harm to U.S. interests at home and abroad. Fighting rages on between the Federal Government of Somalia, which was only recently established after two decades of near-anarchy, and the Al-Qaeda aligned militant group Al Shabaab, while the civilian population suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, criminals continue to recruit disenfranchised young men, desperate and angry with perceived (and sometimes real) illegal fishing in Somali territorial waters, to become pirates. Still, even though Somalia is a hallmark of instability in the region and a safe haven for terrorist organizations, the U.S. has no vital national interest in establishing security and governance in the African country. From Vietnam, to Somalia itself in the 1990s, America has learned through experience the high cost of entering into regional and internal armed conflicts in proxy pursuit of national interests. Becoming directly entangled in the conflicts surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb is counter to U.S. national interests, but so is ignoring them. U.S. vital national interests in Somalia and in Yemen are limited to ensuring instability is contained within territorial borders so that the free flow of commerce is maintained, attacks against the homeland and assets abroad are prevented, and American influence in the region is sustained.

In Pursuit of National Interests

Considering U.S. vital national interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb and surrounding territories – maintaining the free flow of commerce, preventing attacks against the homeland and assets abroad, and sustaining American and allied influence in the region – the challenge arises when deciding how to apply the instruments of national power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) to secure those interests. The U.S. could secure its interests by:

1) Leading a large-scale multilateral stabilization effort for Yemen and Somalia

2) Containing threats to national interests via maritime influence; or

3) Taking no action (Isolationism)

Option 1: U.S.-led Stabilization Effort

Bringing all instruments of national power to bear on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by leading multilateral stabilization efforts in Yemen and Somalia is a thorough, long-term approach to securing U.S. national interests; however, it would come at significant cost. Securing national interests via stabilization could involve, in varying degrees: state building, military intervention, occupation, and inevitably comparisons to “neo-imperialism” and “adventurism.” In theory, these activities could give rise to effective governance, which would serve to eliminate the threats to U.S. national interests spilling out of Yemeni and Somali borders. The governments, in this case the Federal Government of Somalia and Republic of Yemen Government, ideally would be able to aid in securing the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, stamp out terrorist safe havens, and provide adequate food and medical care to their populations, all while acting in alignment with U.S. foreign policy objectives.            

The trouble is that stabilization has rarely turned out the way the U.S. intended. The most striking examples are Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. remains after intervening to eliminate threats to the homeland and the region. Supporting Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s or the present-day Syrian Opposition are two examples where the U.S. applied pressure indirectly with less than desirable results. Meanwhile, it’s been 25 years since the U.S. first led a UN coalition into Somalia, tasked with stabilizing the war-torn country whose central government had collapsed. Clearly, stabilization efforts are no sure thing. Even when stabilization is successful, the cost is immense. Following World War II, in addition to the over $14B ($140B in today’s dollars) given in aid to Germany and Japan for economic recovery, the U.S. maintained a significant military presence to help stabilize those countries.6,7 It is reasonable to assume that a concerted effort to stabilize Yemen and Somalia would lead to indefinite military presence in those countries as well. Fortunately, there is an alternative to stabilization for securing U.S. national interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb region: maritime influence.              

Option 2: Containing Threats to Yemen and Somalia – Maritime Influence

Rather than directly stabilizing Yemen and Somalia, the U.S. can ensure the free flow of commerce and secure its foreign policy objectives in the region by exerting maritime influence and projecting its power landward. Through a combination of naval operations, international cooperation, and engagement with industry, the U.S. can mitigate the risk to commercial and friendly naval vessels transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, albeit not without the presence of forces as a credible deterrent to would-be attackers. Securing the critical waterway can help secure U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region by eliminating maritime attacks as an option for belligerents in internal conflicts and forcing their attention inward, but airstrikes or other direct action may be required to drive home the point that the Bab-el-Mandeb is “out of bounds” and the consequences for attacking neutral parties are severe. Ultimately U.S. maritime influence could contribute to international pressure to peacefully end the Yemeni Civil War, and fortify the fragile Somali government. Meanwhile, maritime assets could act as seabases for forces providing humanitarian aid or conducting raids on terrorist networks. The agility the Navy provides – in the form of hospital ships, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, various surface combatants and patrol craft, sealift and logistics ships, landing craft, helicopters, and other aircraft – has been on display in disaster relief efforts such as the Indonesia tsunami in 2004 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010. These same assets can be used to support counterterrorism efforts as expeditionary mobile bases, allowing special forces to conduct short-duration operations with minimal footprint on land. Lastly, interdiction of lethal aid flowing into Yemen, enabled by UN Security Council Resolutions, would be a key element of maritime influence.

