The lifting of the economic sanctions against Iran, as part of the US-Iranian deal over Iran’s nuclear program could have far reaching consequences. With the sanctions lifted the regime in Teheran will find it much easier to buy, develop and operate military equipment, not only in Iran proper but also abroad. When we look at the Iranian Navy we can expect that in the next years it will be able to modernize, expand and even operate in the Red Sea and Mediterranean. Iran’s primary adversaries in the region, Saudi-Arabia and Israel, are expected to counter the influence of the Iranian Navy by an increased presence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Under the sanctions it was very difficult for Iran to develop its navy, and indeed all its armed forces. Faced with low budgets and an embargo it was impossible for Iran to develop large warships with modern technology that were capable to project power far beyond the Iranian coasts. The biggest surface warships were only the size of corvettes, even when Iran claimed that these vessels were destroyers. As for the three Kilo class submarines, these were bought before the sanctions as reaction to Iran’s nuclear program came into being. Under the sanctions it was difficult for these submarines to be maintained.
Now that the sanctions are largely lifted things will change a lot. The regime in Teheran can expect to end up with much more money to spend on its armed forces then ever was the case in the recent pasts. The export of oil will give Iran the necessary financial boast needed not only to revitalize its economy but to further develop its armed forces. Already Iran has made deals with Russia and it will most likely turn to China as well to trade oil for technology.
In the past years the Iranian Navy was centered on being a brown water navy, operating close to the shores and equipped with small fast attack crafts (FACs) armed with anti-ship missiles and employing asymmetric tactics against standard navies. The reason for this is twofold, first, by using asymmetric tactics Iran played on the weakness of the US Navy who is never designed to fight FACs and midget submarines. A green water navy centered on normal submarines, corvettes and frigates on the other hand would be extremely vulnerable against the US Navy.
A second and more important reason for Iran to create a brown water navy was that it lacked the financial resources as well as the knowledge on how to build bigger warships. Building small, cheap and less sophisticated FACs was something that the Iranian Navy was capable to do and as such the focus become a brown water navy using asymmetric tactics.
Over the years the influence of Iran in the Middle East has grown, in part because apart from Syria the country is one of the few Shiite countries in the region. As such, Iran needed a way to project its power through the region and for this it used the ships of its green water navy. The main purpose of these ships was to smuggle weapons and foreign fighters between several conflicts in the region, mainly between Lebanon, Yemen and Somalia.
Now that the sanctions are lifted it is expected that Iran will try to find the means to improve its shipbuilding capabilities as well as acquire new, modern naval technology and weapon systems. Iran already has a fleet capable of closing the Strait of Hormuz but still lacks sufficient ships with a long range to make the Iranian presence felt through the Middle East. It is expected that in the next years Iran will expand and develop its green water navy even further.
Iran is currently involved in several different areas in the Middle East, all of them separated by large distances but accessible by sea. Iran runs a proxy war against Saudi-Arabia and has forces operating in Syria. Supplying these forces is difficult enough but protecting these supply routes, especially since in most cases it involves smuggling; means that Iran needs warships capable to operate in both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
Iran’s adversaries, Saudi-Arabia and Israel, are however keen to block any kind of projection of Iranian power in the Middle East. Both countries have more advanced warships then Iran and their operational fleet is larger than the green water navy of Iran. While both Israel and Saudi-Arabia will not go as far as starting a naval war it is probable that they will try to block the Iranian supply routes when they can. Incidents like that of the Gaza flotilla will most likely occur more often as Israel is determent to stop Iranian smuggle.
The most likely area of confrontation will be the Red Sea where Iranian smuggle routes with Syria run and where Israel and Saudi-Arabia have a naval base to conduct interdiction operations. This gives Israel and Saudi-Arabia an advantage since they operate close to their bases while Iran has to operate from its naval base in Bandar Abbas. Iran could solve its security status in the Red Sea by finding an allied nation willing to host an Iranian Naval presence. Only one country that is neutral in this conflict and that is Eritrea but it remains unknown if Eritrea is willing to give Iran a naval base.
It will take several years before Iran is able to build new, bigger and more modern warships that are more capable in projecting power and keeping its adversaries away. But with the lifting of the sanctions Iran is now more freely in acquiring the technology and skills needed while its status as leading Shiite nation.