Tag Archives: Iran

Waters of Black Gold: The Strait of Hormuz, Pt. 2

By Imran Shamsunahar

The first part of this two-part series on the Strait of Hormuz analyzed the strategic importance of the Strait for global energy shipping and political stability in the Arabian Gulf, and provided an overview of Iran’s overall strategy of using its asymmetric doctrine to disrupt commercial shipping within the vital waterways to both deter enemies and fight a protracted war if necessary. This second part will focus on Iran’s actual maritime capabilities and discusses whether their threats to close down oil shipment in the Strait of Hormuz are credible or not.

Asymmetric Weapons and Tactics

Although Tehran has frequently made clear their intentions to close the Strait of Hormuz in times of war or heightened tensions, do they actually have the military capability to do so? Both the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy (IRGCN) have invested in a multitude of asymmetrical weaponry which would be used to harass and disrupt shipping coming through the Strait.

One potent tool in the Iranian naval inventory is its extensive range of ASCMs, a capability the Iranians have sought to invest in since the Iran-Iraq War, either through direct purchase or by depending heavily on Chinese designs for indigenous production. During the Tanker War, the Iranians would employ coastal-defense variants of the Chinese HY-1 and HY-2 ASCMs (also known as the CSSC-2 Silkworm and CSSC-3 Seersuckers) in a series of missile sites ringing the Strait of Hormuz, Qeshm Island, and nearby Kishk, thereby forcing any ship entering the Strait to sail through their missile envelope (it is believed Iran’s coastal missile defenses are still arranged in this manner). Fears of escalation meant the missiles were never used within the Strait of Hormuz (although two missiles were fired at Kuwait on October 15 and 16, 1987, each hitting a tanker). Iran’s inventory of shore-based missiles are maintained by both navies.1,2, 25 

Starting in the 1990s, the Iranians imported the C-801 and C802 missiles. The land-based variants had an advantage over the HY-1/HY-2s insofar that they could be mounted on vehicles and guided by mobile radar stations, instead of being pegged to fixed launch sites. This means the missiles can be used in a ‘shoot and scoot’ fashion, making it harder for the enemy to locate and destroy their batteries after having released their payloads. As well, the Iranians armed most of their fast small boats, referred to as Fast Attack Crafts (FACs), with the C-802, including the Thondor-class or Kaman-class boats, as well as all their frigates and corvettes. The Iranians also developed the Qadir missile, based on the C-802A missile. It has a longer range than the C-802 and is less vulnerable to radar countermeasures.3

Iran also possess three short-range missile systems, again influenced by Chinese designs. This includes the Kosar missiles, based on the Chinese C-701, while the Nasr 1 and Nasr 2 correspond to the C-704. All three systems can be deployed on both land vehicles for coastal defense, as well as FACs including the IRGCN’s North Korean based Peykaap-II class craft and Chinese-made Cat-class catamaran missile boats.4

The official Seal of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (Wikimedia Commons)

The use of small fast boats plays a big part in Iran’s apparent ‘swarming tactics,’ in which they hope to counteract the enemy’s superior surface vessels through overwhelming numbers attacking from different directions. Unlike other navies, which seek to gradually acquire larger vessels as traditional navies would, the IRGCN has consciously sought to acquire smaller and faster boats based on their doctrine of asymmetric warfare. Alongside the FACs, the IRGCN also possess far more numerous Fast Inshore Attack Crafts (FIACs), which are smaller in tonnage and more lightly armed (usually with machine guns and rockets).

