Contesting the Persian Gulf: Iran’s Naval Vision Past and Present

By Chelsi Mueller
Submitted to Session P4974 (State Consolidation and Contestation in Qajar and Pahlavi Iran, 2017 Annual Meeting
Iranian Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Established in 1932 by Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran’s modern navy was a major symbol of Iranian sovereignty and independence. It also contributed momentum to the surge of anti-colonial, nationalist feeling in Iran as Reza Shah’s government sought, by various means, to throw off the stranglehold of the British in its southern provinces and in the Persian Gulf. Though the new Iranian fleet was no match for the British navy, the advent of Iranian warships bolstered Iran's capacity to challenge British authority in and around the Persian Gulf waterway.

In the 1930s, crises on the high seas brought Iran's new pattern of assertion in the Persian Gulf to a crescendo. The hauling down of a British flag on Qeshm Island by a group of Iranian naval officers in August 1933 caused much commotion in the British-protected Arab shaykhdoms where Iran's actions were viewed as an open insult and act of defiance against England. In Iran, this was regarded as a victory for the new navy and for a clever Iranian policy which leaned on the tactics of bluff and intrigue to put into force Iran's territorial claims while simultaneously bargaining with the British government to gain as many concessions as possible. These tactics rendered the Persian Gulf a volatile environment in which Iran’s attempts to challenge British authority fostered tension and ignited passions. This was a calculated strategy, aimed at gaining the Shah some leverage that he could use to abolish Britain’s capitulatory privileges, roll back its influence in the southern provinces, and restore Iran's territorial integrity and political independence.

Today, Iranian sea power is significantly outgunned by Western naval forces, not the least of which is the American Fifth Fleet stationed at Bahrain. Flamboyant naval exhibitions and deliberately staged provocations in the Persian Gulf remain a potent tool in the hands of Iran’s leaders to stir up national pride: whereas Reza Shah showcased Iranian naval power by inviting the merchants of Bushehr and Lingah to tour Iran's new gun boats, the Islamic Republic of Iran loops video footage of missiles blasting over the ocean, submarines surfacing, helicopters deploying divers and commandoes and fast torpedo boats practicing attacks against American vessels. This paper examines Iran’s naval vision under Reza Shah Pahlavi to provide a foundation for understanding the role of Iranian naval forces in contemporary Iran. Sources for this research include British and Iranian archival documents, historical newspapers and contemporary media.