Category Archives: Middle East

Analysis related to USCENTCOM.

Beyond the Gulf: U.S. Maritime Security Operations in the MENA Region

By Jeffrey Payne

Despite rumors to the contrary, the United States is not interested in disengaging from the Middle East. The Indo-Pacific is the new focal point of U.S. foreign policy, but the Middle East remains essential for U.S. interests. However, current patterns of interaction between the United States and its Middle Eastern partners are tied to routines that were hardened during the Global War on Terror. While these routines have proven difficult to escape and a source of political divergence at times, the reality today is that U.S. priorities are more disparate globally—and U.S. presence in the region should not remain locked within previous formulas.

The perception of a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East is partially due to the absence of refined U.S. priorities in the region. Among the myriad of elements defining U.S. engagement in the Middle East, U.S. naval presence in the Gulf remains essential not only for U.S. interests but also the interests of its regional partners. However, the Red and Arabian Seas are becoming more challenging security environments, and the larger Indian Ocean region provides the logic for why these waters should become the focus of U.S. maritime operations and security cooperation in the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

From the Hormuz to the Bab-al-Mandeb

Middle Eastern waters feature two of the world’s critical maritime chokepoints: the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-al-Mandeb. One-third of the world’s oil and other resources are transported through the Strait of Hormuz and continue on through the Bab-al-Mandeb if bound for Europe or beyond. Security of both chokepoints is critical for global commerce, of which the U.S. is a key provider. Yet, among U.S. policymakers, the Strait of Hormuz has taken priority. As a result, much of U.S. naval presence and forward basing is focused there.

U.S. presence in the Gulf developed primarily for economic reasons. A reliance on the Middle East’s natural resources for domestic consumption encouraged the United States to ensure regional stability to the greatest extent possible. This led to closer relationships with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf States, in addition to strong ties with other regional powers, such as Egypt and Israel. The asymmetric elements of Iran’s foreign policy, intent on spreading its influence and destabilizing the larger region, reinforced the need for U.S. presence in the Gulf.

Today, different variables are present. U.S. reliance on the region’s natural resources is diminished, regional partners have enjoyed decades of security assistance and technical training assistance in shaping their militaries, and, most importantly, the security challenges in the Red and Arabian Seas are expanding. The increased number and sophistication of non-state illicit actors in the waters surrounding the Bab al-Mandeb, and the increased involvement of prominent competitors in the region, means that the United States should no longer prioritize the Gulf above other regional concerns.

To be clear, Gulf security remains a priority of U.S. foreign policy, and the continuation of lines of communication out of the Strait of Hormuz still matter a great deal. However, the concentration of U.S. naval attention should shift further southwest to the Red and Arabian Seas. The Bab-al-Mandeb in particular requires greater attention as the connecting waterway between these two seas.

A Focus on the Bab-al-Mandeb Region

Due to the sheer scale of our oceans and maritime spaces, and the rules, norms, and international laws that govern the activities of both commercial and military vessels, there is no actor with enough influence, power, or vision to provide maritime security alone. Maritime security is a cooperative endeavor, premised on the legacy of responding to another vessel in distress when at sea. The more actors with eyes glancing toward the horizon and sharing what they see with each other, the more likely that threats can be recognized and confronted.

An increasing number of competitors are operating in the Bab-al-Mandeb region. China’s economic interests in Africa, which have exploded in scale and depth over the past fifteen years, precipitated the deployment of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels to the Arabian Sea. For 14 years, PLAN vessels have protected Chinese-flagged vessels sailing through the Indian Ocean, gaining operational familiarity with the region’s waters and bypassing existing international cooperative efforts. The completion of China’s first overseas base, a dual-use facility located in Djibouti, signals China’s interests in these waters.

In addition to China, Russia, despite its warmongering in Ukraine, is intent on maintaining, if not increasing, its naval presence in the Red Sea. Moscow does not have the naval depth to match U.S. or even Chinese presence, but it still desires the capacity to reach these waters if for no other reason than to serve as a spoiler for efforts deemed divergent from Moscow’s interests. Smaller regional powers are also keenly invested in deepening their familiarity with, and deploying their own forces to, the Red and Arabian Seas. These regional players include obvious actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but also the UAE, Iran, and Turkey.