A handout photo from the Australian Defence Force shows what they say are weapons seized from a fishing vessel which was boarded off the coast of Oman, March 2, 2016. An Australian Navy ship seized a huge cache of weapons near Oman’s coast from the fishing vessel bound for Somalia, the navy said on March 8, 2016, exposing a possible violation of a U.N. Security Council arms embargo. Picture taken March 2, 2016. (Reuters/ABIS Sarah Ebsworth/Australian Defence Force/Handout via Reuters)

International maritime operations are already underway in the region that the U.S. could leverage to build a maritime influence strategy. U.S., allied, and other international navies, such as China, Russia, and Iran, maintain presence in the Gulf of Aden. These navies already work with organizations such as the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and U.K. Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) to advise industry of potential threats to shipping. The key to success of a maritime influence strategy will be cooperation of these international navies, especially since the U.S. cannot afford to take on this security burden alone. The U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) offers a viable model for bringing to together naval forces of 32 countries, some of whom would not normally form military partnerships with each other, to provide maritime security in the Middle East. Mutual participation of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, although seemingly unlikely, should be a goal for U.S. policymakers, as this could set the stage for dialogue to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Additionally, contrary to conventional U.S. foreign policy, U.S. leaders should consider recognizing Iran for their contribution to international counter-piracy efforts off Somalia, while holding Saudi Arabia accountable for their role in contributing to the devastating humanitarian conditions in Yemen. 

The international campaign to combat the Somalia piracy epidemic in the early 2000s provides an ideal example of how maritime influence has been proven to effectively eliminate threats at sea. From 2005 to 2012, pirates attacked nearly 700 ships in the Somali basin, and collected $400M in ransom payments. Over that time, the international community gradually came together to address the problem. The U.S. established a multinational maritime coalition to counter piracy threats, and participated in EU and NATO task forces as well. As many as 20 international warships patrolled the waters around the Horn of Africa at any given time. Simultaneously, the U.S. coordinated with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to establish a set of industry best practices, the latest of which, Best Management Practices, Rev. 4 (BMP4), officially endorsed unarmed embarked security teams.[8] Other maritime influence efforts included establishing an internationally recognized transit corridor, real-time vessel tracking and communication with maritime agencies, and development of mechanisms for transfer of detained pirates to cooperative local governments. This international effort to push piracy back to land was effective – pirates did not successfully hijack a single vessel in the Somali Basin from 2013 to 2016. It is important to note, however, that piracy will remain a threat until it becomes cost prohibitive. Criminals still take advantage of poverty and conflict in Somalia to recruit disenfranchised young men. In 2017, a series of six attacks raised concerns that the piracy epidemic had returned. Instead, it turned out that industry had become lax in applying best practices and about half as many warships patrol the area as in 2012. Not coincidentally, NATO concluded its counter-piracy operation in December 2016. Pirates seemingly sensed an opportunity. Fortunately, no ransoms were paid and the international community once again applied maritime influence to beat back the piracy threat.

Maritime influence was effective in pushing piracy back to shore, and it essentially removed piracy as an option for financial gain in Somalia. In fact, judging from the improvements in Somalia over the last decade, from growing GDP and livestock exports and a democratic presidential election in 2017, one could argue that maritime influence contributed to better conditions on land. Still, the root conditions in Somalia that led to the problem in the first place persist. Maritime influence is not a foreign policy panacea. In the Bab-el-Mandeb region, the U.S. would need to apply maritime influence while supporting international stabilization efforts to make meaningful progress toward resolving the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Somalia, eliminating terrorist safe havens, and effectively securing its national interests. Thus, the U.S. still risks becoming entangled in foreign wars. The U.S. needs to consider whether investing in the security of Yemen, Somalia, and the Bab-el-Mandeb is worth the cost. Of course, the third option is to invest nothing and accept the potential consequences.

