All of this makes Iran a tough competitor on its coastline, undoubtedly capable of raising the threshold for U.S. intervention in the Gulf. But it isn’t, ultimately, insurmountable. Iran’s naval potency diminishes sharply with distance and duration. Iran could mine the Strait, restrict commercial traffic and delay entry to U.S. forces while imposing moderate levels of risk in the meantime. However, its sclerotic command and control systems and lack of survivable land-based air-power betray an enduring inability to enforce a close or continuous blockade of the Straits, much less defeat the U.S. Navy in an open, protracted naval war.
No military balance is static, however, and the current extent of Iran’s naval inferiority isn’t necessarily immutable. Over the longer term, two shifts in the geopolitical landscape bode well for continued improvements to Iran’s prospects at sea. First, the emergence of a weak and divided Iraq in the place of a former existential rival is a geostrategic windfall. Historically, the greater salience of defending land borders has been a principal constraint on the development of naval power in countries with both coastlines and contestable continental frontiers – think China or France or Germany. For Iran, that may no longer be the case. With its western continental approaches now largely secure, and furthermore with the situation to it east improving as the U.S. backs out of Afghanistan, Tehran can channel a progressively greater proportion of is defense expenditure into its Navy.
Second, for China, cultivating Iran’s sea-denial capabilities is emerging as the most cost effective means of diluting U.S. primacy in the Gulf. This matters to Beijing because it is profoundly dependent on the sea-lines traversing the Gulf yet unable to reach or secure them with its own navy – and is therefore vulnerable to a distant U.S. blockade. There’s a reason, after all, why a good number of Iran’s anti-ship missiles are already stamped “Made in China.”
Raoul Heinrichs is Sir Arthur Tange Scholar at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, ANU, an editor at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and Deputy Editor of Pnyx. This article was originally published on the Lowy Interpreter.