Iranwire.com – The Persian month of Azar, or November-December in the Gregorian calendar, is the official month of the Iranian navy. Before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iranian navy’s national day fell on November 29, marking the reclamation of three islands, Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, from British forces in 1971.
After the Islamic Republic came to power the national day was shifted to November 27, to commemorate the missile boat Peykan, which was sunk while resisting an Iraqi naval and air attack in 1980.
In a series of three articles we will explore the establishment and changing fortunes of Iran’s modern navy, from the damage it sustained during World War II to the emergence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a naval power and the struggle to build a fleet of submarines. This article, the second in the series, describes the emergence of the Iranian Imperial Navy under Reza Shah Pahlavi.
The navy of the Revolutionary Guards has consistently championed speedboats as the force’s most important piece of military equipment. All Guards’ naval news outlets, whether they report on the tanker wars of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) or the seizure of foreign vessels in the Persian Gulf, focus on the speedboat as being crucial to the operation.
Initially, the Islamic Republic Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy relied on a simpler model of the speedboats, which transported troops along waterways, including along sea coastlines.
In August 1985, at the request of Mohsen Rezaei, who was then commander of the IRGC, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the formation of “triple forces”, including the IRGC navy. So there is an Iranian navy and the IRGC navy. While the Iranian navy has been the guardian of Iranian waters in the Oman Sea, the IRGC navy was assigned the same mission in the Persian Gulf area.
Five years into the Iran-Iraq war, the battle between the two countries spread to the Persian Gulf, and Islamic Republic officials began preparing an operation to block the Strait of Hormuz and anticipating a possible confrontation with the United States.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was the commander of the Iran-Iraq war, and later went on to be president in the 1990s, wrote in his memoirs of September 20, 1985: “I spoke with Mr. Mohsen Rezaei about preparing a plan to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event of a further outbreak of Iraqi atrocities, and with my brother Mohammad to prevent excessive propaganda about the IRGC air and naval forces, because it may upset the army.”
The IRGC navy lacked the necessary military equipment at sea. Brigadier General Majid Zamani Ghaleh, who was in charge of the IRGC navy’s “self-sufficiency jihad”, described the boats first owned by the IRGC as single-engine vessels similar to those found in water parks and recreation centers. The plan to use speedboats, the IRGC’s most well-known naval equipment, was then raised.
Brigadier General Hossein Alaei, the IRGC’s first naval commander, said the force had not been able to compete with US ships in the Persian Gulf: “We decided to use high-speed boats that were faster than ships, but these boats were in the possession of smugglers in the Persian Gulf. “The guys caught some of these smugglers and saw that they had good boats!”
By court order, when smugglers are convicted, their boats must be confiscated and sold. The money from the sale is then deposited in the state treasury. But the IRGC’s first naval commander says the prosecutor’s office was asked to hand the speedboats over to the IRGC: “The boats were confiscated and later sold by the prosecutor’s office; they were sometimes bought by the smugglers themselves. We said, don’t sell these boats, sell them to us, and that is what happened. These were speedboats. We planned the war based on America’s weaknesses, and that’s why the war we orchestrated was referred to as the asymmetric war. We were very successful.”
Brigadier General Alireza Tangsiri, currently the commander of the IRGC navy, also said that with the confiscation of 75 Iraqi vessels in the Persian Gulf and the implementation of reverse engineering, the IRGC’s naval capacity increased.
The Iran-Iraq war spread from the land to the waters of the Persian Gulf, and because some Kuwaiti ports were not spared from the fire of war, and the security of commercial shipping and tankers were in danger, Kuwait asked the United States and the Soviet Union for help in escorting the tankers to safety.
The United States, which already had fewer than 10 vessels and warships in the Persian Gulf, had been strengthening its military presence in the Persian Gulf by sending ships to support and defend the tankers. The IRGC’s mission was to dissuade the United States from a strong military presence in the Persian Gulf.