Option 3: Isolationism

It can be tempting to assume the U.S. should do nothing at all to stabilize the region around the Bab-el-Mandeb, especially amid the rising tide of nationalism and isolationism in America. After all, many argue that the U.S. should withdraw from the Middle East completely. The danger is that the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Somalia may reach the point of catastrophe, at which the U.S. could be compelled to act purely on the basis of respect for humanity. On a grand enough scale, the alleviation of human suffering, much like the prevention of genocide, can in fact be a vital national interest. There are already 20 million people starving and over one million people suffering from cholera and diphtheria in the two countries surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb, an unparalleled concentration of human suffering. A particularly heavy rainy season, or even a single cyclone, could rapidly exacerbate shortages of food and medical care. At some point, the loss of life could become so immense that the U.S. has no choice but to intervene, regardless of its security or economic interests. Such an intervention would inevitably come at great cost in terms of dollars and foreign policy objectives, not to mention the risk to American armed forces and civilians on the ground.

Another consequence of doing nothing to stabilize the region is the power vacuum that will likely continue to grow. In Yemen, AQAP and ISIS will unquestionably continue to plot and orchestrate attacks against U.S. interests, barring a concerted U.S. or international effort. In Somalia, the U.S. and other allies provide military support to the government’s fight against Al Shabaab and other militant groups. Without American involvement, both countries would be safe havens for those who would do Americans harm. Further, wherever the U.S. has withdrawn presence and influence throughout the Middle East, states such as Iran, Russia, and China predictably increased their operations in those areas. In August 2017, China opened its very first overseas naval base just south of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in Djibouti, signifying the strategic importance China places in the region. With American withdrawal, the U.S. and global economies would be dependent on foreign efforts to secure the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, whatever those may be. In any case, increasing maritime threats may inevitably force the U.S. foreign policy hand, only the response would be reactive instead of proactive, dictated by the enemy’s actions.


The U.S. can afford neither to ignore the threats emerging from the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and surrounding territory, nor can it afford to aggressively intervene in Yemen and Somalia wholesale to fully stabilize the region. The most affordable approach to securing U.S. interests in the region is through maritime influence to enable regional and international partner efforts. By leading an international naval, diplomatic, and economic campaign, augmented with key activities internal to Yemen and Somalia, the U.S. can ensure the free flow of commerce, prevent attacks on American citizens, and preserve its influence in the region, while setting the stage for resolution of internal conflicts and humanitarian crises. It may seem heartless to take such a calculated approach to secure one’s own interests in the face of so many others’ suffering. It is helpful, however, to consider that the best way to mitigate that suffering and secure U.S. national interests may be one and the same. Under the wholesale intervention and stabilization approach, humanitarian conditions will not improve at all unless the U.S. is willing and able to adequately resource an international effort, which seems unlikely. Stabilization of Yemen and Somalia through U.S. intervention is simply not a feasible option. The U.S. may not be able to keep the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from living up to its Arabic name, “the Gate of Tears,” but the best approach to securing its national interests, by exercising maritime influence, also happens to represent the best opportunity to positively impact humanitarian and security conditions in the long run without risking excessive entanglement.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of the CIMSEC Florida Chapter. These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.

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[1] Beaumont, Peter (17 March 2017). “More than 40 Somali refugees killed in helicopter attack off Yemen coast.” The Guardian. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017.

[2] UN News Centre (10 August 2017). “Smugglers throw hundreds of African migrants off boats headed to Yemen – UN.” United Nations. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017.

[3] Ellsworth, Robert, Andrew Goodpaster, and Rita Hauser, Co-Chairs (July 2000). “America’s National Interests: A Report from The Commission on America’s National Interests, 2000.” Commission on America’s National Interests.

[4] Tillerson, Rex (19 April 2017). “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Press Availability.” U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017.

[5] AFP (25 August 2016). “Iran arms shipments to Yemen ‘cannot continue’: Kerry.” AL-MONITOR. Retrieved 24 August 2017.

[6] U.S. Department of State Historian. “Milestones: 1945–1952 – Office of the Historian”. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 6 June 2016.

[7] U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1954 (1955),” table 1075 pp 899-902.

[8] The U.S. officially recommends armed security teams.

