Iran’s Asymmetric Threat

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New Year in the Persian Gulf has opened in the usual atmosphere of scurrility, mistrust and competition. The Iranian nuclear crisis – already animated by economic and cyber warfare, an unrelenting diplomatic offensive, and a systematic program of sabotage, espionage and assassination – has, over the past month, incorporated yet another aspect: the specter of naval confrontation.

Iran is planning a new round of naval war games in February. These follow an earlier round, which unfolded against the backdrop of two unusually bold threats: the first, to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to the imposition of new sanctions; the second, to attack a U.S. aircraft carrier should it return to the Gulf.

Neither threat has so far been acted upon, of course, nor are they likely to be. As a number of analysts have noted, any attempt by Iran to disrupt the passage of oil out of the Gulf would be a largely self-defeating move, given its current economic fragility and abiding dependence on oil exports.

Rather, Iranian bellicosity is better understood as an attempt to shape expectations about its future behavior. In the rough-and-tumble world of international politics, a reputation for recklessness, even irrationality, can be a useful bargaining tool, as North Korean negotiating behavior attests. In particular, Iran is determined to drive up the risks of an attack on its territory, especially its nuclear facilities, by conveying the resolve and ability to respond with naval operations along a spectrum of intensity, from low level harassment of merchant shipping to the kind of hit-and-run attacks on U.S. naval platforms more commonly associated with Chinese strategy in the Western Pacific.

That questions remain about the credibility of these threats is cold comfort for U.S. military planners, though. For them, a preoccupation with capabilities rather than intentions, which can change, means they now confront a potentially asymmetric challenge in the Gulf at a time when they are trying to make deep cuts in the defense budget and reorient their strategic focus to Asia. Indeed, evidence suggests that Washington is taking Tehran’s threats seriously.

This is no surprise. By regional standards, the Iranian navy represents an atypically strong coastal force with a coherent force structure designed not to defeat a superior naval power so much as impose prohibitive costs on intervening in Iran’s southern air and maritime approaches. Built for sea denial, it comprises submarines, mines and fast attack craft armed with anti-ship cruise missiles. Each of these capabilities is cheap relative to the platforms against which they’re being fielded, and each places a disproportionate burden on the side seeking to defend against them. Submarines are hard to find; mines take a long time to clear; and Fast Attack Craft, especially when used in numbers and dispersed formations, are difficult to prevent closing to a range at which their missiles become a serious risk to even well protected ships.

The effects of this force are magnified by congenial naval geography. By contrast with the Western Pacific, with its oceanic expanses and concentric archipelagic chains, the Persian Gulf is a narrow body of water, making it conducive to offensive denial operations. It has one constricted entry point. This creates a funneling effect that allows Iranian forces to concentrate their firepower. Short distances make operations less surveillance intensive, and therefore less technologically demanding. They also compress the warning time available to an enemy defending against missile strikes, while long stretches of noisy coastal water create an ideal acoustic environment for lurking Iranian submarines.  

Comments
18
Michael
July 4, 2012 at 08:24

Flamming each other, or bosting about "who has the larger stick" and "what they would do with it" will not help in this situation. We are watching two thieves fighting.  If at all possible, the showing of war, will be enough to keep the peace.
 
There never was a good war or a bad peace… I pray to God that peace ensues here. 
 

arun
July 4, 2012 at 06:56

Mr Venkat..
I dont know what you and the ordinary laymen think of Iran.But one thing is for sure,no one likes some one putting dust into their food plates.Its a simple truth that Iran is an oil rich nation and they hav only oil to export and meet the needs of citizens.And look at what America and allies are doing.They simply bribe the officials and leaders of most of the countries and backs them from buying oil from Iran. I hope by ur name,that u r from India. Im also an Indian. Did u notice last time whom did Hilary Clinton meet first when she visited our country last time?..it was none other than Mamta of Bengal. Hav it ever crossed your mind why did she meet her?..As of now, Mamta is the most powerful and problematic one in UPA govt. So making a deal for her,means getting support from UPA..and do u know for what purpose Hilary used this UPA support?..for drafting our Iran policy..Just within a few days of her visit,we,the mighty holy democratic country in the world,took a u turn in purchasing oil from Iran..
A better idea or position against US,only if the leadership of our country hav enuf balls would be to declare support for Iran,just like China nd Russia did. Nothing happened to them and will happen. 99% of the world still thinks that US is a mighty,untouchable power,but the fact is that,they dont even have money to spend repairing their roads!! A greater attitude which would make an even bigger impact is to declare we are open for Nuke deals with Iran for oil..but that wont be happening as long as we hav citizens nd laymens supporting US for absurd and wrong reasons and also with our spineless politicians..
And just for ur rethinking…do some research on claims by US on Iraq having weapons of mass destruction..nothing ws found so far!!
 

Eugene
February 7, 2012 at 14:05

How many suiside attack subs are there in Iranian Navy?