Piracy ushered in a period where regional waters facilitated the expansion of transnational crime. The Bab-al-Mandeb is now increasingly congested, and bad actors sail amidst the crowd routinely. The Red and Arabian Seas feature some of the most complex smuggling and illicit operations in the world. Instability on both shores of the Red Sea has enabled these operators. From illicitly-traded legal commodities to narcotics, arms, and human beings, these waters shroud substantial criminality. When illegal fishing and violent extremist organizations are added to this criminal patchwork, the scale of the problem becomes enormous.

The above points highlight why U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) should direct greater attention towards the Red and Arabian Seas, as should regionally-stationed U.S. Coast Guard assets. The trends point to these waters becoming far more critical in the years to come. U.S. Fifth Fleet has immense local knowledge, learned in partnership with regional navies and coast guards, which it can bring to the forefront. The U.S. Navy’s technical expertise and hands-on experience building naval partnerships can assist littoral states in building the connective tissue necessary to respond to everything from hostile state actors to criminal cartels.

A focus away from the Gulf itself would inflict political hurdles, but diplomatic outreach would assist in leaping them. NAVCENT would have to further coordinate with United States Naval Forces Europe-Africa, but that would prove advantageous in the long run despite any initial bureaucratic friction. The U.S. Navy would also have to redefine operational routines away from a traditional/non-traditional binary, as the set of challenges in these waters do not conform to such thinking. In doing so, the United States would start a new chapter of engagement and security cooperation in the region.


The perception that the United States is moving away from the Middle East is false, but part of the reason for this perception is that U.S. engagement in the region has not yet visibly evolved beyond the Global War on Terror and its emphasis on Gulf security. The United States should refine its priorities in the broader MENA region, diversifying its maritime operations and security cooperation beyond the Gulf to the Red and Arabian Seas. While NAVCENT is already enhancing its presence in these waters, more remains to be done. The waters near the Bab-al-Mandeb in particular feature some of the most complex maritime challenges, and the U.S. Navy must face them head on.

Jeffrey Payne is an Assistant Professor at the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the NESA Center, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge sails in front of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier on May 17, 2019, in the Arabian Sea (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian M. Wilbur)

Data as an Approach to Yemen’s Maritime Security Challenges

By Jeffrey Payne and William Thompson

According to a study by Stable Seas, illicit actors are exploiting instability in Yemen’s maritime environment exacerbated by the ongoing civil war. This breach in maritime security has been made more acute because of damage to the country’s infrastructure, including a substantial portion of the facilities supporting Yemen’s maritime industry. Naval installations and two professional military education (PME) institutions — the Naval Institute and Naval School — were damaged during the conflict. As a consequence of the civil war, Yemen faces limited maritime resources and institutional capacity to police its waters and counter the rise of maritime crime. While Yemen’s maritime challenges cannot be comprehensively addressed until the conflict is resolved, there are strategies that can help allocate resources toward mitigating security gaps. Data can provide a strategic framework for addressing Yemen’s maritime security challenges while also strengthening partnerships and improving maritime domain awareness in the wider Red Sea Region. Specifically, data is an instrument for addressing three security challenges: maritime enforcement, coastal welfare, and rule of law. 

Maritime Enforcement

Maritime enforcement can be made more effective by implementing a system of maritime monitoring. This system would collect and report data on what is happening within Yemen’s territorial waters, especially what types of threats are present and what trends exist. Maritime data reveals patterns that can help human operators recognize anomalies. A more comprehensive picture built from this data would also assist policymakers in mapping an adequate response. Yemen does not have the ability at present to dispatch vessels to monitor its waters at sufficient scale. Adaptation is necessary, and data can provide a path forward for generating new insights into maritime insecurity. It is true that before a data-driven approach is adopted, a system of data collection must be built. Although it would take time to implement such a system, a data-driven strategy is a clear pathway for long-term investment into the country’s security and development that is also feasible within the constraints of the larger political environment of the civil war.