Featured Image: Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (via Eosnap.com)

‘This Presence Will Continue Forever’: An Assessment of Iranian Naval Capabilities in the Red Sea

By James Fargher

International attention has focused on the possibilities of an Iranian closure of the Straits of Hormuz, and the catastrophic effect a blockade would likely have on global energy supplies. Even a temporary closure or military disruption in the waterway would cause energy prices to soar and could politically destabilize the Persian Gulf region. Far less attention has been paid to Iranian activity in the Red Sea, however, despite the crucial importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to world oil shipments. In 2013, an estimated combined total of 8.3 million barrels of oil passed through Bab-el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal at either ends of the Red Sea, making it the world’s third-busiest maritime oil transit chokepoint.1 A limited military conflict in the Sea or the presence of naval mines would cause major disruption to European energy supplies and would force oil tankers to take the much longer southern route around the Cape of Good Hope. In this event, oil prices would likely rise dramatically and remain high until security in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait was restored.

Iran has regularly deployed naval forces to the Red Sea since 2011. Although Iranian naval doctrine has typically concentrated on closing the Straits of Hormuz using asymmetric forces, more recent efforts by Iran’s naval leadership to project naval power beyond the Persian Gulf have resulted in a frequent Iranian naval presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Red Sea remains an important route for Iranian weapons smuggling to militants in Gaza and Syria,2 and senior Iranian naval officers have announced plans to maintain a permanent maritime presence in the region.3  At present, Iran does not possess the same level of naval capability in the Red Sea and the Gulf as it does in its coastal waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Nevertheless, given the importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to global oil shipments, it would appear that more research is needed to assess Iran’s ability to disrupt shipping from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.

This article aims to outline Iran’s military capabilities in the Red Sea and the southern approach to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. It relies principally on open-source information published on the Islamic Republic’s naval forces, and attempts to make realistic projections about Iran’s ability to intercept the Suez shipping line, which remains limited at present. Even in the case of the much more heavily-guarded Strait of Hormuz, it is generally acknowledged that Iranian forces could only hope to close the waterway for a matter of days or, at best, a few weeks, given its crucial importance for Western oil supplies.4 Attacks on oil shipments to Western Europe and North America in the Red Sea would risk triggering a devastating Western response, and it is not clear whether the Iranians would be prepared to do so. Moreover, in the event of a conflict with Iran, clashes would almost certainly be primarily focused on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea would likely be a secondary theatre. This analysis therefore attempts to understand what forces Iran would be able to deploy to the area in the event of conflict, and how effective they might be in closing the strait.

This essay begins with a review of recent Iranian involvement in the Red Sea beginning in 2011, as well as its current naval policy towards the region. It will then give a brief overview of Iran’s current naval forces at Iran’s disposal, and will discuss the types of vessels and weapons Iran is capable of deploying to the Red Sea. In so doing, this article will attempt to give a broad summary of Iran’s likely present military capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the kinds of threats which ships in the Red Sea could expect to face in the event of a conflict.

Iranian Involvement in the Sea

Between 1979 and 2011, there was no confirmed Iranian naval activity in the Red Sea. Iran was suspected to have supported a terrorist group which in 1984 claimed it had laid nearly 200 naval mines in the sea, but Tehran denied any involvement.5 In February 2011, however, a small flotilla of Iranian warships was dispatched on a mission to Syria, marking the first time that Iranian vessels had entered the Red Sea and transited the Suez Canal since the 1979 Revolution.6 Several months later, in July the Iranian government announced its intention to deploy one of its submarines on a patrol of the Red Sea. After completing its cruise, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian navy, declared that the Kilo-class submarine “could finish its 68-day mission in international waters with full preparation despite all sanctions and through the effort of domestic specialists.”7 Subsequently, at the end of 2011, Iran held naval exercises in the Arabian Sea, with units deployed in the Gulf of Aden as far as the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The purpose of this exercise, declared Tehran, was to show “Iran’s military prowess and defense capabilities in the international waters, convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries, and to test the newest military equipment.”8

