The Growing Threat of Iran's Sea Power

Iran is rapidly gaining new naval capabilities and the U.S. must respond appropriately.

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Jamie Barnett, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, is , senior vice president of national security policy at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies; Yonah Alexander, is director of the Potomac Institute International Center for Terrorism Studies; and Sean Brandes, is a lieutenant commander in the U.S Navy and cyber federal executive fellow at the Potomac Institute.

Hurricane Sandy has made the United States mindful of dangers coming at us from the sea, but one such threat which has not been fully discussed during the presidential election or in the public discourse is the growing challenge of Iran's sea power. As Hobibollah Sayyari, Tehran's navy chief, warned earlier this year: "Closing the Strait of Hormuz ... will be easier than drinking a glass of water." Indeed such sabre rattling can and does raise tensions worldwide as the United States and others ponder the risks of another war in the Middle East.

More specifically, Iranian strategic thinking follows closely the dictum of Themistocles, who observed some 2,500 years ago that "he who commands the sea commands everything." It is not surprising therefore that since the 1979 revolution Tehran has consistently developed a robust maritime strategy. Iranian naval ships operate outside the Persian Gulf, most recently making port visits in Sudan. Iran may have reflagged some of its cargo ships under the flags of Honduras and Panama in order to resupply its ally, Syria. Iran's sea power cannot withstand the full power of U.S. Navy and its allies, but that does not mean that Iran is impotent. The Iranians do not have to win outright at sea to achieve significant geopolitical goals; economic disruption of the West may be enough. Consider these Iranian actions:

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First, Iran has strengthened the military coastal geography of its maritime zones, including control over the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz (through which some 12 million barrels of oil pass daily). The territorial waters have been extended to 12 miles and the mainland infrastructures (such as Bandar Abbas, its largest seaport and naval base) have been improved.

Second, Iran has expanded its maritime capability in terms of vessels and personnel; the combined naval forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy consist of submarines, frigates, corvettes, missile patrol crafts, mine warfare ships, coastal and inshore patrol crafts, and amphibious ships. Additionally, naval aviation support includes maritime patrol aircraft and armed helicopters. The total man power strength is approximately some 38,000 persons trained to fight traditional naval and asymmetric naval warfare.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Consider Military Action to Hinder Iran's Nuclear Program?]

And third, Iran has greatly improved its antiship missiles and missile warfare capability. The Iranian major weapon systems (obtained mostly from China) include the CSS-C-2 Seersucker (long-range mobile antiship missile); the Yinji (Hawk, C-801 antiship missile); the upgraded C-802 system; and the air launched anti-missile and variant of the C-801.

Other Iranian maritime challenges are also noteworthy. On the psychological warfare level, Tehran has threatened to attack U.S. warships and other commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere by some of its reported 30,000 speedboats armed with antiship missiles such as the Zafar and the Nour, which are domestically produced. In the narrow Strait of Hormuz, these Iranian "swarm attacks," in which up to 100 armed speedboats approach an enemy warship from all directions, could have devastating consequences.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are Cuts to the Defense Budget Necessary?]

Another concern is Iran's continuous weapons smuggling in the maritime environment. The arms shipment via the Karine A to the Palestinian terrorist factions in December 2000 is a case in point. We should also mention Iran's expansion of its maritime strategic horizons. For instance, two of its naval vessels passed through the Suez Canal and deployed temporarily at a Syrian port to express their solidarity with the Assad regime. Similarly, recently two Iranian warships visited Sudan for three days, underscoring their military ties with Khartoum; Sudan claims the visit had nothing to do with Khartoum's accusation that Israel bombed its Yarmouk arms factory.