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By John Helmer, Moscow

This month’s escalation of US and British threats to Iran’s oil export shipping and maritime defences in the Persian Gulf is to be matched with Russian assistance to the Iran Navy and to shore batteries of air defence missiles, as well as the 300-kilometre range Russian Kalibr missile, a US Navy ship-killer.

The Kalibr, according to US assessments, “skims just above the sea, making it difficult to detect at a distance, before leaping up to three times the speed of sound on the terminal approach—offering a challenging target for missile-defense systems. The Kalibr can be fired not only from underwater by submarines, but also by relatively small and cheap corvettes.”

Iran, according to its experts, has its own anti-shipping missiles and drones deployed along the Iranian coastline, on the sea surface and on board submarines, concentrating at the Strait of Hormuz.   What the Iranian arms may lack in speed, range and electronic capabilities, the introduction of Russian electronic counter-measures, which Russians sources say has begun, will assist by jamming or spoofing US tracking equipment.

The result has already been signalled by the British, German and French governments in their response to Trump Administration requests for a multinational naval convoy operation in the Persian Gulf, and also in response to Iranian warnings. At sea, Iranian naval commanders have already deterred the British with the warning: “don’t put your life in danger.” The response of the Europeans is the one from Germany’s Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister,  Olaf Scholz: “We must prevent an escalation that could end in a much bigger conflict. So I think that this [naval operation] is not the best idea.”

The British naval response has been to add a warship in the Gulf, the destroyer HMS Duncan.  But this has failed to add confidence to shippers. On July 30 British Petroleum’s (BP) chief financial officer Brian Gilvary rejected the efficacy of naval convoys to safeguard BP’s vessels. The company, he declared, “has no current plans to take any of its own vessels through the strait, adding that BP is shipping oil out of the region using chartered tankers.”   According to Gilvary, “we will continue to make shipments through there but you won’t see any BP-flagged tankers going through in the short term.”  In other words, it’s up to others to run their own risks of seizure or destruction. But for them the market has already decided by raising the cost of premiums that independent charterers should be deterred.  For the foreseeable future marine underwriters are requiring them to negotiate terms according to the specifics of the voyages proposed

The escalation of US military threats against Iran so far this year is well documented. Each move has been matched by a Russian Defence Ministry and General Staff response, a few of them made public by the Iranian side; far fewer by the Russians. For background, read this.  For a 2013 backgrounder by a former US Navy analyst on the evolution of Iranian Navy strategy, cooperation with Russia, and use of the press for bluff and deterrence,  read this

The tanker war commenced between July 3 and July 4, when the British Government, through the Gibraltar administration, issued a “specified ship notice” against the Russian-owned, Panama-flagged oil tanker, the Grace-1, carrying a large cargo of Iranian oil. Before dawn on July 4, British Marines attacked the vessel and seized it. Follow the timeline of what happened next.  

British military photo of the Grace-1 during the helicopter assault on the vessel. Source: https://www.rivieramm.com/

The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the Grace-1 attack on July 5; it did not condemn Iran’s retaliation on July 19 when the Stena Impero was boarded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on July 19.  We told you so, was the response by Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova on July 11, following warning messages between Iranian and British warships.  

“We condemn the seizure of the super tanker sailing under the Panama flag on July 4, conducted by the Gibraltar authorities aided by Great Britain’s Royal Marine Commando unit. We view the seizure of the vessel and its cargo as a deliberate action aimed at aggravating the situation around Iran and Syria. Laudatory comments by top US and British officials immediately after the operation confirm this conclusion and prove that the action had been long in the making with the involvement of respective services and agencies of several countries. Gibraltar’s reference to the fact that the cargo aboard the vessel was meant to be delivered to a Syrian oil refinery hit by EU sanctions only aggravates the situation. The following question arises: Does this circumstance mean that the EU is following in the US’ footsteps and resorting to extraterritorial sanctions against third countries.”

On July 11, spokesman Zakharova called the British action “political rage”. Regarding the Iranian action, she said: “there should be no escalation of tensions in the region, given that the situation is becoming dramatic as it is…What is needed, therefore, is not to foment tensions in the region but, on the contrary, to act in such a way as to steer the situation towards the negotiating process in order to answer the questions the parties may have.” 