Consider the example of arms trafficking. Type 56-1 rifles are a prominent weapon documented in Yemen and Somalia with strong evidence suggesting Iranian origins. These weapons are transported via dynamic maritime trafficking networks. To complicate matters further, the total travel time for a small vessel between Yemen and its coastal neighbors is only a few hours. This means law enforcement must respond quickly, which is only possible when supported by real-time monitoring. Moreover, collecting data and mapping the location of interdictions or other maritime incidents may help predict future smuggling patterns, which would empower law enforcement to be more precise in how they orchestrate patrols or plan interceptions. Yemen will not stop smuggling in its waters, but it can raise the stakes for criminal actors and increase the cost of their illegality.

The scale of information can also be increased when other actors agree to share maritime data, such as Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain, regional states, and active non-regional states and actors. If Yemen presents a willingness to use data more routinely, then it may incentivize neighboring partners to participate in information-sharing. The relationship between data and cooperation is cyclic — as more data is collected and shared, states are better informed about possible security threats. A more informed response has a greater likelihood of success, which provides policymakers with more intelligence about illicit activities at sea, thereby encouraging more partnerships.

Coastal Welfare

Maritime domain awareness, enhanced through data collection and monitoring, can improve coastal welfare insecurity. Based on the definition provided by Stable Seas, coastal welfare encompasses the “physical and economic wellbeing” of coastal communities, including the health of local fisheries. Specifically, there exists a relationship between the fishing industry in poor coastal areas and criminality. An increase in piracy often follows an increase in unemployment among individuals employed by coastal industries. Extremist groups and pirates may recruit local fishermen for their navigation skills, and a struggling fishing industry may make local communities more susceptible to joining criminal organizations. Piracy and other forms of violent criminal conduct are correlated with illegal and unreported fishing, which not only damages local marine ecology, but threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities. Yemen’s coastal communities have been grossly impacted by the civil conflict, and the subsequent loss of income and labor stability equates to an environment where many turn toward illegal activities.

A free and easily accessible source of data to highlight in the case of coastal welfare is the visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS). VIIRS data captures the location of maritime activity at night and can be a mechanism by which to better enhance maritime domain awareness. Such data may be collected to identify clusters of maritime activity and enhance management of fishing resources and suspected smuggling.

Rule of Law

Finally, a data-driven approach to maritime security has institutional implications that could bolster rule of law. Many of the advantages of data lay in the process by which it is analyzed and communicated to internal and external partners. Maritime professionals need to be trained in different aspects of data management, and teams of analysts need to be employed to evaluate policies based on empirical evidence. Various branches of Yemeni law enforcement will be able to communicate faster and more effectively, increasing Yemen’s institutional capacity to police its waters and develop new solutions to emerging threats. The costs of integrating a more data-driven approach are initially structural in nature, as it requires the retooling of the workforce. Financial costs, while a burden, are not insurmountable given the expansion of commercial firms, applications, and free data. With international assistance also becoming more common, such as through the U.S. SeaVision and EU IORIS systems, the financial burden becomes less prohibitive.  

Expanding information sharing could become the basis for intensified institutional cooperation in the region. Despite the challenges it faces, Yemen remains an active member of the maritime community in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean Region. Yemeni coast guard and port security officials routinely engage in training platforms and educational forums with their immediate neighbors, the European Union, and the United States, among others. Partner efforts should not only prioritize technical training for Yemeni maritime professionals, but also actively provide analysis premised upon their own maritime data.

Existing Technology

Data collection and processing applications already exist in the public realm, as do open-source datasets. Yemen does not need a cohort of technological experts to utilize these applications and deliver improved assessments. The applications that process data also assist in the analysis. Combined with active assistance from partners, Yemen could significantly improve its access to and analysis of a large amount of information. Platforms such as ArcGIS and QGIS are relatively easy to use and support various kinds of data mapping. Other platforms report data on the maritime domain, such as Global Fishing Watch, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Anti-Shipping Activity Messages database, and Esri’s ArcGIS online repository of public data. These platforms often report maritime data as CSV, geoJSON, shapefiles, or other formats that can be imported into a mapping software and visualized. Outside of mapping software, other open-source software such as Python and R contain numerous packages for importing and mapping data.


