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Iran’s Military: Something to Fear or a Paper Tiger?

A Russian-built, Kilo-class diesel submarine purchased in the late 1990s by Iran, is towed by a support vessel in this photograph taken in the central Mediterranean Sea during the week of December 23. The submarine and the support ship arrived at Port Said, Egypt, on Tuesday and were expected to begin transiting the Suez Canal today, Jan. 2, 1996. Ships and aircraft from the U.S. NavyÕs Sixth Fleet are tracking the submarine, which has been making the transit on the surface. This is the third Kilo-class submarine the Iranians have purchased from Moscow.

Tehran’s military had a big few days: Iran unveiled its largest warship ever — and took a peek at one of the United States’ most powerful nuclear submarines. But looking past the headlines, how dangerous is Iran’s military overall? Does it posse a threat to the U.S. over the longterm? 

The Week that Was

An Iranian naval drill last week saw the Islamic Republic’s Navy testing cruise missiles in the Gulf of Oman. During the exercises, Iran unveiled what they claim is their new Zereh ship, a small type of missile-launching corvette. Though the diminutive ship was touted as brand-new in Iranian media, it is likely based on the French Combattante II missile boats that Iran received in the mid-to-late-1970s or an upgrade of that design. 

And it wasn’t the only new Iranian ship either. 

Huge — But Combat Effective?

Iran unveiled a ship literally too large to go unnoticed: the enormous oil tanker-turned-expeditionary-landing-pad Makran made its debut. Loosely modeled on American Expeditionary Sea Bases, the Makran is clearly meant as a power-projection tool that would, in theory, allow the Islamic Republic to push its adversaries further out to sea and protect Iran’s littoral waters and coast.

Like much of Iran’s military equipment, questions remain about the Makran’s combat effectiveness and ability to defend itself, particularly from a concerted American effort to sink the ship. Though certainly Iran’s largest ship, it may in effect be Iran’s largest floating target.

Ships aside, Iran did manage to capture an American submarine, the USS Georgia, on video — but was it an accident, or a carefully orchestrated American show of force?

USS Georgia

The USS Georgia, commissioned in the mid-1980s, is a nuclear-powered submarine that began life as a ballistic missile submarine, that the U.S. Navy later converted as a guided missile submarine. Today, the USS Georgia carries 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and has four 21-inch torpedo tubes. In the process of conversion to a guided missile submarine, two Trident missile launch tubes were converted to lockout chambers, which allows the submarine to host 66 special operations forces.

The submarine’s nuclear propulsion and formidable arsenal make it incredibly powerful and dangerous, though the USS Georgia has had a fair share of mishaps.


As part of Georgia’s conversion to a guided missile submarine, one of the sub’s Trident nuclear ballistic missiles was accidentally damaged by a misplaced service ladder. Though a large gash was cut into the missile’s nose cone, no nuclear material or radiation leaked into the submarine. 

In 2010, another forgotten piece of equipment, this time a bolt, was left in Georgia’s reduction gears, trashing the gears and forcing the submarine to undergo several months of costly repairs. Additionally, the USS Georgia struck a buoy while transitioning a submarine base in 2015, causing light damage to the submarine’s outer hull.

I Spy

Late last year, the submarine transited Strait of Hormuz and entered the Arabian Gulf to “ensure maritime stability and security” in the region around Iran. Georgia’s time there coincided with this week’s Iranian naval and missile drills, which shockingly captured images of the submarine.

Iranian camera crews captured video of the submarine sailing just under the surface of the water at periscope depth. Speculation online ran rampant and ranged from disbelief that an American nuclear submarine would be so unaware of the nearby Iranian presence, to smug satisfaction at what some described as an American show of force.


Though last weekend was marked by a great deal of fanfare in Iranian media, the country’s two new naval acquisitions are unlikely to change the balance of power in the region. And their spotting of the USS Georgia? Most likely an intentional show of force by the much more powerful American submarine. 

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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