After a year-long hiatus, Iran once again deployed units to the Red Sea in January 2013. The Iranian government reported that it would be sending its 24th Fleet on a three-month patrol of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea before transiting the Suez Canal for the Mediterranean.9 Citing the need to protect its vessels from pirate attacks, Iran established its own small anti-piracy task force in the Gulf, and in March 2014 purportedly defended an Iranian tanker from an attack in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.10 In 2015, Iranian-backed Houthi fighters captured the strategic island of Perim in the Strait, and Sayyari announced that “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Navy has deployed in the North of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and this presence will continue forever.”11

These moves came as part of a wider Iranian drive to expand its regional influence by developing its blue-water capabilities. Iranian warships entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time in the Navy’s history in 2013, and dispatched a vessel to South Africa in 2014.12 The Iranian naval leadership has placed particular effort on projecting naval power onto sea lanes in the Arabian Sea,13 and as a report produced by the American intelligence firm Stratfor concluded, “Iran’s navy cannot project enough power to control key shipping lanes, but Tehran has emphasized its presence around Bab-el-Mandeb as a possible means of disrupting global trade in the event of an attack on Iran and a key point for negotiations in the future.”14

Stratfor’s report also highlighted Iran’s use of the Red Sea as an important shipment route to provide arms to its proxies and allied militant organizations in Gaza and Syria. Rockets bound for Hamas fighters, for example, were discovered in a ship on course for Port Sudan, where they were due to be unloaded and shipped across the Egyptian border to Gaza.15 Israeli aircraft have attacked alleged weapons convoys travelling from Sudan to Gaza, and the Red Sea forms a crucial link in this illicit supply line.16 Iran’s overt involvement in the ongoing Yemeni civil war has further increased the importance of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to Tehran’s strategic aims.17

ARABIAN SEA (March 31, 2016) A cache of weapons is assembled on the deck of the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107). The weapons were seized from a stateless dhow which was intercepted by the Coastal Patrol ship USS Sirocco (PC 6) on March 28. The illicit cargo included 1,500 AK-47s, 200 RPG launchers, and 21 .50 caliber machine guns bound for Yemen. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

In addition to using Sudan to supply weapons to its proxies, Iran has been cultivating good relations with Eritrea, which controls the remaining two large ports in the Red Sea.18 Iranian ships frequently dock in Massawa and Assab, and Iran is believed to be concentrating on building its regional influence with key East African states.19 Indeed, as early as 2008, rumors surfaced that Iran had secretly established a naval base in Assab. Whilst there is some satellite evidence suggesting that Iran has established a permanent naval facility in the port, these rumors cannot be confirmed.20

Iran’s Naval Forces

The Iranian fleet is divided between the regular Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval Forces (IRGCNF). 18,000 sailors are enlisted in the regular navy, whilst the IRGCNF is comprised of 20,000 sailors and 5,000 marines.21 Iran has seven frigates and 32 fast-attack missile craft designed for green-water service which form the core of its surface fleet, all armed with the C-802 Noor long-range anti-ship missile.22 Iran has also invested in a large flotilla of small craft, ranging from offshore patrol boats to armed motorboats and dhows, intended for coastal service and for mounting swarm attacks in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has a squadron of five minelayers, as well as several mine countermeasures vessels, which can be supplemented by its small craft in laying naval mines in the Strait.23 The Iranian submarine service is made up of a total of 29 submarines, divided between the IRIN and IRGCNF.24 Five of these submarines are capable of operating in blue water, and the rest appear to be designed for service in the Persian Gulf. A number of ships and submarines are currently under construction, although information about these vessels remains limited.

The IRGCNF is tasked primarily with defending the Iranian coast and for interdicting shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. IRGCNF controls Iran’s asymmetric capability force, including its small attack craft, suicide vessels, and batteries of relatively short-ranged anti-ship missiles. IRGCNF bases are located in the Persian Gulf, and as its focus is limited to Iran’s littoral zone, its vessels are constrained by a smaller operating radius than the regular surface fleet. The IRGCNF also commands over 17 Qadir­-class and Nahangclass midget submarines, the majority of Iran’s submarine force, which are designed for service exclusively in the Persian Gulf.