Since they are travelling in dispersed rather than large formations, they become harder to detect. Owing to their size, they could operate from any available jetty, with Iran’s numerous oil platforms and islands within the Strait providing forward operating platforms for these small fast boats (as well as forward observation posts to detect enemy shipping).5 Indeed, it is feared the Iran would exploit the broken littoral character of the Strait to wage a sort of maritime guerrilla war, exploiting its numerous small islands to hide small boats in ambush to await larger naval vessels and tankers to sail through. These small boats would utilize a variety of weapons to either damage or sink enemy shipping, including rockets, RPGs, heavy machine guns, torpedoes, and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. However, it is believed the main weapon of choice would be guided anti-ship missiles. Coupled with shore-based mobile ASCMs, Iran could turn the Strait into perilous waters for any shipping to traverse.6,7

Mining the Strait

Most analysts agree that the most effective means by which the Iranians could hope to disrupt traffic through the Strait would be through mining. Mines represent a defensive, cost-effective, low-technology weapon in which to hinder and manipulate enemy movement. It should be noted that during the Tanker War in 1988, an Iranian mine costing $1,500 dollars was able to inflict $96 million worth of damage to the frigate USS Samuel Roberts in the Arabian Sea (mines have accounted for over 77 percent of total U.S. ship casualties since the end of the Second World War). They are relatively easy to produce and maintain, useful for a developing country like Iran. Mines would grant the Iranians the ability to channel hostile shipping through specific channels, where they would then be more vulnerable to other attacks such as small fast boats and shore-based anti-ship missiles, as well as delay enemy war plans as they are forced to instead focus attention and resources on mine clearing operations. Even then, the simple threat of the presence of mines would grant the Iranians a great psychological advantage, as shipping companies become more hesitant to risk their shipping being mined as it transits the Strait (potentially causing global energy prices to skyrocket), as well as affecting the morale of personnel aboard U.S. and allied warships.8,9

Iran is one of two dozen countries in the world which manufactures mines domestically, although its more advanced mines come from Russia, China, and North Korea (even its domestically-produced mines are based on Chinese designs). The total inventory of Iranian mines is believed to range from two to five thousand. Iran now boasts a variety of mines in its inventory. These mines can differ based on their positioning in the water, from drifting mines which float on the surface, moored mines which float at a pre-programmable depth beneath the surface, and bottom mines, which are placed on the seabed (particularly useful in the shallow waters of the Strait). They also differ on how they are triggered, from simple contact mines to more sophisticated influence mines, which can be triggered by detecting a change in the acoustic environment, water pressure, or magnetic field. Iran also claims to possess nonmagnetic mines, which are more difficult to detect by enemy mine-sweeping. Analysts differ on how many mines the Iranians would need to successful blockade the Strait, with numbers ranging from just three hundred to having to gamble their entire stockpile.10,11 

Iran could feasibly utilize almost any platform within its naval inventory in a mine laying role. Its most potent platform would be its submarine fleet, with its three Kilo-class submarines, able to lay 24 mines per sortie. Its midget submarines, the Ghadir and Nahang class, could also be utilized in a mine-laying role (the Ghadir is believed to be able to lay between 8-16 mines per sortie). The Iranians could also use non-conventional mine-laying platforms, including its array of small boats, open-decked boats (such as naval amphibious and logistic vessels) and civilian shipping (such as fishing dhows). Since small boats can lay between 2-6 mines per sortie, they would probably be used in a mass mining effort by the Iranians. Their small size would make them difficult to detect and intercept, and in some cases the enemy would be unable to distinguish civilian shipping involved in innocent commercial activity and those involved in mine laying work.12,13

Closing the Strait: A Realist Assessment

But exactly how much of a threat would Iran’s swarming tactics and anti-ship missiles pose? It should be noted that in 2002, a joint wargame exercise conducted by the U.S. military called Millennium Challenge 2002 depicted an invasion of a fictional Middle Eastern country. Said fictional country fought using tactics and strategies closely resembling that of Iran, utilizing shore-based missiles and swarm tactics with fast boats. By the end of the game, the U.S. had lost 16 ships and the lives of thousands of servicemen.14 However, other commentators remain skeptical. J. Peter Pham, writing for The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, noted that the sheer size of modern tankers makes it difficult for small boats to make contact with the ship, with ‘the flow of surface water along the hull of such a large, moving ship creates strong currents toward the ships stern.’ As well, the piece noted that since crude oil does not ignite easily, the tanker would most probably absorb any explosion if contact was made, meaning modern tankers can take a lot of punishment before sinking. An estimated ‘eight to ten’ missiles would be needed to actually sink a tanker, which would exhaust Iran’s finite stockpiles (save perhaps in specific cases where the missile would penetrate the hull and subsequently explode, causing secondary explosions).15 The U.S. Fifth Fleet could also respond with the traditional strategy when it comes to protecting one’s merchant shipping from harm, that of providing convoy duties. This is a strategy the U.S. adopted during the Tanker War. The U.S. Navy would escort 252 ships between July 1987 and December 1988, with only one commercial ship damaged by an enemy mine.16 An article in Strategic Comments noted:

“The value of a convoy system would not just be in the missile defence offered by the layered missile-defence systems on board the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers currently deployed with the Fifth Fleet. Standard SM-2 and Evolved Sea Sparrow air-defence missiles along with the Phalanx gun-based close-in-weapon system would provide the main tools to counter the air and missile threats.”17

Besides the extensive defenses offered by U.S. warships, air dominance over the Strait would offer another added protection against nimble small boats threatening merchant shipping. American helicopters and fighters proved particularly useful in destroying IRGCN vessels during the Tanker War, and the apparent weakness of the Iranian air assets and air defenses today would arguably allow U.S. and Gulf air assets to achieve a similar goal. It should be noted that in February of this year, the U.S. Air Force’s venerable A-10 Warthogs took part in mock attacks on small boats as part of routine exercises, possibly demonstrating how air attacks against Iran’s fast small boats would play out in a real conflict.18

Firing Noor Missile from a truck launcher in Velayat-90 Naval Exercise. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mining also has its limitations. Like anti-ship missiles, some doubt that mines would be powerful enough to outright sink a ship the size of a modern tanker. As well, the U.S. Fifth Fleet has stationed in Bahrain four Avenger-class mine countermeasure vessels, and could theoretically call upon the help of the British, French, Saudi and Emirati navies, all of whom possess anti-mine vessels.19 It should be noted however, that minesweeping and clearance work is still a time-consuming endeavor. Gulf military analyst Sabahat Khan noted that clearing mines can take ‘two hundred times as long’ as it took to lay them. Creating safe passageways could take weeks, while clearing the Strait entirely would cost months. As well, more sophisticated mines would require more time consuming strategies such as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and human divers.20

Mines are not a discriminating weapon, and could potentially damage Iranian vessels as well as the vessels of neutral states. This could cause political complications with friendly nations such as China, with whom the Iranians depend heavily on for both arms sales and investment in the Iranian energy sector. The biggest loser from any attempt to completely close off shipping through the Strait would be Iran itself. An article from 2010 noted that Iran exported 2.4 million barrels of petroleum a day through the Strait of Hormuz (providing two-thirds of its total budget), and is also heavily dependent on the Strait for its gasoline imports, being the largest gasoline consumer in the region. As such, most scholars argue that the Iranians would only seek to close the Strait if they felt the survival of the regime itself was at stake, either in an outright war, in retaliation for a particularly crippling sanction imposed, or a foreign attempt to neutralize critical national capabilities (e.g. its nuclear facilities).21, 22

Ultimately, a successful closing of the Straits through mining is dependent on the Iranian mine laying effort not being detected and intercepted by its enemies early on, thereby hindering further mine laying efforts by the enemy’s overwhelming force. The first few hours would thus be critical, with the Iranians seeking to lay as many mines as possible. For the U.S. and its Gulf allies, preventing a mining of the Strait would thus depend heavily on effective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, to ensure adequate maritime domain awareness to intercept Iranian intentions early on.23,24


Ultimately, it remains unlikely that Iran could actually close down the Strait to maritime shipping, with esteemed scholar Anthony Cordesman noting that Iran couldn’t close the Strait for ‘more than a few days to two weeks.’ Instead of a naval blockade, the most the Iranians could hope for would be a strategy of guerre de course on individual shipping, causing only minor inconveniences for global energy markets. Scholars suggests that Iran’s often highly embellished rhetoric about closing down the Strait to shipping has more to do with burnishing nationalist credentials to a domestic audience, as well as introducing volatility to the energy market to help raise energy prices and pump the regime’s coffers.25

