By Babak Taghvaee
Last Saturday, Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran’s Islamic Republic, backed President Hassan Rouhani’s suggestion to block Gulf oil exports if Iran’s own exports were to be stopped in the wake of US sanctions.
On July 3, Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, released an official statement in support of Rouhani’s suggestion. The following day, Ismail Kowsari, deputy commander of Tharallah Security HQ — the force responsible for the suppression of protests in Iran — also supported Rouhani’s suggestion, stating: “If Iran’s oil exports are stopped, we will not allow the export of oil to other parts of the world through the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz.”
The IRGC Navy was formed by Hossein Alaee, who became its first commander in chief. It was officially established on 17th September 1985, on the orders of Ruhollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was nothing more than a disorganized force, equipped with Boghammar high speed patrol boats and Katyusha rocket launchers, RPG-7s and DShKM Machine guns. The boats themselves had taken part in the Tanker War during the Iran-Iraq war, had attacked dozens of oil tankers and US Navy ships, and even shot down a US Navy AH-1T using a single Stinger MANPAD which had been given to the regime by the Afghan Mujahideen.
In comparison with even the regular Iranian Navy, which now has the responsibility of protecting Iran’s territorial waters in Oman and the Caspian Sea, the IRGC, tasked with operations in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, is considered amateurish and unprofessional by both Iranian Navy commanders and world Navy forces present in the region. A quick look at the list of IRGC Navy military equipment confirms that the force is nothing more than a paramilitary Navy with an irregular warfare doctrine whose history dates back to the 1980s.
Despite having almost twice the budget of Iran’s classic Navy, which in terms of size of personnel and equipment is at least five times bigger, the IRGC Navy has spent the majority of its budget on financial activities in the Persian Gulf region. For example, if they receive a budget for the procurement of fast boats to use for defense and security purposes, they spend it on the acquisition of tourist boats to use in the IRGC-controlled free economic zones or on construction of IRGC run illegal docks used to smuggle goods from fruits to luxury cars.
The flaws in the IRGC’s unconventional maritime warfare strategy become pronounced when looking at past interventions, such as the IRGC’s confrontation with the US Navy during the Iran-Iraq war. This strategy has not changed significantly. The IRGC is still relying on the use of high-speed patrol boats and mines which they are now combining with a series of new weapons and equipment. These include modern Chinese under-license built anti-ship and cruise missiles such as Qader, Noor (C-802), Nasr (C-704) and Kowsar (C-701), which can be launched from shore or from the sea using their near 50 Fast Patrol Boats and Missile Boats. The boats in use include 10 Thondor Class (Houdong) missile boats and 30 Zolfaqar fast patrol boats. The force’s flight equipment is made up of two Russian produced Mi-171Sh transport helicopters and a single Bell 206B light helicopter
The IRGC Navy also has an inventory of Khalije Fars (Persian Gulf) anti-ship ballistic missiles which are only effective against commercial ships anchored at sea. However, the IRGC has tested the missile in its exercises including a propaganda exercise called Prophet Muhammad-9, which involves launching the missile at a static maritime platform acting as a dummy US Navy ship. While the missile is able to hit the target during training exercises like these, real-life combat poses substantial problems, as the missile can easily be detected by a ship’s radar and can also be targeted by surface-to-air missiles such as the Standard and the Sea Sparrow.
During the 2006 Lebanon War, the IRGC backed the Hezbollah terrorist group, using a C-802 anti-ship missile to cause severe damage to an Israeli Navy Sa’ar 5 class Corvette named INS Hanit. The attack killed four sailors aboard, off the coast of Beirut. Later, IRGC-affiliated Houthi rebels also used similar anti-ship missiles. This time, the C-801 was used successfully against various vessels of the Arab coalition during the Yemeni war. The result was the destruction of at-least one support ship belonging to the UAE Armed Forces on October 1, 2016 — the HSV-2 Swift, a hybrid catamaran.
Days later, on October 9, 2016, the Houthis launched two C-801 missiles at a US Navy guided missile destroyer named USS Mason (DDG 87) on the Red Sea, off Yemen’s coast, perhaps mistaking it with an Arab Coalition ship. Both missiles missed their targets and three days later the destroyer launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at all three of the Houthi coastal radar sites along the west coast of Yemen, in retaliation.
Following the destruction of the Houthi’s anti-ship missile systems, the rebel groups used a new weapon against the coalition Navy forces. The IRGC provided remote-controlled, bomb-laden boats for the Houthis, which they used to target the Saudi Navy frigate, Al-Madinah, on January 30, 2017. Similar attacks were repeated against Saudi and Emirati warships. including a UAE minesweeper, resulting in the deaths of 12 UAE Navy officers, on 29 July.
In April, Houthis unsuccessfully used similar remote controlled boats to attack a Saudi oil tanker off Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, which caused minor damage to the ship. Shortly after, on 23 May, the Saudi-led coalition claimed that they had foiled attacks by two explosive-laden speedboats belonging to the Houthis, which had been aimed at commercial vessels, including an oil tanker in the Red Sea, using anti-surface vessel missiles
“U.S. Central Command partners are working alongside several nations to provide and promote security and stability in the region. Together, we stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows. However, we stand prepared to meet any aggression with swift and decisive action,” U.S. Central Command Spokesman, Maj. Josh T. Jacques told this writer in response to the recent statements made by Rouhani and the IRGC commanders, on July 9.
On July 15, a US Navy Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided missile destroyer named USS Sullivans (DDG-68) passed the Strait of Hormuz and arrived in the Persian Gulf to patrol the region and confront the IRGC Navy should it attempt to threaten the commercial shipping industry in the Persian Gulf and Hormuz Strait. The destroyer has almost 40 BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles which could be used to target various IRGC anti-ship missile silos, launchers and their radar sites, as well as IRGC Navy bases in all of its five maritime zones which are in Arvand, Mahshahr, Bushehr, Assaluyeh, Bandar Abbas, Jask and Chabahar.
On July 17, retired Brigadeer General Hossein Alaiee, first commander of the IRGC Navy and former head of IRGC headquarters, said during a press conference: “Iran has the ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, although the United States is also in a position to open it, so the cost of this action must be calculated.” Should the IRGC decide to confront the US in the Strait of Hormuz, the stand off could lead to the Guard Corps losing its entire navy fleet. That loss, given the current economic strains inside the country, may be one that the IRGC cannot bear and that could, in the long run, bring the force to its knees.