Iran’s naval forces have a split personality. There is the regular navy with conscripts and career officers with a chain of command to the defense minister and others in government.
And then there are the more elite seagoing divisions run by the Revolutionary Guard, whose commanders answer directly to the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The same two-tier structure applies to Iran’s land forces. But Iran’s warships and support vessels — often under watch by U.S. and allies — offer some of the clearest displays of the country’s divided military.
The two-sided nature of the naval forces also adds a layer of complexity to the U.S. claim that “Iran did do it” after two tankers were damaged this week in the Gulf of Oman.
Both naval forces operate relatively independently and with separate leadership — making it harder to discern who gave the orders and why if Iranian involvement is confirmed.
The U.S. Central Command on Thursday released a grainy video that a spokesman, Capt. Bill Urban, said showed a Revolutionary Guard “Gashti Class patrol boat” removing an unexploded mine from one of the damaged tankers.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, denied any Iranian role and accused the Trump administration of “sabotage diplomacy.”
Military experts and political analysts have followed developments in Iran’s two navies for years. Both have grown in size and scope.
What are the differences?
The Revolutionary Guard navy is mostly designed as a rapid-reaction force and for Marine-style amphibious landings. Its fleet ranges from torpedo boats to fast-moving patrol vessels and Zodiacs. The Guard’s main area of operation is in the Persian Gulf, with a specific mandate to protect Iran’s islands and oil installations.
The Iranian navy generally operates larger and more varied warships, including destroyers, mine sweepers, frigates and submarines. Its mission spans from coastal patrols to blue-water flotillas in international waters as far as the Pacific and Mediterranean. The United States and allies have accused Iran’s navy of carrying weapons to Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen — claims denied by Tehran.
About a decade ago, a military reorganization in Iran gave the Revolutionary Guard the principal responsibility for the Persian Gulf, which includes the strategic Strait of Hormuz. The regular navy was tasked with areas including the Gulf of Oman and Iran’s Caspian Sea waters.
Who is in charge?
Revolutionary Guard forces are under the direct control of Khamenei and his inner circle, who also oversee other key parts of the government, including the intelligence services.
The regular navy is also nominally under the supreme leader, who has the final word in all important military decisions. But the navy’s regular operations fall under the defense ministry and the elected leadership led by Iran’s president and parliament.
Have there been incidents with U.S. vessels?
Encounters are frequent in the Persian Gulf between U.S. warships and Iran’s maritime forces. Most often, the United States accuses Iranian fast boats — presumably operated by the Revolutionary Guard — of harassing U.S. ships such as vessels based at the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain. The Iranian close encounters with U.S. ships dropped off in recent years.
In 2016, Revolutionary Guard forces at sea briefly detained 10 U.S. sailors after claiming that American vessels strayed into Iranian waters near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf.
In 2007, the Revolutionary Guard also detained 15 British Royal Navy personnel from HMS Cornwall after they were surrounded off the coast near the Iran-Iraq border. The British personnel were released 13 days later.
What is the reach of Iran’s naval forces?
In 2011, two Iranian warships operated by the regular navy, the corvette Arvand and supply ship Kharg, entered the Mediterranean after transiting the Suez Canal. It was the first known deployment of Iranian military ships in the Mediterranean since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The two ships made a port call in Syria, a close ally of Iran.
Two years later, Iran announced that a navy flotilla entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time, making a port call in China. In 2014, China and Iran held joint naval exercises.
For years, Iranian naval commanders had said that plans were underway for a deployment to international waters in the Atlantic off the U.S. East Coast. No such mission has been carried out.