However, this shouldn’t mean that those concerned with the protection of freedom of navigation in the Strait can rest easily. Constant vigilance should be kept, and vital capabilities such as ISR, anti-submarine warfare, minesweeping, and air dominance should be both maintained and improved upon. As Clausewitz reminds us, war is composed of passion and chance. What could start as sporadic attacks against individual tankers could rapidly escalate beyond everyone’s imaginations. U.S. and allied forces in the region should ensure adequate strategic and operation responses to Iran’s threats which are both militarily effective and carefully calibrated to the situation.

Imran Shamsunahar is a recent graduate of the University of Hull, where he earned a Master’s in Strategy and International Security. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Toronto. He developed an interest in maritime security and naval warfare during his graduate studies, and wrote his dissertation on the South China Sea dispute and contemporary maritime strategy. He is currently based in his home city of Kuala Lumpur where he is interning for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based security risk monitoring company catering to travelers. In the meantime, he enjoys writing articles on naval matters as a hobby. He is hoping to continue his studies in the near future, hopefully once again in maritime security.


1. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Military Options’, Strategic Comments, 18, no. 1 (2012), p. 2

2. David B. Crist, David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S. – Iranian Conflict at Sea’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009. Available online: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus95.pdf, p. 10

3. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Military Options’, p. 2

4. Ibid

5. David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict’, p. 22 – 23

6. Dave Majumbar, ‘Could Iran Sink a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier?’, The National Interest, December 30th, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/could-iran-sink-us-navy-aircraft-carrier-14767

7. Robert Czulda, ‘The Defensive Dimensions of Iran’s Military Doctrine: How Would They Fight?’ Middle East Policy, 23 , no. 1 (2016): p. 92-109. Available online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mepo.12176/full

8. David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict’, p. 24 – 25

9. Sabahat Khan, Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz – Plausibility and Key Considerations’, Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, January 2010. Available online: http://www.inegma.com/Admin/Content/File-29122013113155.pdf, p. 2

10. J. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 68

11. Ibid, p. 3

12. Joseph Travithick, ‘A-10 Warthogs Practice Blasting Swarms of Small Boats’, The Drive, March 2nd 2017, http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/8052/a-10-warthogs-practice-blasting-swarms-of-smallboats?xid=twittershare

14. Brett Davis, “Learning Curve: Iranian Asymmetrical Warfare and Millennium Challenge 2002”, CIMSEC, August 14th, 2014, http://cimsec.org/learning-curve-iranian-asymmetrical-warfare-millennium-challenge-2002-2/11640

15. P. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz: A Realist Assessment’ The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy’, 32, no. 2 (2010): p. 66 – 69

16. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Options’, p. 3

17. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 3

18. Ibid

13. David B. Christ, ‘Gulf of Conflict’, p. 23

19. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Options’, Strategic Comments, 18, no. 1 (2012).

20. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 7

21. Ibid

22. J. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 69 – 71

23. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 9

24. J. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 70

25. Ibid, p. 71 – 72

Featured Image: The Persian Gulf (Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC)

Waters of Black Gold: The Strait of Hormuz Pt. 1

By Imran Shamsunahar


What distinguishes navies from that of other branches of the military is that their raison d’etre is often inherently economical in nature. Navies primarily exist to protects one’s sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in trade and natural resources, while threatening those of your enemy’s in times of war. As the classical seapower theorist Mahan would memorably argue, “the necessity of a navy springs from the existence of peaceful shipping and disappears with it.”1 In today’s globalized world, where 90 percent of global trade is still transported through merchant shipping, ensuring that freedom of navigation is protected on the world’s waters has become more vital than ever for ensuring global economic growth and regional stability.