Data has the potential to be a central pillar of maritime security in Yemen and maritime domain awareness in the wider Red Sea Region. The transnational nature of maritime security necessitates a cooperative enterprise where data is requested and shared among state actors. Regional pursuits for maritime domain awareness depend on lowering the barriers between state actors, which the collection and sharing of data will help stimulate. Because data can be easily shared, it is an asset in building a stronger maritime community through a collective understanding of challenges. Therefore, Yemen should intensify its use of maritime data and request assistance in doing so, while partner nations with greater capability should provide as much assistance as possible. This will build trust and provide a clear collaborative framework for securing the greater Red Sea Region.

Jeffrey Payne is a Professor at the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC.

William Thompson is a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati. The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the NESA Center or the U.S. Government.  

Featured image: Yemen coast guard vessels patrol the waters near Mukalla, Yemen, on November 29, 2018 (Credit: AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Fighting, Fishing, and Filming: The Islamic State’s Maritime Operations

By Lucas Webber

In 2004, two US Navy personnel and one member of the Coast Guard were killed in a blast while attempting to board a boat near the Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal off Basra. Two other explosive-laden watercraft detonated nearby, though they did not cause any casualties. The attacks were later claimed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at the time and the founding father of the Islamic State (IS) movement. Notably, the statement drew a comparison to the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen, demonstrating AQI’s historical knowledge of jihadi attacks by sea and their strategic consciousness about the insurgent opportunities inherent to the maritime domain. Additionally, the statement threatened a continuance of attacks by sea, land, and air “until victory or defeat.” AQI would make good on this promise the following year, firing rockets at the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Israeli port of Eilat.

These maritime attacks were also bolstered by AQI’s river-based movements and knowledge. The historian Kimberly Kagan describes how, during the 2007 surge, AQI (then called Islamic State in Iraq) “operated almost freely in a pendulum-like arc south of Baghdad, swinging from the Euphrates to the Tigris,” adding that “they traveled southeast along the Euphrates River, often by boat, from Fallujah to Sadr al Yusufiya.”

This mode of maritime activity by IS’s organizational predecessor would continue and ultimately expand under the Islamic State. IS has proven highly adaptable and, accordingly, has sought to use geography to its advantage. In the case of Iraq and Syria, the networks have long operated along the coasts and throughout the region’s river systems. IS has traditionally exploited the maritime domain for its kinetic operations, for propaganda purposes, and, in some cases, to raise funds. To be sure, the IS movement is a primarily land-centric phenomenon, yet the propensity for maritime operations is deeply ingrained into its organizational DNA.

A screenshot portrays a group of IS fighters (Credit:

The Islamic State has historically been quite active along the Euphrates and Tigris, traversing throughout to move fighters, weapons, explosives, and supplies; conduct reconnaissance; prepare for and launch attacks; and strike using gunboats and boat-borne IEDs. The rivers have allowed IS fighters to avoid roads, checkpoints, and bridges. In fact, IS has even blown up such structures, including a bridge connecting Dhulueya and Balad using explosive-laden watercraft.

The Islamic State’s use of river systems was so prevalent during its high period that anti-coalition forces conducted intense airstrikes against jihadis travelling by boat. One report from 2016 stated the US and its allies had sunk over 100 IS boats up to that point, with 65 of them destroyed in a single month. The group has used barges, motorboats, and rowboats to travel around the area.

IS fishing propaganda (Credit: Weddady).

The Islamic State’s military strategy includes a significant media warfare component, and some part of this has been leveraged to weaponize the maritime domain. The Islamic State movement was early to recognize the US Navy as central to American power projection, with IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani boasting that “Allah’s law” is “being implemented despite” the opposing military coalition’s “legions, arsenals, planes, tanks, missiles, aircraft carriers, and weapons of mass destruction.”

Further solidifying this weaponization of the maritime domain, another IS figure lamented in March 2015 that “today, Worshippers of the Cross and the infidels pollute our seas with their warships, boats, and aircraft carriers and gobble up our wealth and kill us from the sea.” The group’s supporters responded to this statement with optimism, saying IS will “take to the sea in what is only a matter of a short time,” forecasting the “creation of an Islamic fleet by the Islamic State,” and saying that an IS navy would aim to sink “warships and [commercial] ships… and to threaten their shores and lines of communication… an entire fleet, God willing, not just a single ship.”