Brigadier General Alaei said the IRGC navy had inflicted heavy casualties on the US Navy since its inception: “We made the Americans put sandbags on their ships that had harpoon missiles and fired from behind them because harpoon missiles could not hit the speedboats. We were very successful; the missile launcher was broken into two and the ships escorting the tanker were damaged and landed on mines. The American ships were forced to move under the tankers’ shelter. We saw this on radar.”
But less than two years after the formation of the IRGC navy, this situation led to the largest naval battle in the world since the end of World War II, with the United States at one end and Iran at the other.
On May 8, 1987, hours after then-Iranian President Ali Khamenei warned the Soviet Union not to jeopardize its interests and not to enter the Persian Gulf, a group of IRGC navy ships attacked a Soviet ship in the gulf.
The Islamic Republic’s founder and first Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the commander of the IRGC navy not to carry out any more attacks without coordination. But on May 16, eight days after the attack, another Soviet ship struck a mine in the Persian Gulf. Anticipating the route and movement of the escort ships, Iran attacked them with speedboats and dropped sea mines in their path.
On September 21, 1987, the US Navy targeted an Iranian naval supply ship between Qatar and Bahrain, detonating it and then sinking it, claiming the ship had been dropping mines at sea. Two weeks later, another skirmish broke out between the US Navy and the IRGC, and the United States attacked the IRGC naval base on Farsi Island, which is about the size of a football field.
“We were looking to find anti-helicopter missiles in case American helicopters came,” said Hossein Alaei, the IRGC’s naval commander at the time. “We found out that some of the Afghans the United States had equipped against the Soviets had the Stinger missile, which was the most equipped mobile missile launcher. The IRGC bought these missiles from them.”
The IRGC naval base was equipped with mobile missile launchers and was given the go ahead to attack US helicopters. In October 1987, the United States attacked five IRGC naval speedboats suspected of dropping mines in the Persian Gulf. Four IRGC boats sank and a full-scale clash broke out on Farsi Island.
During the skirmish, a US Apache helicopter that had fired on the IRGC navy on Farsi Island was targeted by a Stinger missile, which crashed in the sea killing two crew and a number of IRGC personnel.
Hossein Alaei said: “The Americans rescued any IRGC forces who survived. Of course, it took a week to deliver them to us through Oman.”
Open fire between Iranian and US troops had become a daily occurrence in the Persian Gulf.
Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote in his memoirs on October 9, 1987: “Last night, there was a clash between IRGC boats and American helicopters in the south of the Persian Gulf, and the Americans announced that three of our boats had sunk and six people had been captured. It was later announced that two of them had been martyred … The commanders of the forces came to our house at night to check the quality of the reaction. The Imam had also told us to be careful and not to make any foolish move. The suggestion to launch missiles at US ships or bases in Bahrain was rejected and it was decided that the ships would be monitored under the US escort for the time being, and that we would not do anything else that would incite the United States to more evil.”
Although Rafsanjani wrote in his memoirs of his decision to exercise restraint, in practice, Iran threatened retaliation and fulfilled its promise a week later. On October 15, Iran attacked an American tanker and a day later a Kuwaiti tanker bearing the US flag. This time, the United States threatened retaliation, which resulted in the Iran-US military battle in the Persian Gulf entering a more destructive phase.
The US understood that the Iranian oil platform on Rostam Island, where the Reshadat oil terminal was located, was being used as Iran’s missile launch site and the headquarters from which the attack on the two tankers had been instigated.
The United States attacked and completely destroyed the Iranian oil platforms. After the intense action from both sides, there was calm at sea for five months, until March 24, 1988, when an unprecedented period of Iran-US naval conflict began.
On this date, the American ship Samuel B. Roberts collided with an Iranian mine dropped by the Revolutionary Guards navy at sea.
The ship was damaged and a number of its crew were injured. Concerns were raised about the effectiveness of the minesweeper as it struck a minefield cleared by British, Italian and Belgian ships.
