If Iran turns into a naval power, its neighbors are estimated to maintain balance via multilateral unions against Iran. Diako Hosseini.
More than 120 years after the publication of the renowned book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783” by Alfred Thayer Mahan, the incredible power of the Navy still shapes global politics. Further, it makes up the main geo-strategic theme of the world’s great powers as well as the up and coming ones. In line with this conventional mode of thinking, powerful countries are somewhat obliged to be armed with modern a naval force that puts them in a superior position in relation to other countries.
A newfound enthusiasm for communications and financial globalization may have temporarily relegated the significance of naval power, yet the compression of time and place has reminded some of a Navy’s importance.
Navy supporters point out that two-thirds of the oil trade and more than 77 percent of the global trade in goods are still carried out by sea. Further, if considering oceans, coastal shores, estuaries of large rivers and island territories, this figure reaches 90%. Additionally, global issues such as marine life and environmental effects on open waters-- as well as the importance of securing sources of energy-- add to the importance of a Navy for the people’s common interests. Frank Huffman of the US Navy pointed out the “arrival of a new age of Mahan”.
With increasing emphasis on the importance of the Navy in Western literature, Iran is increasing its naval technological and strategic operations in the Persian Gulf and the seas beyond. Among Iran’s plans are to increase its maritime influence by deploying fleets to the Mediterranean coasts and plans to create permanent bases in the Gulf of Aden and the Atlantic Ocean. It is often assumed that these measures will lead to an increase in Iran’s influence in open waters.
Arguably, this assumption is not only inaccurate but it also prepares the grounds for disturbing the current balance of power in the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and beyond. Perhaps the main difficulty in understanding how trans-ocean navy capabilities could threaten Iran’s national security stems from common understanding of maritime history. Before expanding further, first let’s consider whether naval expansion brought more stability and security for Great Britain after 1776, Wilhem’s Germany after 1895, and the US after the 1900s.
The Navy in History
Historically, demonstration of naval strength has been closely tied to great wars, most notably classical wars. The Spanish succession, the Seven Years War, the American Civil War and the Netherlands and Britain’s Second War have all been more or less affected by the countries’ naval strength. Yet rarely (with the exception of the Netherlands and Britain’s war that occurred in the Far East and latter at the battle of Tsushima), navies played a crucial role in instigating the wars.
British author, Julian Corbett -who lived in the same era as Alfred Mahan- elegantly explains: “Humans live on lands and not the sea, hence most fundamental human affairs takes place on lands”. Unlike Mahan, in his book “Principles of Maritime Strategy” Corbett insisted less on wars at sea. Instead he assumed a mutual correlation between war on land and war at sea. Corbett understood that having control over the sea was not limited to having control over the sea level but also at the depths of the sea as well as out in space. In practice it is very difficult for a country to gain such control and to maintain it. Expecting naval mastery from the navy is often an unusual anticipation. Undoubtedly, this has been one of the forces behind the navy’s gradual decline.
Under the best circumstances -thanks to advance technology - a maritime power could build a powerful naval fleet and sailing and logistic facilities in order dominate waters for a limited period of time. However, soon after, rival countries are provoked to disrupt this ability in order to gain dominance. Additionally, the presence of a powerful navy in open waters far away from its home could cause suspicion about its intentions.
This could lead to the unity of other rival countries against a potential common adversary; like the union between Great Britain and France against Germany in 1902; also Japan and Britain against Russia in 1939. Hence, naval actions often result in consequences on land. Rivalry between the British and German navies eventually led to the First World War. In Seventeenth Century Britain, the Netherlands and Spain started their colonization in the heart of China, which lead to the British domination of the West. During the same time it was Germany’s effort to gain dominance that disturbed a 150 yearlong stability. However, the fundamental concern of Great Britain, France and Russia derived from the development of Nazi Germany’s striking ground forces. Imperial Japan had one of the most elite naval forces in the world. It was not only Japan’s losses, but also its victories in Manchuria, the Philippines, Singapore and the Korean Peninsula that reflected the moral and financial rise and decline of its ground forces.
Why is it so difficult to achieve maritime supremacy? As long as there are other powerful rivals on the seas there are only two ways to overcome the enemy and realize dominance: firstly, to gain control over water crossings by physically destroying other countries’ fleets; secondly, naval blockades. Each of these solutions can be costly and often ineffective. John Mearsheimer, an American realist who advocates the supremacy of the army and ground forces, give evidence of the negligible effects of naval blockades in his book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”. He points out that since most land-based battlefields consume significant military resources, naval troops are essentially considered as weak, vulnerable, and considered temporary. No military commander is willing to concentrate most of his military resources at sea while the enemy’s ground troops have reached the country’s borders, or may reach it in the future.