By contrast, the IRIN controls Iran’s blue-water capabilities. Although both the IRIN and IRGCNF share responsibility for protecting the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, since 2011 the IRIN has begun to focus on expanding Iran’s regional maritime reach. In the event of a conflict with the United States or with Iran’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rivals, the main Iranian effort would likely be focused on closing the Strait of Hormuz and on attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. Most of these operations would fall under the responsibility of the IRGCNF, which has the capability to interdict shipping through the Strait with its small vessels and missile batteries. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, however, falls out of the operating range of most of the IRGCNF’s vessels, and so any operations in the Red Sea or the upper Gulf of Aden would be undertaken by the IRIN.

Surface Ships

According to IISS’ Military Balance, the core of the IRIN’s main surface fleet consists of two Jamaran-class light frigates, three Alvand-class frigates, and two Bayandor-class patrol frigates. Five of these ships date from the 1960s; the Alvand ships were bought as refitted Vosper Mark 5 frigates from the Royal Navy in 1971,25 and the Bayandor ships were purchased from the U.S. between 1964 and 1969.26 The Jamaran frigates are based on the basic Vosper Mk 5 design, although unlike the Alvand and Bayandor ships, they are armed with anti-air defenses. The Jamaran-class is thought only to be armed with two single SAM launchers, firing the SM-1 anti-air missile which was originally developed for the U.S. Navy in 1967.27 The lack of anti-aircraft capabilities indicates that Iran’s core surface vessels are dangerously exposed to air attack, critically limiting their ability to be deployed outside the umbrella of Iran’s coastal defense anti-air batteries.

Iranian navy frigate IS Alvand passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal in February 2011 (AP)

All three classes are armed with the C-802 (CSS-N-8 Saccade) long-range anti-ship missile.28 The C-802 was developed by China to upgrade its own naval surface-to-surface missile (SSM) capabilities, and it is believed to be extremely accurate.29 The missile is powered by a turbojet with a range of at least 120km and carries a 165kg warhead.30 The C-802 is sea-skimming, and a successful Hezbollah attack on an Israeli missile ship in 2006 using the C-802 seriously damaged the Israeli vessel.31

Fourteen of Iran’s smaller missile boats also carry the C-802, although the remainder are armed with the C-704 Nasr short-range SSM.32 The Nasr is a domestically-manufactured missile with a range of 35km and a 150 kg warhead, capable of sinking medium-sized vessels.33 Three of Iran’s frigates received upgraded fire controls to better utilize the Nasr, but the Iranian missile stockpile is thought to be quite limited and mostly concentrated in coastal batteries.34

In theory, Iran could use its surface ships to mount a blockade of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by attacking ships attempting to pass through the Red Sea. The main Iranian surface fleet clearly has the operating radius to project power into the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, and its ships are armed with sufficiently long-ranged missiles to engage tankers in the narrow confines of the southern Red Sea. However, the extreme vulnerability of these ships to air attack with their lack of air defense cover suggests it is highly unlikely that these vessels would be capable of maintaining a blockade for long, or would even be risked attempting to do so. The disastrous losses inflicted on the Iranian fleet during the 1988 tanker war by U.S. aircraft highlighted this weaknesses, and prompted Iranian strategists to focus on asymmetric forces as an alternative.35 With both an American F-15 squadron based in Camp Lemonnier36 and ships from EUNAVFOR Atalanta stationed in Djibouti,37 it is doubtful whether any hostile Iranian surface ships would be able to successfully interdict Red Sea shipping.

Submarines and Mines

Since 1988, the main effort by the Iranian naval leadership has concentrated on building up Iran’s asymmetric capabilities, including acquiring a strong submarine force.38 Although most of Iran’s submarines are small or midget craft designed for operations in the shallow waters of Persian Gulf, Iran does possess at least four blue-water submarines.39

Three of these are diesel-electric Kilo­-class submarines, purchased from Russia in the 1990s.40 The Kilo-class was designed as a quiet attack submarine, but because they were intended for colder climates, Iran’s three Kilos do not operate well in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. For this reason, whilst they are currently based in the main Iranian naval station at Bandar Abbas in the Strait of Hormuz, a new submarine base for them is reportedly under construction at Chah Bahar on the Gulf of Oman.41 Not much is yet known about the fourth submarine, the lead boat of the domestically-produced Fateh-class, but it is designed for service in blue water.42

