A couple of years ago, the Iranian navy announced it had deployed a submarine to the Red Sea as part of its patrol force there. We can’t be sure (from out here in Unclassified World) how many times submarines have deployed to the Red Sea since. It’s probably not many; Iran does better now with her Russian-built, Kilo-class submarines than she used to, in terms of keeping them ready and deployable, but her performance still wouldn’t be called great.
It’s good enough, however, to back up last week’s announcement that the Kilo-class submarine Younus (also spelled Younes and Yunes in transliteration) was heading for a deployment around the Indian Ocean, and would make stops in India and Sri Lanka while it was out. The submarine will be accompanied by the frigate Alborz (British-built Vosper Mark V class) and the auxiliary ship Bandar Abbas (a German-built 1970s-era replenishment ship with small deck guns, used for some patrol duties as well as supply missions).
The original announcement, from Admiral Siyavash Jarreh, deputy navy chief for operations, described the deployment as heading to “East Asia,” but it’s not clear how far east it will actually go. A surface task group consisting of a frigate and the auxiliary ship Kharg made a voyage to China in early 2013, calling in the East China Sea port of Zhangjiagang at the mouth of the Yangtze River (near Shanghai).
(Reportedly, the Iranians later announced that these ships had “forced” an Australian surveillance aircraft to “turn away” during a routine encounter in the Indian Ocean. According to the Australians, the encounter was ordinary, friendly, and professional, with no “forcing” involved.)
But it’s doubtful the submarine Younus will go that far east. The Kilo-class submarines are diesel-powered, conventionally-aspirated submarines which need to snorkel periodically, and require refueling during extended deployments. Younus couldn’t travel further east without a guaranteed place to refuel between India or Sri Lanka and China. The politics of refueling a foreign submarine, especially Iran’s submarine, are more freighted than those of admitting foreign surface combatants to local ports; it’s unlikely that Iran has made such arrangements yet (with, say, Malaysia). Transiting the Six-Degree Channel south of Great Nicobar Island, and the Strait of Malacca itself, would also entail making the submarine particularly vulnerable to detection. Iran would not retain control of how much she let other nations know about the Kilo submarine’s presence.
The day when Iran’s submarines go farther asea is presumably coming, however. Long before her submarines become a potential threat off the coast of the United States (see here and here for earlier promises to deploy the Iranian navy to the Atlantic – and the support framework for that potential is being constructed) – Iran’s submarine force will be a threat to shipping in the Eastern hemisphere. From close enough offshore, the submarines could pose a threat to targets on land as well, with submarine-launched cruise missiles that can range targets up to 140 statute miles (220 km) away.
By itself, the Iranian submarine threat isn’t very big, with only three subs capable of long-range operations. Layered with other threats, from terrorism and, eventually, nuclear-armed missiles, it will enlarge Iran’s multidimensional outreach as a radical regional power. In today’s conditions, the main submarine threat is to shipping in Iran’s immediate vicinity, and potentially to neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Longer-range deployments to the east don’t have significant political portents; Iran doesn’t have a purpose for sending particularly threatening signals in that direction.
But as analyst Mark Lowe pointed out in March, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, the Iranian navy’s commander, called the 2013 deployment to China “a prelude to [Iran’s] presence in the Atlantic Ocean.” This is a delicate way of saying that Iran’s navy is proving – to itself and its chain of command – that it can make such long transits. If the task group Sayyari promises for February 2014 heads to the Atlantic (see Fars News link above), it’s very unlikely to have a submarine with it. But an Atlantic deployment for a surface task group is certainly possible. And as Iran continues to turn at least some of her bluster into reality, a submarine won’t be that far behind.