The navy still suffers from strategic deficiencies. In contemporary times, a powerful navy seems ineffective without the support of an air force, as a combination of both is essential. Perhaps some experts might say that aircraft carriers, the best combination of both forces, has solved the problem, but these sea beasts seem futile against asymmetric warfare. Besides all of these problems, it is very difficult to be certain whether an enemy’s attack strategy will fail after a decisive defeat at sea, as Napoleon’s defeat in the sea battle of Trafalgar did not prevent him from advancing towards the borders of Russia on the western front. When the land or the interest in dispute is closely related to the sea (such as territorial islands or strategic coasts), success in a sea battle will decide success in war, while if the interests of the two sea forces are situated on land, success at sea is only a ceremonial victory.
Furthermore, there is a great exception when the navies of both sides enjoy nuclear capabilities; in such a situation, a sea battle can be quite decisive. A technologic navy can improve deterrence and can carry out a second strike, while an effective navy is of secondary importance for a nuclear power. The Cold War between two former superpowers showed that the maintenance of international peace depends on avoiding a first pervasive attack. As Lewis Gaddis puts it, the Cold War was governed, to some extent, by the lack of courage to shoot the first nuclear missile, rather than by other balancing factors. Ignoring whether there is a balance of military powers-- including that of sea power-- anywhere in the world, the sea powers with nuclear capabilities can create the safest geopolitical situation in the sea; for these powers, the capability to move on the seas is not that important while the enemy targets the mainland with nuclear weapons.
The Cuban missile crisis is a revealing example: in that critical situation, neighboring the Russian navy to US seas was an advantage for the Russian leaders, while, in case of their progress, would the Russian mainland be targeted by US Pershing missiles?
Finally, the role of navies in maintaining the position of superpowers has been exaggerated. History does not confirm that the world’s most advanced sea forces of Britain, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the US could not stop their gradual falling from their high position. At least, after the formation of the international economic system, the most important mission of armed forces has been to support the health of a country’s economy.
In earlier times, this obligation was primarily assigned to the imperialist superpowers’ navies, while they fell into colonial rivalries that incur high military expenses, the issue that made armed forces an impediment to economic advances, caused domestic dissatisfaction, introduced political reforms in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and accelerated the fall of great powers. In the modern era, navies’ support for safe and free shipping securing the flow of the global economy is one of the reasons for the increasing empowering of the navies, while the rivalry between China and the US in the South China Sea and the recent rivalry between Iran and the US in the Persian Gulf pose threats, instead of guaranteeing security.
After all, none of these arguments proves that a powerful navy present in coastal seas or the neighboring seas can improve national security, while the navies’ success is directly related to their performance in neighbor seas rather than an extension to the farthest oceans.
The Future of Iranian Navy
Besides the above-mentioned critical arguments regarding a common misunderstanding of the advantages of extending sea forces to far seas, the balance of superpowers’ navies, like land and air forces, depends on their technologies. Currently, although the US enjoys less advanced maritime equipment, qualitatively speaking, it, like military unions, has a particular dominance over and presence in oceans. The US having 12 aircraft carriers, 9 of which are Nimitz class nuclear super-carriers capable of carrying 70 F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft, has formed the most terrifying sea force of the world. The US’s closest rivals are as follows: France with a so-called Charles de Gaulle carrier which is smaller than the Nimitz, Russia with a carrier called the Admiral Kuznetsov which is minor threat to those of the US, and Britain with three small carriers used for carrying helicopters and Harrier perpendicular planes.
The submarine fleet of the US, consisting of 54 nuclear attack submarines and 16 ballistic missile submarines stands in first place in the world, while Russia with 37 of the first type and 14 of the second type stands in second place, followed by Britain, France and China. In this unbalanced situation, the navies rival to the US have no way but to adopt an asymmetric strategy. For example, via improving the production line of Song Class Diesel-Electric submarines, whose production is much less expensive than nuclear submarines, China opened a new market for countries in pursuit of maritime technology.
Although the Chinese submarines, including the Jin and Shong nuclear models and Yu An and Song with diesel propulsion, are not considered as a threat to the US in the short run, they can threaten the maritime hegemony of the US at least in the Pacific Ocean in the long run-- through the Chinese inventing new technologies and selling it to new customers. Using the C-802 Chinese anti-ship cruise missile in the 33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel, the former could manage an asymmetric war well. Considering the success of Iran, the mass production of Noor cruise missiles-- copied from the Chinese model-- has begun, and Iran also has improved Silkworm 2 cruise missile called Thunder, which is capable of carrying warheads weighing approximately 450 kgs.