Since the Stena Impero action on July 19, the Russian foreign ministry has made no mention of it. Instead on July 23,  Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy minister in charge of the Middle East, announced a detailed “Russia’s security concept for the Gulf area”.  Read it in full

Centre: Deputy Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, presenting the security concept on July 23.

There is no mention of the naval engagements in the proposal. There is an attack on US and British deployments. One of the proposed security concepts is “renunciation of permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf.”  Turkish military forces in Qatar and Iraq are also implied in this point.

A few days later, on July 27, Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, the Iranian naval commander, arrived in Russia for talks with his counterpart , Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov and other officers of the Russian General Staff, and to attend the St. Petersburg naval parade on July 28.  The Iran press agency ran this excerpt of the Navy Day parade.   

The next day Khanzadi and Yevmenov signed an agreement on maritime defence cooperation, reported by the Iranian press as “the first time in the history of their relations.”

Admiral Hossein Khanzadi with Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Vice Admiral Igor Vladimirovich Osipov, at a joint military commission meeting between Iran and Russia in Tehran on Dec 25, 2018. There are no published photographs of Khanzadi’s meetings with Yevmenov in St. Petersburg and the Russian General Staff in Moscow.

In this week’s communiqués, the two sides “also highlighted the need for preserving the security of the Caspian Sea through collective efforts of all littoral states.” Russian and Iranian navies have been participating in joint exercises of vessels, sub-sea and air defence, intelligence-sharing and electronic counter-measures for some time. In St Petersburg this week Khanzadi announced that Russia had agreed to a joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean. “A coordination meeting will be held between the two sides”, Khanzadi said. “By Indian Ocean we mean a significant area in northern parts of the ocean, including the Makran Sea, Strait of Hormuz and also the Persian Gulf.”  There has been no subsequent statement from the Russian Defence Ministry on the joint manoeuvres or their date.  Tass, the state news agency, has reported the agreement indirectly, quoting Iranian, not Russian sources. 

 “It may be considered a turning point in the relations of Tehran and Moscow along the defense trajectory,” Khanzadi also said. This is not an exaggeration. Sources confirm that an earlier joint memorandum was signed for cooperation between the Iranian and Russian navies in the Caspian Sea; and that this year so far it has been followed up with one joint exercise of combat units. If the latest agreement is implemented in the same way for the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, Russian sources believe it will be the first of its kind in joint operations and training.

Admiral Khanzadi briefing on February 22, 2019; his pointer indicates the Strait of Hormuz; to the east is the Gulf of Oman and the Makran Sea.  

A July 31 map of recent tanker ship transponder signals from oil tankers loading at Saudi terminals in the Persian Gulf, and then turning off their identifying signals as they transit the Strait of Hormuz. The strait is 33 kms wide at its narrowest point, and the two directional shipping lanes, eastward and westward, are just 3 kms wide.  

How far and how fast the Iranian Navy has been adding Russian defence weapons and technology is not widely discussed by Russian experts. The reason, one of them said this week, is that there is increasingly tough enforcement by the Federal Security Service (FSB) of state secrets regulations against disclosure of military information, even from open sources.

One of the few Moscow military experts to comment is Igor Korotchenko, editor of National Defence Magazine in Moscow. “As you know, Iran has previously purchased a batch of Russian S-300PMU-2, so in the light of new threats and the pressure that Tehran is subjected to from Washington, the purchase of S-400 would be an absolutely logical step. Obviously, Iran has realized the need to create a comprehensive air defense system, which will be based on Russian technology. From a political point of view, today there are no obstacles to the conclusion of such contracts between Moscow and Tehran, as air defense technology is exclusively a defensive weapon. Everything depends on the issue of the solvency of the Iranian side, but, as you know, Iran is quite solvent and has the necessary financial resources.” 

Korotchenko (right) noted that testing of the S-300 systems in Iran against simulated air and missile attack has proved its deterrent value. “A year ago, the Iranian Defense Ministry conducted a comprehensive air defense test, during which a real raid of enemy missiles was simulated in conditions of electronic interference. The Iranian Defense Minister personally attended these exercises and gave the highest assessment to the Russian S-300PMU-2 systems, which hit all target missiles without exception.”