For the Islamic State, the seas have also been viewed as a way to infiltrate the soft underbelly of Europe and to attack and invade its enemies in the West. One propagandist suggested that a Mediterranean maritime presence could “bring us closer to conquering Rome sooner rather than later.”

In a particularly notable video intended to show off the skills of its forces, fighters flaunted their amphibious capabilities by swimming in the Tigris and maneuvering in small boats.

Aside from threats, IS’s propaganda apparatus has produced photos and videos of militants paddling, fishing, selling their catches at local markets, and even scuba diving — such imagery was intended to show the serenity of life in the caliphate and the high spirits of the Islamic State’s rank and file.

Another IS fishing propaganda photo (Credit:

However, some of this activity served more practical purposes. As the Islamic State’s caliphate territory was rolled back by the US-led military coalition, the organization exploited the fishing industry as a source of funding. In 2016, Reuters reported about how the group turned to farming and selling fish in Iraq to finance their operations. It should be noted, though, that the Islamic State and its previous iterations had reportedly been involved in the industry since at least 2007 when AQI was fighting the Americans following their 2003 invasion.

IS-associated militants on a boat in the Lake Chad region (credit: Evan Kohlmann).

Even with the loss of land control in Iraq and Syria, IS guerrillas continue to operate along the region’s river systems. And with the organization’s international expansion and the establishment of a global network of insurgent hubs, the group’s branches, from the Sulu-Celebes Sea to the Lake Chad Basin, are more actively incorporating maritime activities into their insurgency campaigns.  

Lucas Webber is a researcher focused on geopolitics and violent non-state actors. He is cofounder editor at and writes a newsletter at You can find him on Twitter: @LucasADWebber

Featured Image: Islamic State video portrays Islamic State fighters using boats to cross the Euphrates (credit: Oryx).

Iranian Maritime Threats: An Opportunity for the U.S. Navy

By Cameron Sothern

The volume of oil that flows through the Strait of Hormuz gives it geostrategic importance. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “In 2018, its daily oil flow averaged 21 million barrels per day (b/d), or the equivalent of about 21% of global petroleum liquids consumption.”1 If freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz were hampered, an energy crisis would ensue. Maritime insecurities anywhere are a threat to the circulation of global trade. In the Persian Gulf and its adjacent seas, these insecurities mostly originate from Iran and its proxy forces, such as the Houthis in Yemen. “By controlling the Strait of Hormuz and placing forces along the Bab el-Mandeb in Yemen, Iran can contest energy flows to US allies as well as to China.”2 This article identifies Iranian maritime threats and proposes a course of action for the U.S. Navy to continue and improve upon its efforts in the region to deter them.

Iranian Maritime Capabilities

The Islamic Republic is well suited to draw on the rich millennial heritage of Iranian society and culture and the significant heritage of the Islamic Revolution, particularly its indigenously derived and sustained participatory model of governance. Iran can use such strengths to help realize the deeply cherished national aspirations of the Iranian people, including the achievement of long-term development and regional ascendance commensurate with the country’s capacities and stature. —Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif3

It is important to note that while the Islamic Republic of Iran is a relatively young state, its heritage stems from the legacy of the Persian Empire, and there are overtones of restoring a similar sense of greatness. Iran’s current strategic goal is to create a regionally hegemonic state. The goal is divided into four pillars: continuity of clerical rule, addressing internal and external threats, stabilizing regional influence, and attaining economic prosperity.4 Iran’s maritime and naval capabilities play an important role in supporting its strategic goal, especially when employed in the “gray zone.”5 By operating in the gray zone, Iran can make incremental changes to the status quo, which currently favors the U.S.-led International Rules Based Order (IRBO). When the United States and its partners in the region attempt to counter Iranian actions, Iran can fall back to its area of access denial, let things cool off, and reinitiate incremental changes.