In retaliation for the landmine, the United States once again attacked Iran’s oil platforms, this time on the direct orders of Ronald Reagan. Three US Navy ships targeted and destroyed the Nasr and Salman oil platforms, having an immediate effect on Iran’s oil exports. Iran’s Joshan vessel, which was located near the oil platform, sank when the US Navy attacked, and 11 of its military personnel were killed.
In response, Iran attacked two ships in the Persian Gulf: one bearing an American flag and another with the Panamanian flag. In response, US military planes targeted IRGC speedboats.
Three Iranian speedboats clashed with US forces, one of which was sunk; two returned to Abu Musa Island. Two American Cobra helicopter pilots were killed in the clash, and a helicopter crashed near Abu Musa Island.
On the afternoon of the April 17, US missiles targeted the Sahand destroyer at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, and it sank in the Persian Gulf minutes later. Forty-five members of the Sahand destroyer crew were killed. Two hours later, the Sabalan destroyer frigate, sister ship to the Sahand, came under similar attack by a laser-guided bomb and cracked, resulting in heavy damage. This warship is now one of the most equipped Iranian military vessels at sea.
In retaliation for the US attack, Iran attacked an oil platform belonging to the United Arab Emirates, resulting in the sinking of an American tugboat and a British oil tanker being destroyed by fire. In response, the United States sank several Iranian missile launchers, killing a number of Iranian soldiers. Iranian oil platforms near Siri Island were also bombed.
Less than a month later, Iraq launched large-scale attacks on Iranian oil tankers. During one of these attacks, Iraq attacked the Larak Island oil terminal in the Persian Gulf, the largest attack on Iranian oil facilities to date. The attack, which took place on May 14, set fire to the world’s largest tanker at the time, known as the “Sea Giant,” at the Khark port, Iran’s main oil export port; at the same time a Spanish tanker which had been loading was also destroyed.
In another direct battle between Iran and the United States, on July 3, IRGC speedboats attacked US ships and helicopters, most of them using US-made Stinger mobile missile launchers.
During the clash, an IRGC boat sank and a US Army helicopter was shot down. But shortly after, a catastrophic event occurred that ended not only the direct Iran-US naval war but also the eight-year Iran-Iraq war: an American ship shot down an Iranian passenger plane with 290 civilian passengers and crew over the waters of the Persian Gulf.
Iran immediately stated that it would not seek retaliation for the attack and would react in a way that would prevent a repeat of such incidents. But two weeks later, despite much opposition, Iran adopted Resolution 598: a ceasefire with Iraq.
Post Iran-Iraq War
In the post-Iran-Iraq-war years, the IRGC navy has maintained and increased its focus on building speedboats. In recent years, the IRGC’s speedboat operations in the Persian Gulf have made headlines. In one case, high-speed boats belonging to the US military whose vessels had mistakenly entered Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf due to a failure of the router they were using, were detained for several hours, prompting extensive propaganda about Iranian power against the United States. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei later praised the then commander of the IRGC navy and awarded him the country’s “courage” badge.
The US Navy has repeatedly stated that the operation of IRGC speedboats and the speed and distance they maintain with other vessels are outside the professional military standards at sea. In recent years, one of these boats was also fired upon by the US Navy. On the other hand, the IRGC navy says it has forced the United States to use the Persian language when in contact with naval personnel in Iranian waters. This is a deviation of normal practice: English is the common language used in naval relations.
According to unofficial statistics, the number of IRGC speedboats equipped with semi-heavy weapons is estimated at 1,500. In November 2020, the IRGC Navy announced that it was equipped with an ocean-going ship that could deploy a helicopter. The military vessel is an Italian merchant ship altered by the IRGC so it can be used for this purpose. The ship is currently the largest vessel at the IRGC Navy’s disposal.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy, unlike conventional navies in the world, does not have a dedicated uniform to differentiate it from its air and ground forces.
The only military force in the world to normally interact with other countries’ navies during peacetime is the Navy. So it is odd that its military uniforms and military insignia are no different to the appearance of the other branches of the IRGC forces.