This is especially relevant when discussing the stability of global energy markets. A 2014 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) entitled “World Oil Transit Chokepoints” noted that in 2013 total petroleum and other liquids production was 90.1 million barrels per day (bb/d), with over 63 percent of that amount transported through seaborne trade. Statistics from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development noted that in 2013 oil tankers accounted for 30 percent of total worldwide shipping by deadweight tonnage. Any disruption to those transport routes, even briefly, would lead to “substantial increases in total energy costs and world energy prices.” These dangers of disruption are especially acute in so-called “maritime chokepoints,” described by the EIA as “narrow channels along widely used global sea routes.”2

The Middle East, specifically the Arabian Gulf, continues to remain one of the key players in world energy markets. The Gulf accounted for 32 percent of the world market share in oil production in 2015,3 with total crude oil exports from the region estimated at 17 million barrels per day.4 As well, the Middle East accounted for 17 percent of the market share in world natural gas production in 2015, with total production estimated at 164, 504.9 million cubic meters.5 The global trade in crude oil and natural gas increased by 1.5 percent and 0.3 percent respectively from 2014 to 2015.6

Thus, those interested in ensuring the stability of seaborne energy transportation coming out of the Middle East have turned a wary eye to two of the most important maritime chokepoints in the region. The first is the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The second is the Bab el-Mandeb, a chokepoint 18 miles wide at its narrowest, and which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.7

Both chokepoints are vital for oil and LNG (liquefied natural gas) shipments making their way from the Middle East to the hungry markets of the Asia-Pacific and Europe. Unfortunately, both also suffer from geopolitically tense littorals, driven primarily by the present rivalry between the U.S.-backed Gulf Arab states and the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is this very rivalry that drives present day concerns among security pundits and observers in the energy industry over freedom of navigation in these two vital maritime chokepoints.

Although most strategists have sought to view the GCC-Iranian geopolitical rivalry through the prism of landpower (focusing on Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, etc.), the maritime dimensions of this rivalry are no less important, as global energy prices (and therefore the health of our still fragile world economy) are threatened by the possible disruption of tanker shipping through both chokepoints. This two-part series will analyze maritime security and the threats to energy shipments through the Strait of Hormuz. The first part will discuss the strategic significance of the Strait of Hormuz, the makeup of Iranian forces, and the Strait’s recent history of war at sea. Part 2 will assess the feasibility of Iran’s asymmetric strategy to shut down shipping through the area in times of crisis.

Tense Waters

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world when discussing the security of global energy transportation. At its narrowest, the Strait is only 21 miles wide, with an official two mile shipping lane recognized by the International Maritime Organization to protect shipping coming through. Its northern shores comprise the Islamic Republic of Iran, while Oman and the UAE comprise its southern littorals. In 2013, an estimated 17 million barrels per day were shipped through the Strait, comprising almost 30 percent of total global oil seaborne trade for that year. The EIA noted: “The Strait of Hormuz is deep and wide enough to handle the world’s largest crude oil tankers, with about two-thirds of oil shipments carried by tankers in excess of 150,000 deadweight tons.8 The GCC states, bar Oman, are heavily dependent on the Strait for their energy exports, the bulk of which are shipped to the growing and energy-hungry markets of the Asia-Pacific.9

Understanding the military imbalance between Iran and the Gulf Arab states can shed light on Iran’s asymmetrical maritime doctrine. Collective GCC defense spending and conventional capabilities currently dwarfs that of the Islamic Republic due to international sanctions, which also prevent the regime from modernizing its military through procuring modern armaments.10 According to a CSIS report, the total defense spending for 2015 for the GCC stood at $117.23 billion, while Iran stood at $15.9 billion. This military imbalance can be gleamed most glaringly through comparing their respective naval capabilities. Iran’s conventional blue water navy, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), would stand little chance in a fleet-to-fleet engagement with either the U.S. Navy or the navies of the GCC (the latter certainly possesses modern surface ships), composed as it is of mostly aging frigates and corvettes from the Shah era.11,12