Within the Persian Gulf, the naval arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Gard Corps, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), operates hundreds of small craft that are used in swarm tactics and special operations. The vessels are cheaper and faster than conventional military vessels, allowing them to respond quickly and in mass anywhere in the Persian Gulf or Strait of Hormuz. The IRGCN harasses military and commercial vessels. Their tactics involve surrounding the targeted vessel and cutting across its bow. The IRGCN has also diverted and detained certain foreign vessels in response to economic sanctions. Examples of aggressive IRGCN actions since 2019 include attacks on Norwegian, Japanese, Saudi Arabian, and Israeli vessels. The IRGCN vessels are often emboldened by ambitious regional commanders, acting without orders from the state or supreme leader.

If Iran were to attempt to control the Strait of Hormuz, it would rely heavily on the capabilities of the IRGCN. As stated above, Iran can move in and out of its area of access denial; but it also has the capacity to expand this area. In such a scenario, the IRGCN would likely lay naval mines and board or attack commercial vessels. Moreover, while not an exclusively maritime capability, Iran has shown an affinity for the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to attack land-based infrastructure in the region. Regarding Iran, General McKenzie Jr. stated in the CENTCOM posture statement, “For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”6 Iran has employed many of these tactics in the past without consequence, and the protentional for them to do so in a less limited manner could send shock waves through global markets.

Iran relies on two other maritime forces to support its state strategy. The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) is a traditional naval force comprised of surface ships and submarines. The IRIN operates in the Persian Gulf, Caspian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and beyond. The IRIN is an aging fleet and does not present a major security threat. It participates in counter piracy and escort operations in the Gulf of Aden and northern Indian Ocean; however, it is mostly employed by Iran as a diplomatic tool. The IRIN can train with Chinese and Russian naval forces, allowing Iran to project limited power outside of the region. The IRIN has also made port calls in Sri Lanka and China. For now, Iran’s maintenance of a green-water navy is more of a status and reputation builder than a threat to maritime security.

In addition to the IRIN, Iran maintains state control of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL). Iran manufactures much of its own military equipment and relies heavily on the IRISL to export it to Iranian proxies and state actors, often in violation of international sanctions. “Iran’s biggest customers include Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Iraqi Shia militias, but Iran has also provided weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, Palestinian groups, and the Taliban in Afghanistan… other state customers of Iranian military equipment have included Iraq and Sudan…”7 The military equipment includes small arms, ammunition, artillery systems, armored vehicles, equipment for unmanned explosive boats, and communications equipment. These exports benefit the Iranian economy; expand Iranian influence and power; and, when used by proxy forces, support Iranian military objectives.

Breaking Down Iran’s Maritime Threats

Iran’s geographic position and maritime capabilities have allowed the state to continue its pursuit of altering the status quo.8 Recurringly, Iran has acted aggressively to create short-term tension, while retaining the ability to prolong and diversify its actions as a means to avoid escalation to war. It is commonly agreed that Iran’s desire to avoid direct warfare is a result of its experience in the 1980 Iran-Iraq War, in which both sides of the conflict lost tens of thousands.9 In this conflict, Iran learned the necessity of a passive defense. Passive defense tactics focus on denial and deception to mitigate vulnerabilities and increase survivability, ensuring a strong retaliation. “Examples of this [denial and deception] include, using camouflage and concealment, hiding, and dispersing forces, building underground facilities, and developing highly mobile units.”10

These tactics contribute to Iran’s deterrent strategy, which seeks to highlight how long and costly a direct conflict with Iran would be. The denial and deception aspects of passive defense are also used by the IRGCN. “The IRGCN is the primary operator of Iran’s hundreds of fast attack craft (FAC) and fast inshore attack craft (FIAC). These platforms have been the mainstay of the IRGCN since its inception in the 1980s, although the Iranian FAC/FIAC inventory has grown significantly in terms of size and lethality since that time.”11 These vessels are highly mobile and allow for the dispersion of equipment and personnel along Iran’s coastline in the Persian Gulf, which would help mitigate Iran’s losses should they endure a strike.