Russian sources say that to date the Iranians have been deploying their S-300 batteries under IRGC control to protect “objects of special state importance – for example, the political centres Tehran and Isfahan; the residences of the spiritual leaders of the country, and to cover nuclear facilities from possible air strikes by the United States, Israel or coalition forces currently operating in the Persian Gulf region”. The sources are sceptical that the S-300s performing these missions might be redeployed or repositioned for naval operations in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman.

Korotchenko has not commented on whether Iran has requested the longer-range S-400, and government officials in Moscow have denied US media claims that Iran has requested, and Russia refused.  “Let them [US] continue spreading [fake news]… Everything goes as it goes”, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of military industry, Yury Borisov, retorted in June.  

The deployment on Iran’s fast light surface vessels and submarines of the Kalibr missile has been rumoured in western press reports.

In parallel, the Indian Navy’s newest class of Talwar frigates is confirmed with the Kalibr. In  the newest Talwars under construction, the Kalibr has been superseded by a joint Indian-Russian development of the supersonic BrahMos missile, a variant of the Russian Yakhont. Read this  and this

Three Talwar-class frigates of the Indian Navy - from left to right: F 51 Trikand, F 44 Tabar and F 45 Teg (Picture source : Indian Navy). These vessels are reported to be armed with A-190 100mm artillery guns, strike missile and air defense systems, including Kalibr and Shtil complexes and torpedoes. The frigates are 124.8 meters long, develop a speed of 30 knots and have an operating range of almost 8,000 kms.  The new versions, now under shipyard contract in Goa, “will be constructed with a partial transfer of technology from Russia.” 

How much transfer of technology from Russia is going on with Iran is secret for details; public for deterrence of the US, the Europeans, Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

When the IRGC shot down a US Navy drone on June 20, the public Iranian reporting of how the feat was accomplished emphasized that “it was hit by an Iranian and indigenized defense system and it is a major honour for our country”, declared Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.  

Iranian air defence officers have added a few details on the radar systems supporting the missile batteries. Commander of the Iranian Army’s Khatam ol-Anbiya Air Defense Base Brigadier  General Alireza Sabahi Fard claimed this week “we have gained full self-sufficiency in area of radar systems and powerfully detect different advanced US planes and give them warning”.  

A detailed inventory of Iranian naval capabilities, including the newest of Iran’s “indigenized” anti-ship missiles, was published in Russian by Alexander Fedorov last month.  He described the incident on March 4 when there was a simulated IRGC fast-boat attack  against the US  Navy’s radar tracking vessel, USNS Invincible, then in the Gulf. “Naturally, to the Americans, who are used to feeling the masters in the Persian Gulf and the waters adjacent to it, the appearance of Iran’s powerful anti-ship weapons is unnerving. After all, Fateh-110, Khalij Fars or Hormuz-2 missiles can easily, if not sink, then disable any US Navy ship,” Fedorov concluded.

The US Navy’s surveillance ship USNS Invincible; for details of its capabilities and roles, read this.   The range of its radars is reportedly more than 12,000 kms. The  Invincible appeared in the Gulf a few days after the February 26 testing by the Iranians of two anti-ship missiles to hit targets in the Gulf of Oman at a range of 250 kms from the launch battery.

According to Fedorov, writing in July “Washington has been shocked by the news from US naval intelligence. According to this, the latest Iranian diesel-electric submarines of the Besat type with a displacement of 1,200 tonnes will be armed, in addition to torpedoes and mines, with anti-ship cruise missiles to be launched from under the surface. In other words, the Iranian Navy will be able to attack American ships at a distant approach to the shores of the country.”   

US assessments say it is far from certain the Besat submarine is already in the water.   “Past experience demonstrates that Tehran routinely exaggerates and obfuscates the scale of its defense projects, and the timeline in which they will be completed… While the status of the Besat class is more difficult to assess, if it is ever deployed it would mark another capability improvement.”

Russian and Iranian officials add next to no detail to the announcement of Khanzadi’s talks in St. Petersburg and Moscow this week.  