The three Kilo submarines represent Iran’s main operating capability in the Red Sea. Whilst its surface ships are hampered by their vulnerability to air attack and small operating range, the Kilo-class submarine is designed for extended operations in open waters.43 Each Kilo is thought to be armed with wake-homing torpedoes, and they can carry a total payload of 24 mines, deployable through the torpedo tubes.44 A batch of 1,000 mines was included in the original purchase from Russia.45

Since then, Iran is estimated to have built up a stockpile of at least 2,000 mines, including the M-08 contact mine, the MDM-6 pressure mine, and the EM-52 smart mine.46 The Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait are too deep for the M-08 contact mine, which operates at depths of up to 110 meters, but potentially within the range for both the MDM-6 and EM-52.47 The EM-52 is a particularly lethal threat, as it is laid on the sea floor and is a guided, rocket-propelled warhead. It is also powerful enough to penetrate a carrier hull.48

Seafloor mines are especially challenging to detect; it took a Royal Navy minesweeper six days to detect a single Iranian smart mine in the Red Sea in the 1980s.49 Caitlin Talmadge, in her analysis of Iranian capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz, calculated that a task force of 12 NATO ships managed to clear an Iraqi minefield at a rate of 1.18 mines per day, a rate that was unusually fast and done under ideal conditions.50 Given the rugged geography of the Red Sea’s floor and the proliferation of smart mines, it is not clear whether another task force would be able to clear an Iranian minefield at the same rate.

However, the Kilo class is aging, and these vessels are vulnerable to U.S. and British hunter-killer groups. The proximity of Western forces to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the strategic importance of the Red Sea to Western interests suggests that the Kilo submarines would probably only get one voyage to the Red Sea before being neutralized in the case of hostilities. If Iran deployed all three of its blue-water submarines, which is unlikely, they could sow 72 mines at most. If a naval task force was to achieve the same rate of minesweeping as in Talmadge’s analysis, it would take 61 days to clear this minefield completely. Nevertheless, it is improbable that the Iranian leadership would risk all three of its largest submarines on such a risky, possibly one-way mission, and similarly it is unlikely that minesweepers would be able to operate with the same speed in the Red Sea as in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, a rough estimate of Iran’s submarine capabilities and mine stock would indicate that a single Kilo submarine with a well-trained crew could close the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait for at least a week in an attempt to divert attention away from combat in the Persian Gulf.

Ballistic Missiles

Iran does not at present have any fixed-wing aircraft with sufficient range to operate from Iranian bases to the Red Sea. Besides its naval capabilities, it can only reach the Red Sea with ballistic missiles. Iran currently has nine types of missile able to reach the Red Sea; the Shahab-3, -4, -5, and -6, the Ghadr-101 and 110, the IRIS, SAJIL, and the new Emad rocket.51 All of these classes have the range to strike targets in the Red Sea, and all can reach the waterway within ten minutes of being launched.52

A variant of the Emad missile, the long range Shahab-3. (UPI/Ali Shaygan/Fars News Agency)

As a general rule, Iran’s long-range missiles are extremely inaccurate and are designed to hit strategic targets, not individual ships transiting the Red Sea.53 The sole exception is the latest Iranian missile, the Emad, which was designed as Iran’s first precision strike system. The Emad is equipped with an advanced guidance system in the nose cone, and has a reported accuracy radius of 500 meters.54 It also carries a 750 kg warhead with enough explosive power to cripple or sink even a heavy oil tanker.55

Whilst the Emad represents an improvement in Iran’s ballistic missile capability, it is not clear how effective it would be as an area-denial weapon in the Red Sea. It does not appear to be accurate enough to target individual ships, and it will take several years to perfect the guidance technology.56 Furthermore, in order to reach the Red Sea, a costly Emad missile would need to transit across the Arabian Peninsula through Saudi Arabia’s air defenses. The possibility of using ballistic missiles to attack Red Sea shipping is therefore remote.


Iran’s ability to interdict shipping in the Red Sea is limited by its aging surface fleet and by the small number of submarines and missiles it can deploy to the waterway. Despite Iran’s growing interest in expanding its influence into the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the southern Red Sea as a means of securing its regional power, its current naval forces are tasked primarily with shutting the Strait of Hormuz.