Iran’s maritime threats closely align with contemporary academic knowledge regarding hybridized maritime threats. The four necessary components of hybridized aggression in the maritime domain are: a state with major power, deniable but clear orchestration on behalf of the state, illegal action, and control over levels of aggression to match responses.12 Iran has performed elements of hybridized maritime aggression in the past, especially through its proxies. In early March 2021, Houthi forces in Yemen used over a dozen drones to attack the Ras Tanura oil facility in Saudi Arabia.13 “The Houthis are increasing their missile salvos against Saudi Arabia because they have no fear of shortages. As the Biden administration and the UN have pointed out, the rebels can draw on covert shipments of Iranian-supplied drone engines, ballistic missile motors, and electronics.”14 The attack on the oil port shows Iran’s ability to direct proxy attacks on maritime infrastructure.

Iran also uses state forces to perform hybridized maritime aggression. While the most blatant example is the use of the IRGCN to place limpet mines on commercial vessels, the conduct of IRGCN vessels at sea also qualifies. In late April of 2021, several Iranian FIAC quickly approached the USS Firebolt and the USCGC Baranof, “To an unnecessarily close range with unknown intent, including a closest point of 68 yards.”15 The article continued, “The U.S. crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loud-hailer devices, but the IRGCN vessels continued their close-range maneuvers.” Again, in May 2021, thirteen Iranian FAC rapidly approached U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard vessels that were transiting the Strait of Hormuz. After failing to respond to radio and horn signals, and coming within 300 yards of U.S. vessels, USCGC Maui fired warning shots towards the Iranian FAC.16

The conduct of these vessels was hazardous and violated the 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, which establishes standard practices for vessels maneuvering in proximity to one another. The Iranian FAC/FIAC acted without regard for proper communication, signaling, or the safety of life at sea. Although none of the incidents resulted in a collision or loss of life, the risk was significant, as was the potential to escalate tensions between the United States and Iran to dangerous levels. The variety of Iran’s maritime aggression, from proxy attacks on oil ports to dangerous maneuvering at sea, highlights Iran’s ability to use varying levels of maritime tactics and fulfills the requirements to categorize Iran as a hybrid actor in the maritime domain.

A Course of Action for the U.S. Navy

Several actors and ongoing initiatives are working towards greater security in the Persian Gulf. These include U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and its naval element, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which oversees the operations of U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). Comprising 34 member states, “CMF’s main focus areas are counter-narcotics, counter-smuggling, suppressing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation, and engaging with regional and other partners to strengthen relevant capabilities in order to improve overall security and stability, and promoting a safe maritime environment free from illicit non-state actors.”17 Additionally, the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) was formed in July 2019 to provide updated information for merchant vessels that transit the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf.

Many states benefit from the security provided by these initiatives and contribute to them, but the U.S. Navy plays an especially important leadership role. In addition to the frequent presence of a U.S. carrier strike group and independently deployed destroyers within and outside of the Persian Gulf, the latter of which often support CMF operations, the United States has led the multinational Combined Task Force 152 (CTF 152), one of three task forces under the CMF, 10 times. CTF 152 oversees maritime security operations within the Persian Gulf. Other states that have commanded CTF 152 have done so four times or less.18 Due to its large capacity and leadership experience, there are several things that the U.S. Navy should do, or oversee, to further increase Persian Gulf security.

The U.S. Navy should continue to increase its mine countermeasure and air defense capabilities. Anti-mine capabilities will create higher assurances of safe navigation and further mitigate the threat of naval mines. It is already part of CENTCOM’s effort to increase the number of Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships and Sea Dragon helicopters to protect the navigation of vessels in the Persian Gulf.19

The threat of drones, rockets, and missiles to vessels, port facilities, and other key points. The U.S. Navy should work with CENTCOM and regional states to solidify potential targets and work collaboratively on air defense. The March 2021 drone attack on Ras Tanura oil facility was thwarted by Saudi Arabia, who received early warning from U.S. systems and a U.S. airborne early warning aircraft.20 This has also been identified by CENTCOM as a significant threat and area for further regional development.

An additional approach to limiting Iranian proxy groups is the continuation of patrols by CTF 150 and CTF 152, which patrol within and outside of the Persian Gulf, respectively. These patrols often intercept weapons and narcotics shipments, although they are not explicitly targeting shipments from Iran. In May 2021, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard intercepted, “…dozens of advanced Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers.”21 Participation in CMF is not mandatory, but the United States could encourage additional states to participate and help manage their contributions.