As the result, considering that Ghadir submarines are well equipped for recognition equipment in coastal territories, Sina combat ships, Bavar stealth aircraft capable of landing on water and a radar system with range of 500 kilometers, Iran, like growing naval powers, has prepared a appropriate collection of observation, attack and defense equipment, enabling it to begin warfare in the Persian Gulf against one of the greatest naval powers ever, but the problem is the country is not well equipped to act in far seas and to continue warfare for a long time.
If Iran turns into a naval power, its neighbors are estimated to maintain balance via multilateral unions against Iran which may be instigated to compete with the country. Among the neighbors, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are more frightened by the rise of Iran, as not only the closeness to Iran increases their vulnerability, but also Iran’s access to a more advanced maritime force is a threat to the power balance, decreasing the range of those countries’ influence. Now, the question is how Iran can solve this contradiction: providing security in the seas besides the Persian Gulf and resolving the threat issue for neighbors. Fortunately, Iran has always followed multilateral cooperation, however limitedly, to resolve this issue: maritime cooperation between Iran and Oman, the joint exercises of Iran and Qatar and that of Iran and Djibouti in combating pirates are revealing examples, while the neighboring regional powers have never been satisfied.
Thus, Iran should make cooperation with the great naval forces of the world such as those of India, Russia and China a priority, through renting various ports to these countries, carrying out joint exercises and exchanging experiences, outcomes and information and sharing the expenses destined to be borne for the extension of the naval forces among the partner powers. Consequently, chances for the formation of a military balance against Iran will not arise and Tehran will be recognized as a powerful naval power in the international community. ....
IRD: The Iranian Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi’s visit to Saudi Arabia has raised debates inside the Iranian diplomatic circles. The chain of events that began with the outbreak of Arab revolutions in the Middle East and Northern Africa and continued with US’ allegation of Iran’s attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington have made Moslehi’s visit to Riyadh a subject of intense speculation by the regional media and Western newspapers, and provoked criticism among certain Conservative mouthpieces inside Iran which called the visit hasty. IRD reviews the matter in an interview with Ali Akbar Asadi, Middle East affairs analyst:
IRD: What was the main goal of Moslehi’s visit to Riyadh considering the security relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
AA: There is not that much security exchange between the two countries; what we have now is only a security pact sealed at the time of Mohammad Khatami, the former president. Seemingly the visit was made due to the increasing tensions between Tehran and Riyadh and also regional developments. These are the only information that have been disclosed about this visit so far. The two countries were already engaged in tense relations, especially caused by the Saudi party, brought to a new level with allegations of Tehran's attempt to murder Adel el-Jubeir, the Saudi Ambassador to Washington. Iran and Saudi Arabia, beside Turkey, are the three main actors in the Middle East and any conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia may be followed by dire consequences for both. Although diplomatic interactions are expected to relieve the tensions, the regional rivalry between them won’t abate, especially because of Tehran's and Riyadh’s different policies regarding Bahrain and Syria. Iran and Turkey have also had some differences in their viewpoints about Syria, but they have tried to keep up their interaction within the recent months. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also regional competitors whose challenges have intensified in the recent months, but they try to keep their relations at a certain level. But the story is different when it comes to Iran and Saudi Arabia, as rivalry between them sparks tension and although diplomatic interactions could ease the strain to a certain extent, it cannot be expected to have a long-time stable impact.
IRD: What was the reason to dispatch Moslehi for negotiations with Saudis over Syria?
AA: This is just a minor concern and it relates to intragovernment policies. Two major axes were discussed in the negotiations between Moslehi and Crown Prince Naif; Bahrain and Syria. There is a wide range of regional actors calling for regime change in Syria and Saudis stand at the top of the list. Qatar and Turkey come next in the list, though Turkey has adopted a less hostile position due to certain considerations, while Saudi Arabia persistently follows the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Other countries -including Iraq- are seeking a different solution for Syria via the Arab League channel.
IRD: Western media talk of attempts by the US and Europe to convince Riyadh to tame the oil price in case that boycotting the Iranian oil is activated. Could this have possibly been on the negotiations’ agenda?
AA: Putting Iran under pressure through sanctions has been a regular option for the US in the last few years. For long, Saudis have wanted to increase their oil production to control the oil market. Riyadh has backed the Americans during the US attack on Iraq in 2003, after the 9/11 shock to the oil market and any other occurrence deemed to shock the international oil market. Boycotting the Iranian oil amounts to declaration of war against Iran, as some of analysts argue, since it threatens the country’s security and the likely reaction of Iran may aggravate tensions....