Iran chases strategic depth

Deep history, deep state, deep pride, and now deep sea: Tehran is bolstering its regional power

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 February 2019

An Iranian navy vessel on patrol, 2012. Image: PAThis week, Islamic Republic of Iran navy commissioned the first major submarine developed and built inside the country. Tehran already has a submarine fleet: more than thirty now creaky vessels purchased from Russia and North Korea, as well as home-produced mini-submarines shared with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. What's different about Fateh, the new submarine, is its size: a 600-tonne boat with four torpedo-tubes, an endurance of five weeks, and a diving range of 200 metres. 

Since the main purpose is patrolling the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, it may not matter that this size is some way off those of larger long-distance submarines, whether diesel or nuclear powered. The Fateh is the culmination of at least eight years' work: Iran announced the project in 2011, but it may have been begun in 2008. Even an eleven-year timespan would hardly be excessive for such an enterprise. In any event the launch's presentation on Iranian TV was celebratory.

This indigenous naval project is Iran's second to have been completed in the past year. It follows the Sahand frigate, classified by the IRN as a destroyer, which was unveiled in similar style before the Iranian media in December. Like the Fateh, the Sahand is expected to be the first of several warships of its type. The Sahand is also twice as big, at 1,300 tonnes, and equipped with a helicopter landing-pad, gun, and both surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles. 

It is impressive enough for Iran to have produced and commissioned these two new vessels in short order, especially during a time of multiple sanctions regimes. Besides, Tehran's recent military upgrades have involved tanks, strike-aircraft, short-range missiles and torpedoes, as well as an advanced programme of much longer-range, conventionally-armed missiles. But it's the hype around the ships that catches the attention, including boasts that the Sahand has radar-evading stealth features and the Fateh can belie its scale (which, relative to international standards, is still modest) by launching cruise-missiles as well as torpedoes.

It's as well to be cautious here. The ships are in their early stages, and will take a couple of years to become fully operational. In that time faults may be discovered and essential modifications needed. Only when their actual capabilities are clear will it be possible to measure their effectiveness against vessels produced by states with more advanced naval shipbuilding. And much depends on whether, over the next decade, these first-of-class vessels lead on to a substantial new fleet.   

Moreover, their true significance may lie more in domestic and regional politics than in the strictly military sphere. Quite apart from the country's theocrats, many of Iran's 80 million people have a strong sense of pride in their country's millennia-long history, in its former and potential status as great power, and in its ability to stand up to the United States (see "The Iran complex: why history matters", 25 January 2012).

Within Iran there are widely differing opinions on the wisdom of the extensive foreign interventions.

Within Iran there are widely differing opinions on the wisdom of the extensive foreign interventions, including costly ones in Syria and Yemen. But many, well beyond the political class, hold the view that the US-led war which terminated Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq had precisely the opposite strategic outcome that Washington expected (see "A tale of three cities: Washington, Baghdad, Tehran", 22 April 2010).

George W Bush, plus neo-conservatives and assertive realists alike, all envisaged a post-Saddam Iraq as a bastion of western interests with a long-term US military presence. With US bases there and in Afghanistan, as well as powerful naval forces and close allies down the western Gulf, the mantra was that Iran would be put in its box - and then, perhaps, become the next target. "The road to Tehran runs through Baghdad”, was the complacent saying in the run-up to the attack on Iraq. 

It all went horribly wrong, as the result of the invasion was to massively increase Iran's influence in Iraq. For all the resulting upheavals, millions of Iranian citizens – even those pinched by sanctions and inflation, angry at corruption, or struck by abuses of human rights – can take pride in the country's more powerful regional profile (see "Iran vs America: history's scars", 26 August 2018).

If the Tehran authorities have their way, this profile is set to expand. Today, 21 February, the Iranian navy announced  that its imminent three-day annual navy drill would cover "the waters of the Strait of Hormuz, Makran coast, Oman Sea and the north of the Indian Ocean, covering 2 million square kilometres". Among the purposes of "Velayat-97" is to "enable the troops to gain readiness for a real battle", says Hossein Khanzadi, Iran's navy commander. 

This wider context is important in relation to Iran's new submarines and destroyers. They may be nothing like as powerful or effective as their opposite numbers in the American navy or even the forces of the western Gulf states – but they are designed, developed and produced by Iranians themselves. The existence of the project is evidence that Iran's rulers are thinking decades ahead, in a way that fits the self-perception of an ambitious country that refuses to be bowed.


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