The U.S. Navy should continue to work with other naval forces and regional states to quantify Iranian capabilities. Quantifying Iran’s capabilities will help decision makers in the U.S. Navy, U.S. government, and U.S. partners to create more accurate risk assessments in order to dispatch the most appropriate resources to mitigate or respond to threats.

There are diverging legal perspectives between the United States and Iran regarding passage through the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. Navy should continue to exercise its right to transit passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran recognizes its own maritime laws, which incorporate a modified version of innocent passage through the Strait of Hormuz.22 The United States recognizes the Strait of Hormuz as an international strait and does not recognize the strait as territorial waters of Iran. Therefore, the United States makes its passages according to transit passage, which is the movement of a vessel from one part of the high seas/Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to another part of the high seas/EEZ. In transit passage, U.S. vessels and aircraft maintain normal operations, such as flying in a defensive formation.


In combination, these actions could further mitigate and deter Iranian maritime threats while supporting the IRBO. As a highly capable and influential naval force, the U.S. Navy should continue to strongly advocate for and lead maritime security efforts in the Persian Gulf and its adjacent seas. An increased naval approach to the region will provide the United States flexibility and mobility in addressing challenges. While Iranian maritime threats present an immediate challenge in the Persian Gulf, they also prompt larger questions about how the U.S. Navy can better address gray zone operations and hybrid aggression in the maritime domain. Considering the economic and military strength of the United States relative to Iran, the United States should focus on Iran to gain insights into effective strategies that could apply to similar challenges elsewhere, such as those posed by Russia in the Black Sea and China in the South China Sea.

Cameron Sothern is a 2021 graduate of the California State University Maritime Academy. He holds a BA in Global Studies and Maritime Affairs summa cum laude and has been accept to attend the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School in November. 


[1] Barden, J. (2019, June). The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint. U.S. Energy Information Administration.

[2] Clark, B., Walton, T. A., & Cropsey, S. (2020). American Sea Power at a Crossroads: A Plan to Restore the US Navy’s Maritime Advantage. Hudson Institute, 72.

[3] Zarif, M. J. (2014). What Iran Really Wants: Iranian Foreign Policy in the Rouhani Era. Foreign Affairs, 93(3), 49–59.

[4, 7, 11] Defense Intelligence Agency. (2019). Iran military power: Ensuring regime survival and securing regional dominance. Defense Intelligence Agency.

[5] Mazaar, M.J. (2015). “Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict.” Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. War College Press, p.1–7.


[8] Eisensdadt, M. (2020-b, January). Operating in the Gray Zone: Countering Iran’s Asymmetric Way of War. The Washington Institute.

[9] Kurzman, C. (2013, October). Death Tolls of the Iran-Iraq War – Charles Kurzman. Death Tolls of the Iran-Iraq War.

[10] Office of Naval Intelligence. (2017). Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies ((DOPSR Case 17-S-0836)).

[12]  Ralby, I. (2017). Examining Hybrid Maritime Threats. Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence: Cutting the Bow Wave, 13–17.

[13-14, 20] Knights, M. (2021, March). Continued Houthi Strikes Threaten Saudi Oil and the Global Economic Recovery. The Washington Institute.

[15] U.S. Navy Office of Information. (2021, April). IRGCN Interaction with U.S. Naval Vessels in the North Arabian Gulf. United States Navy.

[16] U.S. 5th Fleet Public Affairs. (2021-a, May). Unsafe and Unprofessional Interaction with IRGCN FIAC in Strait of Hormuz. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

[17-18] Combined Maritime Forces. (2021, May). CTF 152: Gulf Maritime Security. CTF 152: GULF MARITIME SECURITY.

[21] U.S. 5th Fleet Public Affairs. (2021-b, May). USS Monterey Seizes Illicit Weapons in the North Arabian Sea. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

[22] Convention on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 433.

Featured image: April 2020 – Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) vessels approach the guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) at close range while conducting joint interoperability operations in support of maritime security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (Credit: U.S. Navy)