Iran’s Growing Assertive Posture and Its Role in Maritime Domain

Modern world order is currently undertaking a paradigm shift. U.S. led unipolar hegemonic order is gradually eroding and a new multi-polar world is emerging.

Modern world order is currently undertaking a paradigm shift. U.S. led unipolar hegemonic order is gradually eroding and a new multi-polar world is emerging. Unlike Cold War, in which Soviet Union and United States competed for global dominance, the new Cold War primarily based on China – U.S. power struggle is centered in Indo-Pacific region. Beside Washington and Beijing, several regional players, including Iran which is traditionally considered a Middle Eastern Power, are increasingly expanding their role in emerging geopolitical order.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. National Security Advisor, in his influential work “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (1997)”, has characterized Iran as a pivotal state. According to Brzezinski, pivotal state stems significance from its geographical position. Situated at the crossroad of Central Asia, Middle East and South Asia, Iran influence spans across the entire region, thus reflecting its status as a pivotal state in regional strategic calculus.

Iran’s military posture has gradually evolved with respect to Tehran’s political ambitions. Since the mid-1980s, Iran has been following a defensive military strategy characterized by two main components: the development of ballistic missiles for deterrence, and employment of asymmetric tactics for defense. However, since the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011, Iran has periodically integrated offensive elements in its doctrine. Iran’s current forward defense doctrine is aimed at countering potential threats proactively beyond its borders by employing asymmetric military means. By developing missile systems, supporting militant organizations, and adopting hybrid warfare as tool of regional power projection, Iran has gradually transitioned from a defensive threat-centric posture to an offensive target-centric posture.

On military scale, Iran has developed asymmetric capabilities to overcome deficiencies in its military prowess. Beside vast arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles, Iran operates variety of unmanned systems, including kamikaze drones, which have proven their combat efficiency in Russia-Ukraine war and even in Red Sea Crisis. These systems, particularly when employed in large number, provide Iran necessary targeting capability to saturate defensive systems of technological superior adversaries and therefore also provide deterrence to great extent.

Similarly, by successfully exploiting the power vacuum in conflict-ridden Middle East, Iran has established footholds in entire region. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has successfully unified various militant organizations under its aegis. This politico-military coalition, often dubbed as “Axis of Resistance”, is directed to project Tehran’s interests, and thus reflects the offensive component of Iran’s transforming doctrinal posture.

The most profound impact of Iran’s growing offensive posture can be observed in maritime domain. Iran has successfully consolidated its position at key maritime choke points including Strait of Hormuz in Persian Gulf and Bab-el-Mandeb in Red Sea. Using asymmetric capabilities like swarming tactic utilizing small fast attack-crafts, mines, drones, and anti-ship missiles, Iranian security forces and Iran-backed militias have exhibited the potential to disrupt maritime traffic passing through these regions. Thus, despite being a regional power with no credible power projection capability, Iran has acquired potential to impart global ramifications by exploiting the geographical vulnerability of Persian Gulf as well as Red Sea through asymmetric means.

The Gulf of Oman provides maritime connectivity between Persian Gulf and Northern Arabian Sea, and eventually with Indian Ocean. The oil rich region generates approximately one-third of global oil production and possess more than half of world’s crude oil reserves. Covering an area more than 87,000 square-mile, the gulf is only 30 miles wide at its narrowest point in Strait of Hormuz. The strait is one of the most important maritime choke point through which estimated 17 million barrels of oil transits into Indian Ocean. Any crisis in Persian Gulf can disrupt the maritime routes and can have far-reaching consequences for global energy markets and world economy.

Similarly, Red Sea Transit route accounts for 12 percent of global maritime trade and being the only connectivity channel between Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, holds paramount geopolitical importance. Iran-backed Houthi militia now represents Tehran’s bastion in Red Sea.  As of March 15, 2024, 67 incidents involving attacks on maritime vessels by Houthis have been recorded. Houthis are using short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, suicide drones, unmanned surface vessels (USVs), and even conducting boat and helicopter raids against merchant vessels in Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Shipping vessels are now opting for the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope to reach Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. This shift is anticipated to reduce shipping operational efficiency by around 25 percent. By the first half of February 2024, 586 container vessels had been rerouted, while container tonnage crossing the Suez Canal fell by 82 percent. According to OSINT sources, as of 11 March 2024, coalition naval forces have intercepted/destroyed 28 missiles, 147 aerial drones, 19 unmanned-surface vessels, and other military systems. However, interception of Houthi’s cheap rudimentary weapon systems by expensive air-defence missile system is economically unsustainable in longer run.

Many analysts argue that the transition of Iran towards a more aggressive posture might indicate vulnerability rather than strength. Iran faces a dilemma as it seeks regional dominance while managing complex relationships with neighboring countries. Iran’s military assertiveness, while intended to showcase strong resolve and increasingly capable military prowess, poses risk of significant strategic miscalculations. In brief, three major implications of Iran’s assertive posture can be highlighted.

First, Iran’s increased assertiveness has intensified security dilemma between Iran and its adversaries. Iran’s proliferation of offensive capabilities, including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones, is an indication of regional arms race which can compromise regional balance of power and subsequently disrupt strategic stability. This can yield risks of conflict eruption and inadvertent escalation of military crisis into large scale war.

Second, the disruption of key maritime routes across Persian Gulf and Red Sea can undermine global shipping subsequently leading to global energy and economic crisis. This can compel global powers to increase their naval presence in the region to safeguard their maritime interest. The increase militarization of maritime choke points will further complicate regional geopolitical landscape.

Third, IRGC continuous support for proxy militias and insurgent groups in foreign countries can exacerbate conflicts and undermines efforts to achieve political stability. Such groups are irrational actors and therefore cannot be deterred through traditional means. The possession of offensive long-range guided systems, including ballistic/cruise missiles and drones, in hands of non-state actors grants them more operational flexibility and superior fire power, thus complicating defensive countermeasures. By equipping militant organizations with such military systems, Iran has increased the volatility of regional security landscape.

In a nutshell, Iran has emerged as important player in regional power politics. With growing offensive posture in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and the broader region, Iran has exhibited capability to impart its influence at regional as well as global level. As the competition of power in Indo-Pacific will intensify, the role of Iran in regional strategic calculus will increase correspondingly. Instead of employing coercive policies, there is need to undertake confidence building measures (CBMs) and craft regulatory mechanism between regional and international actors to sustain strategic stability and avoid conflict eruption which can have far-reaching consequences at regional as well as global level.

Ahmad Ibrahim
Ahmad Ibrahim
The author is an Independent Researcher and holds M.Phil Degree in Strategic Studies from National Defence University.