Instead, Iran has strategically chosen to adopt an asymmetric maritime doctrine to both deter its enemies and, if necessary, fight a protracted war within the Strait. Their doctrine is predicated on the use of submarines (Iran is currently the only Gulf sea power to possess submarines), mines, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and small fast-attack boats. These capabilities are currently shared between the IRIN and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), the naval arm of the powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps (or Sepah), set up by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after the Revolution as a dependable force which would protect the regime from internal and external threats. The IRGCN operates as a brown water, coastal defense force whose area of responsibility (AOR) is the Persian Gulf, while the IRIN operates as a more conventional, blue water fleet whose AOR includes the Gulf of Oman, the Caspian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, and who are employed for a wider range of tasks including anti-piracy operations and naval diplomacy. Responsibility for the Strait of Hormuz is shared between both services.13

Iran’s strategy of fighting a guerilla war at sea is heavily influenced by their experiences during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, particularly the so-called “Tanker War,” in which both belligerents attempted to financially exhaust the other through attacks on their oil tankers. Iran sought to attack the tankers of the Gulf states, who were the primary financial backers of Saddam’s Iraq. By the end of the war, Iran had attacked 190 ships from 31 nations, killing at least 63 sailors, using mainly asymmetric tactics to damage tanker shipping within the Gulf. Iran’s only attempt at a fleet-on-fleet engagement was during the U.S.-launched Operation Praying Mantis in 1988. Launched in retaliation for the damage sustained by the USS Samuel B. Roberts by an Iranian mine, the operation saw Iran lose two oil platforms as well as five ships, including the frigate Sahand. Another frigate, the Sabalan, suffered extensive damage. Iran learnt from its experiences during the war that while directly engaging the U.S. Navy had been disastrous, its asymmetrical strategy had been relatively more successful.14

The Iranian frigate IS Sahand (74) burns after being attacked by aircraft of Carrier Air Wing II from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), in retaliation for the mining of the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). The ship was hit by three Harpoon missiles plus cluster bombs. (Wikimedia Commons)

Iran’s maritime strategy within the Strait is therefore predicated on using asymmetrical warfare to deter its enemies from harming Iran, increase its leverage diplomatically over its rivals, as well as fight a protracted maritime guerilla war if necessary. Their doctrine revolves around using speed, mobility, survivability, surprise, and exploiting the geography of the Strait and Persian Gulf to harass and destroy enemy warships and commercial shipping, the latter of which would have huge ramifications for the global economy, thereby pressuring the international community to intervene.15 It would also have a direct impact on the economies of the GCC, who almost entirely depend on regular access through the Straits to sustain economic growth. Any disruption to this growth would have serious internal stability implications, as the absolute monarchies of the GCC states were only able to cling to power throughout the turbulent Arab Spring of 2010 by exploiting their oil wealth for social development and job creation. 

The ability to bypass the Strait is currently limited, with only Saudi Arabia and the UAE possessing pipelines able to bypass the Persian Gulf entirely. The Saudis possess the 746-mile Petroline, able to carry oil from its western refineries to its Red Sea port of Yanbu. The United Arab Emirates operate the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline, which is able to carry half of the country’s total net oil exports to its port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. The total unused capacity of both countries at the end of 2013 was estimated at 4.3 million bbl/d.16 However, it should be noted that utilizing the land pipelines to bypass the Straits has been referred to as “costly, inconvenient, and a remedy of limited scope.”17 For the time being, the economic and political survival of the Gulf states, and that of the larger energy market, is predicated on ensuring continued access through the Straits of Hormuz.


This first section dealt with the strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz for global energy markets and political stability in the Arab Gulf region, as well as understanding Iran’s maritime strategy of using asymmetrical warfare to disrupt vital energy shipping transiting the Strait. In the second section, I will be analyzing Iran’s present maritime capabilities to ascertain the feasibility of their asymmetric strategy, and whether they could actually shut down shipping within the waterways.

Imran Shamsunahar is a recent graduate of the University of Hull, where he earned a Master’s in Strategy and International Security. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Toronto. He developed an interest in maritime security and naval warfare during his graduate studies, and wrote his dissertation on the South China Sea dispute and contemporary maritime strategy. He is currently based in his home city of Kuala Lumpur where he is interning for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based security risk monitoring company catering to travelers. In the meantime, he enjoys writing articles on naval matters as a hobby. He is hoping to continue his studies in the near future, hopefully once again in maritime security.

1. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783, (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co., 1890), p. 23

2. ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoints’, U.S. Energy Information Administration, last modified November 10th2014, https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis_includes/special_topics/World_Oil_Transit_Chokepoints/wotc.p df

3. ‘Oil: Production in thousands of barrels per day’, BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2016, https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/energy-economics/statistical-review-2016/bp-statistical-review-ofworld- energy-2016-full-report.pdf, p. 84

4. ‘World crude oil exports by country (1000 b/d)’, OPEC: Annual Statistical Bulletin 2016, http://www.opec.org/opec_web/static_files_project/media/downloads/publications/ASB2016.pdf, p. 52

5. ‘World natural gas exports by country (m standard cu m), OPEC: Annual Statistical Review 2016, p. 106

6. OPEC: Annual Statistical Review 2016

7. ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoints’

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Robert Czulda, The Defensive Dimensions of Iran’s Military Doctrine: How Would They Fight?’ Middle East Policy, 23 , no. 1, (2016): 92-109. Available online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mepo.12176/full

11. Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, ‘Iran and the Gulf Military Balance’, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 3rd October, 2016. Available online: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fspublic/ publication/161004_Iran_Gulf_Military_Balance.pdf.

12. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa’, The Military Balance 2017, 117, no. 1 (2017): 376-380: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/04597222.2017.1271213?needAccess=true

13. Robert Czulda, The Defensive Dimensions of Iran’s Military Doctrine’

14. David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S. – Iranian Conflict at Sea’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009. Available online: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus95.pdf

15. ‘Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies’, Office of Naval Intelligence, March 1st 2017, available online: https://news.usni.org/2017/03/01/document-2017-office-naval-intelligence-report-iranian-navy

16. Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, ‘Iran and the Gulf Military Balance.’

17. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz – Plausibility and Key Considerations’, Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, January 2010. Available online: http://www.inegma.com/Admin/Content/File- 9122013113155.pdf, p. 10

Featured image:A starboard bow view of ships of tanker convoy No. 12 underway in the Persian Gulf. Included in the convoy are the guided missile frigate USS HAWES (FFG-53), the reflagged tanker GAS KING, the guided missile cruiser USS WILLIAM H. STANDLEY (CG-32) and the amphibious assault ship USS GUADALCANAL (LPH-7) (U.S. Navy photo by PH2 Elliot)

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Proxy War in Yemen


By Rose Cote

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s struggle for power in the Middle East and North Africa has led to many states becoming involved in their proxy wars. Some states have been left open to their intervention due to a power vacuum, and Yemen is no exception. Since the Houthi rebels’ overthrow of the Saudi allied leader Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, both states have become involved (Malsin 2016). Since their revolution in 2011, the country has suffered from famine as well as airstrikes that have led to high casualty counts, particularly of civilians.

The Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict is often characterized as a religious divide between Shia and Sunni sects of Islam. However, when talking about the conflict in Yemen, it is most important to examine its location and strategic value to each of these states. Both states seek to gain ideological dominance and regional hegemony. This is due to many factors including their oil wealth, relative stability in the region as well as both of their religious sects and being seen as the leader of these sects. While religion is a factor for the conflict, particularly for Iran supporting the Shia Houthi rebels, this conflict is primarily centralized around Yemen’s strategic value for both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Yemen is of particular strategic value for both states. For Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s proximity makes it concerned about border security. The Saudi-Yemen border is susceptible to infiltration from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a large terrorist group (Reardon 2015). This is one of the main reasons for their concern over the stability of the Yemeni government. This issue has led to their contribution toward propping up the government using ground support and airstrikes (Reardon 2015). But Yemen also sits along vital shipping lanes for Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea (“The Sunni…” 2016). Given that the Saudi economy relies heavily on oil and the safety of these routes, its interests rely heavily on the security of trade and its borders.