Nevertheless, in spite of these limitations, the Iranians do have a narrow range of capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Although its surface fleet is unlikely to risk its assets by deploying surface vessels so close to U.S. and Saudi airbases during wartime, Iran has demonstrated that it can send submarines on extended cruises of the Red Sea. Its aging Kilo-class submarines are equipped with sophisticated mines in quantities which would take weeks to clear, and could be used to apply pressure on both the U.S. and Western Europe as well as the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf. Iran is already suspected to have laid mines in the Red Sea in the 1980s, and it is capable of doing so again – either as a means of leveraging its position in the Greater Middle East, or as a way to disrupt oil shipping and to open a new theater of operations in the event of a war with its regional rivals.

James A. Fargher works as an intelligence analyst at a political risk firm in the UK, and is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. James holds a BA from Drew University and an MA in modern history from King’s. He specializes in Imperial history and naval theory, with a particular focus on the Red Sea region. 


1. Alexander Metelitsa & Megan Mercer, ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoins Critical to Global Energy Security,’ Today in Energy, US Energy Information Administration, 1 December 2014.

2. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.

3. ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.

4. Caitlin Talmadge, ‘Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz,’ International Security, 33:1 (Summer 2008), 84.

5. Gerald F. Seib and Robert S. Greenberger, ‘Iran’s Signals Mixed on Mines in the Red Sea,’ The Wall Street Journal, 8 August 1984.

6. ‘Israel anger at Ian Suez Canal warship move,’ BBC News, 16 February 2011.

7. ‘Iran to send submarines to international waters – Press TV,’ BBC News, 30 July 2011.

8. ‘Iran Navy to Hold War Games Near Crucial Sea Lanes,’ The New York Times, 23 December 2011.

9. ‘Iran navy to deploy 24th fleet to Mediterranean Sea – commander,’ BBC News, 16 January 2013.

10. ‘Iran Navy counters pirate attack against oil tanker in Red Sea,’ BBC News, 4 Mach 2014.

11. ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.

12. ‘Islamic Republic of Iran Navy IRIN / Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/navy.htm.

13. Tarek Fahmi, quoted in ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.

14. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. ‘Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war – sources’, Reuters, 22 March 2017.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 328.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. ‘Alvand Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/alvand.htm.

26. ‘Bayandor Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/bayandor.htm

27. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 329.

28. Ibid.

29. ‘C-802 / YJ-2 / Ying Ji-802 / CSS-C-8 / SACCADE C-8xx / YJ-22 / YJ-82,’ Global Security, accessed 1 July 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/c-802.htm.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 329.

33. ‘Kosar / Nasr,’ Global Security, accessed 1 July 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/kosar.htm.

34. Talmadge, ‘Closing Time,’ 104.

35. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), ‘Iran Submarine Capabilities,’ 21 August 2015, accessed on 22 June 2016, http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/iran-submarine-capabilities/.

36. Craig Whitlock, ‘Remote U.S. base at core of secret operations,’ The Washington Post, 25 October 2012.

37. David Styan, ‘Djibouti: Changing Influence in the Horn’s Strategic Hub,’ Briefing Paper (London: Chatham House, 2013), 4.

38. NTI, ‘Iran Submarine Capabilities’.

39. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ 329.

40. ‘Kilo Class Submarine,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/kilo.htm.

41. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), ‘Iran Submarine Capabilities’.

42. ‘Fateh (Conqueror / Victor) “semi-heavy” submarine,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/fateh.htm.

43. ‘Iran to send submarines to international waters – Press TV,’ BBC News, 30 July 2011.

44. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ 329.

45. ‘Kilo Class Submarine,’ Global Security.

46. Talmadge, ‘Closing Time,’ 92.

47. Anthony H. Cordesman with Aaron Lin, The Iranian Sea-Air-Missile Threat to Gulf Shipping (Washington: Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 2015), 21.

48. Ibid., 108.

49. Ibid.

50. Talmadge, ‘Closing Time,’ 95.

51. Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman, ‘GCC-Iran: Operational Analysis of Air, SAM and TBM Forces,’ Centre for Strategic & International Studies (Washington: CSIS, 2009), 37.

52. Ibid., 127.

53. Sam Wilkin, ‘Iran Tests New Precision-Guided Ballistic Missile,’ Reuters, 11 October 2015.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid.

Featured Image:Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard ride in their boat alongside an Iranian naval vessel (AFP: IRNA)