On July 31 Alexander Khrolenko (right) published an analysis of the implications for the naval balance  of power in the Gulf in a Russian edition of the state Sputnik news agency.  “Unprecedented joint ocean maneuvers and the likely continued presence of the Russian Navy in the ‘hotspots’ of the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf can affect the balance of power and be a stabilizing factor. And this is happening contrary to the plans of the United States and its allies, who seek to ignite a military conflict in the Persian Gulf and create an atmosphere of controlled chaos in Iran, by analogy with Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Khrolenko adds: “In the course of military and military-technical cooperation, Russia is able to significantly improve the defense potential of Iran with high-tech weapons, electronic warfare and space intelligence. It is known that the Iranian Navy is adopting the fourth-generation Amur submarines, anti-ship missiles with a range of up to 300 kilometers, for the effective use of which a modern system of geolocation and target designation is necessary (GLONASS and the Russian group of military satellites). Russian military assistance allows Iran to make a qualitative leap in the field of modern weapons and combat use of high-tech systems.”

“Naval cooperation between Moscow and Tehran is successfully developing in the Caspian Sea, where a powerful international group of the Navy has been formed, whose ships are able to control the situation thousands of kilometres from their bases. And yet the main direction of the growth of combat capability of the Iranian Navy is the Indian Ocean, where the high command prefers non-nuclear submarines, ultra-small submarines and warships of small displacement. To increase the survivability of naval units in a military conflict, [Iran’s command] takes into account the experience of the war with Iraq and the technological superiority of the probable enemy, which is considered the United States and its European allies.”

“By analogy with the previous Russian-Iranian naval exercises in the Caspian, it is possible to predict the predominance of missile systems in the Indian Ocean. I believe that the experience of the Russian experience of anti- ship missile firing and combat use of the Kalibr-NK missile complex on the positions of terrorist groups in Syria will be useful for Iranian sailors. Given the difficult situation in the Middle East, the likely targets for missile strikes by the combined  Russian-Iranian squadron are quite obvious.”

Gennady Nechaev (right), a well-known Moscow-based military analyst and contributor to Vzglyad, notes there are limits on the extent of the transfers of military technology to Iran.  “The Russian leadership is obliged to look with caution, if not alarm, at the prospect of the emergence of missiles in neighbouring countries which can hit targets deep in the territory of Russia itself. In light of this concern, the transfer to Iran of any systems with a range of well over 300 kms appears to be a step beyond reality.”

Nechaev adds that in the area of electronic intelligence-gathering, tracking, targeting,  and electronic counter-measures (ECM), “Russia is certainly one of the recognized leaders in this field. This leadership is seen as one of the strategic advantages available to facilitate with relatively inexpensive means, if not to nullify, then to significantly neutralize the quantitative superiority of the NATO bloc in high-precision weapons. The development of electronic warfare is part of the Kremlin’s declared ‘asymmetric response’ to the US and Western attempts to drag the country into a new, ruinous arms race. In such a situation, Russia will definitely not share any advanced developments with anyone, although in some limited areas such cooperation is possible. For example, in radio intelligence, low-power sources of interference to mask local objects,  generate false targets, such as signature simulators and other means of combating drones. Russia openly offers such equipment at international exhibitions and other arms trading platforms.  Also, cooperation between Iran and China is very likely.”

One of the political results of escalating US operations against Iran is the lowering of Iranian inhibitions towards Moscow. “In the event that cooperation [between Iran and Russia] will grow,” Nechaev observes, the likelihood increases of a “place for permanent basing of the Russian Navy in one of the Iranian ports with the provision of airfield nearby — the same type of arrangement as Tartus and Hmeimim on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. For the time being, however, given the tensions in the Iranian leadership on closer cooperation with Moscow, which are well-known, and Iran’s own ambitions in the region, the [base option] seems unlikely.”

END NOTE:  the second lead image is a cartoon of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran seizing the British-flagged vessel, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19. It was published in this Iranian news agency source. During the incident armed IRGC vessels warned off the British Navy frigate HMS Montrose. For details, read this.  The July 19 action was in retaliation for the British Marine boarding of the Grace-1 while the vessel was under way  in the Strait of Gibraltar on July 4. That action was requested by US national security adviser John Bolton; refused by Spain; and refused by UK Ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch. Darroch was then punished  by leaks of his cables to the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister’s national security adviser; Darroch resigned in protest.

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