WAR ON TERROR UPDATE
Anthony Tucker-Jones, Iain Ballantyne, & Peter Hore (UK)
Charles Strathdee & G. Keith Jacobs (USA)
Newly trained personnel from the Iraqi Riverine Patrol Service board a suspect merchant vessel on the Shatt-al-Arab, down which runs a disputed maritime border with Iran. Photo: UK MoD.
In the wake of the recent high-profile incident involving British naval personnel on the Shatt-al-Arab Waterway, WARSHIPS IFR Deputy Editor Anthony Tucker-Jones considers the more aggressive stance being adopted by Iranian naval forces in the Gulf.
This summer Iran issued a stern rebuke to the Western allies by staging its largest regional naval exercise in more than a year, involving both surface and underwater vessels supported by jet fighters and bombers.
Prior to this Iran announced its intention to defend Syria against any US military aggression. Tehran has made it clear that it feels aggrieved by America and Britain's continued criticism of its nuclear programme and Iranian support for Iraqi Shia Muslims. In turn Iran has also expressed its disapproval of what it sees as NATO's meddling in the Middle East
In response to mounting Western pressure Iranian Defence Minister Vice Admiral Ali Shamkhani issued a curt warning earlier this year stating: "The Islamic Republic [of Iran] has announced that its nuclear capability is home-grown. One cannot destroy a home-grown capability by launching a military onslaught.
If any country wants to take military action against us, then we will consider its action to be against our existence and we will respond to it with everything in our power." Recently speaking to correspondents at the Iranian parliament, he also added ominously: "If military action is taken against Iran, it means that the [International Atomic Energy] Agency had been put in charge of intelligence gathering for the parties that wanted to launch a military attack against Iran. Naturally, after such an incident, we will have to totally abandon our nuclear commitments."
Notably over the last few months Tehran has adopted an increasingly confrontational strategic doctrine, which includes a major expansion of its military capabilities and presence in both the Gulf and the Caucasus.
Shamkhani has been urging Tehran to develop a comprehensive defence policy, claiming: "All our defence resources are today used to strengthen our deterrent strategy." However, he has been at pains to point out that this does not include a nuclear doctrine.
During the last six months, in a bid to demonstrate its military and political influence in the Gulf, Iran has once more been throwing its weight around with the neighbouring Gulf states.
Tehran has revived a longstanding territorial dispute with the United Arab Emirates and the Iranian Navy seized several UAE fishing boats near Qeshm and Siri islands (the latter houses an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval facility under joint command with the Navy). Iran has also had recent naval disputes with Qatar.
See accompanying article.
In early May this year, the Iranian Navy announced it would be flexing its muscles by conducting five war games in its territorial waters in the Gulf to mark the liberation anniversary of south-western city of Khorramshahr. Commodore Hossein Fazli informed the Iranian News agency (IRNA) that the exercises were to be staged throughout Iran's first, second and third naval zones, covering the Gulf and the Sea of Oman, plus Kharg Island and Khorramshahr.
The following month the Iranian Navy, supported by the Iranian Air Force, launched a six day exercise known as Salman-83 (Unity-83), which included amphibious manoeuvres off Khorramshahr in the northern Gulf. This was reportedly Iran's biggest naval exercise in more than a year, involving, according to Iranian sources, "76 marine units" as well as a range of air force combat jets. During the exercise Iranian sources also claim that the Iranian Navy's indigenous submarine went successfully undetected.
Iranian officials have confirmed that the exercise proceeded in four stages to test a series of capabilities, particularly inter-operability between surface vessels, submarines and aircraft. This possibly included Iran's old P-3F Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft (the Iranian version of the American P-3C, built in the mid-1970s) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters. The Iranian fleet air arm, or Islamic Republic of Iran Naval Aviation (IRINA), flies Iran's remaining P-3Fs, of which between two and four are believed to be still operational, in addition to one RC-130. After decades as the workhorse of US Navy ASW, American Orions are now employed extensively for intelligence-gathering and surveillance over land (particularly in the Gulf). Recently Iran accused an Australian Orion of spying on it.
LOOKING to the future, Iran's indigenously built Iran-140 aircraft (licensed Ukrainian An-140) in its proposed naval role can be used as an MPA and related military purposes such as early warning, command and control and target designation. The planned MPA roles include electronic warfare, anti-ship missile launching and long-range missile guidance relay.
Although the Iran-140 does not have the required seven hour endurance capability, plans are underway to increase the aircraft's fuel capacity with the addition of tanks on the outboard wing section. Currently ASW is carried out by IRINA's 20 or so SH-3D Sea Kings, supported by a number of AB-212 helicopters. It also has some RH-53Ds for heavy-lift and, for liaison purposes, Agusta built AB205/6As. The Navy Patrol Squadron is equipped with Dassault Falcon 20Es and Fokker F27-400M aircraft. The Iranian Navy has been seeking to enhance its capabilities through various indigenous defence programmes. Most recently Iran's Aerospace Industries Organisation revealed it had manufactured an anti-ship missile named 'Kosar.' However, over the last four years there have been no confirmed reports of any major increases in Iranian naval strength. Iranian officials announced in 2000 that the first of a planned trio (with a possible option for a second batch) of 1,000 tons, missile-equipped surface combatants would be launched, but there have been few subsequent announcements.
Last year it was reported that the Iranian Navy would launch a missile frigate named Sina 1 in spring 2003, followed by the first of up to six destroyers, dubbed Mowj - but progress remains apparently stalled. Progress with other programmes has also been mixed.
For example, the first two of an intended 12 Paykan missile boats, were reportedly deployed last year. Iran has also reportedly built a mini-submarine. Additionally, a new larger submarine is due to be unveiled at the end of 2004.
In the Gulf, the Royal Navy has been pressing for Iranian assistance to prevent terrorists and smugglers moving freely in Iraqi waters and thereby gaining access to the mainland. The captain of the frigate HMS Grafton, which was earlier this year patrolling the northern Gulf, said: "We should be talking to the Iranian authorities more because we need to co-operate with them in order to make more impact on the problems ... Until they are brought into the security operation the situation is always going to be difficult to control."
During the spring of 2004 Grafton was tasked, along with vessels from the US 5th Fleet and Royal Australian Navy, with protecting the key Al- Bakra and Khawr al-Amaya terminals, which produce 90 per cent of Iraq's current oil output. Security co-operation with Iran has not been forthcoming, but, on a positive note, the Iranian Coast Guard has been liasing with the USN Maritime Emergency Mutual Assistance Centre (MEMAC) in the Gulf over rescue missions.
Nonetheless, it remains difficult to fathom Iran's true intentions in the Gulf. Further afield, its latest alliance with Syria has done little to calm nerves in Washington. In late February, Shamkhani, visited Syria and Lebanon, a move potentially threatening to Washington's interests. The new Iranian-Syrian pact set up a joint working group on bilateral military and security issues, laying the ground for wider defence-industrial co-operation. More significantly, it includes an unprecedented Iranian commitment to defend Syria in the event of either an Israeli or US attack - quite how this would be carried out was not specified. This, coupled with Iran's major summer naval exercises, clearly signals Tehran's intent to resist any future US military adventures in the region.
For more on tension in the Gulf region and the War on Terrorism see WARSHIPS IFR September 2004.