Additionally, they see Yemen as an easy target for Iran to take hold of in the Gulf region (Reardon 2015). Saudi Arabia currently holds hegemonic power in the Gulf region and it is concerned about the loss of this soft power given its intervention in states like Yemen and Bahrain. However, Yemen can be considered more easily controlled given its extreme instability. Iran has an easy path into the role of Yemen through common faith with the Houthi rebels. Iran seeks to find a solid foothold in the Gulf and Yemen is a good candidate because of the rebels’ strength. By propping up the rebels and joining with them based on their common sect of Islam they could potentially hold ground close to Saudi Arabia and use it as a bargaining chip in the future.

Religion certainly does still play a role in this conflict and is fuel for the fire but it is not the only source of tension. The Houthis are a Zaydi Shia militia and while this is not Iran’s brand of Shia Islam, they have chosen to align themselves with this group (“The Sunni…” 2016). Although this link is less strong than the Saudi’s pledge to the Yemeni government, both states have chosen opposing sides. Iran may be less involved in the conflict, financially and militarily, but more importantly, Saudi Arabia believes that Iran is backing the rebels to secure Shia hegemony and so prompts much of their involvement (“The Sunni…” 2016). While both countries are linked to the conflict by religion, they both have more stakes in the country than just these ties. Without other strategic value in Yemen, it is likely that these states would not be involved or less involved. Yemen’s location and strategic significance has likely prompted most of the conflict.

Due to Iran’s tenuous connection to the rebels, many have argued that their involvement is minimal and therefore Yemen’s conflict cannot be classified as a proxy war. Even though their connection is not heavily supported financially there is clear ideological support and since Iran’s involvement there has been more support for Iran in the region, threatening Saudi control and prompting their further involvement (“The Sunni…” 2016). Additionally, many have said that Yemen has primarily been a revolution of people given its beginning in 2011 during the Arab spring. Despite this, it was certainly a revolution against Saudi Arabia because of its support of the previous president and Saudi Arabia is keen on maintaining control over this strategic state. Iran saw this revolution as an opportunity to gain another ally in the Gulf and used their connection to the Shia rebels to gain access.

To the outside viewer religion may seem like the primary motivation for both states involvements. In the landscape next to Iran and Saudi Arabia’s various other conflicts, Yemen could be seen as another proxy war between the two rivals. However, Yemen is unique given its strategic location for trade and its vulnerable border shared with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s involvement clearly lies in its interest in keeping the Yemeni allied government in power for these reasons while Iran saw the weak state as an opportunity to gain advantage over Saudi Arabia in yet another conflict and used its Shia ties to the revolutionaries to gain access. Therefore, while the religious divide has certainly fueled the desire of both states to be involved in the conflict, each has chosen to be a part of the conflict in Yemen because of its strategic geographic significance in the region.

Rose Cote attends Syracuse University, where she majors in International Relations and Economics. She did a semester abroad in Morocco to study Arabic, and will be joining the Peace Corps to work in Namibia after graduation.

Works Cited

Ighani, Helia. “Managing the Saudi-Iran Rivalry.” October 25, 2016. Council of Foreign Relations. Accessed March 31, 2017. file:///Users/rcote/Downloads/Workshop_Report_CPA_Saudi_Iran_Rivalry_OR.pdf

Malsin, Jared. “Yemen Is the Latest Victim of the Increase in Iran-Saudi Arabia Tension.” TIME. January 11, 2016. http://time.com/4174837/yemen-analysis/

Reardon, Martin. “Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen.” Al Jazeera. March 26, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/saudi-arabia-iran-great-game-ye-201492984846324440.html

“The Sunni Shia Divide.” February 2014. Council of Foreign Relations. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.cfr.org/peace-conflict-and-human-rights/sunni-shia-divide/p33176#!/?cid=otr-marketing_url-sunni_shia_infoguide

Yeranian, Edward. “Yemen Proxy War Adds to Tensions Among US, Iran, Saudi Arabia.” February 6, 2017. VOA News. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.voanews.com/a/proxy-war-in-yemen-adds-to-tensions-among-us-iran-saudi-arabia/3707893.html

Featured Image: Shi’ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa Shi’ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2015. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

‘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)