Judge
January 27, 2012 at 17:16

Mr. Venkat I feel sorry for you and many like you who think it is all that easy for YOUR AMERICA to come and kill and loot anything and everything with no repercussions. I for one am glad that somebody has the BALLS to stand up to hypocrites that they are. If you think that AMERICA is right I suggest that you pick up a stick and start walking towards Afghanistan to play your part. Im sure you will have pissed your pants multiple times even before you get to fire a single round.
Americas fire power is of no use anymore because they cant afford to fight anymore. Maybe you have been living on MARS because the last I heard, the west is BANKRUPT. NATO & UN are all scams for the general public to think that they have some insurance in case somebody attacks them. Mr.Venkat, I hope that people like you who live on fear and hate learn to live with people from all races PEACEFULLY. AND IF YOU CANT, BE MAN ENOUGH TO CHALLENGE YOUR OPPONENT FACE TO FACE RATHER THEN PLAY YOUR DIRTY GAMES LIKE DHAKA, KASHMIR AND MANY MORE, THE LIST GOES ON AND ON.
The part I agree with you Mr.venkat is the part where I also wish America, NATO and/or ALLIES start a full fledged war in middle east and south asia, specifically “Khurasan”. Then I would like to face men like you Mr.venkat and see who gets the victory. I am not one of those who USES somebody else shoulder to fire a gun. You dont know anything about Iran. If YOUR AMERICA stops doing business with you today, you wont know where to go Mr.venkat so please stop spreading hate. We know you have your interests with the West and that is why you would do anything for the White Skin. Human race is does not breath unless it has something to look forward to so please spare us your WISDOM

B.Causeiknow
January 27, 2012 at 11:09

Q: How many suicide bombers are there in the US Navy?

B.Causeiknow
January 27, 2012 at 11:02

Would the Moderator please censure venkat s .kanakamedala for the unnecessary use of upper case font.

venkat s .kanakamedala
January 26, 2012 at 23:45

IRAN IS DIGGING ITS OWN GRAVE.IT MAY WANT AND WISH TO GO TO STONE ERA.SAME WITH CHINA,NORTH KOREA AND PAKISTAN.IT MAY BE BETTER FOR AMERICA,NATO AND ITS ALLIED FORCES TO GET READY WITH 500,000 MX NUKES OF 15000 MILES RANGE TO USE IN 5 STAGES AGAINST ITS HOSTILE NATIONS.AMERICA AND NATO SHOULD PROGRAM ME ITS NUKES IN SUCH A WAY TO JUDGE NATION(S) AND CONTINENT(S).ULTIMATE VICTORY IS FOR AMERICA,NATO AND ITS ALLIED NATIONS.THE GOD JUDGES PEOPLE AND NATIONS FOR THEIR UNRIGHTEOUSNESS.THAT HAPPENS ON THE DAY OF ARMAGEDDON OR DOOMS DAY.

venkat s .kanakamedala
January 26, 2012 at 23:37

IRAN IS DIGGING ITS OWN GRAVE.IT WANT TO GO TO STONE IRAN.SAME CHINA AND PAK ARE WISHING.BETTER AMERICA AND NATO TO PROGRAM ME IT NUKE IN 5 STAGES OF STRIKING THESE COUNTRIES TO DESTROY.THAT IS THE ONLY ULTIMATE SOLUTION.NUKES SHOULD BE PROGRAMMED AGAINST RUSSIA ALSO DUE TO HOSTILE.ON THE DOOMS DAY ALL THESE EVIL NATIONS WILL BE DESTROYED BY AMERICA,NATO N ITS ALLIES.IT HAPPENS ONE DAY.BETTER AMERICA AND NATO SHOULD EQUIP WITH 500,000 MX NUKES WITH 15000 MILES RANGE TO JUDGE NATION(S) N CONTINENT(S).

jayraj
January 26, 2012 at 03:15

Iran should never make a mistake of attacking the US Navy. In fact, when two US aircraft carriers sail through Hormuz, the appetite to attack was tested. Iranian navy is hardly compatible with the might of US Navy. USS enterprise is in the phasing out phase. Though its been refurbished. The guess is, the seventh fleet led by USS enterprise would make the first strike, if it all the US navy decides to do so. Worst come worse the flagship may suffer severe damages salvaging the crew. And sacrificing the ship, the Pentagon will get a solid mandate for attacking Iran. USS Lincoln and USS Steins or modern nimitz class carriers with impeccable destruction abilities that Iran may not be geared to sustain.
In the desert fox operation, USS Missouri (may not be a carrier) was similarly used and then farewelled through the hands of the president then. Eventually it was used in a Hollywood film ‘under siege’ and then wrecked to a level of ready-to-junk. This is my imagination.

MO
January 25, 2012 at 16:17

You have Obama confused with the GOP party….

Major Lowen Gil Marquez, Phil Army
January 25, 2012 at 11:47

The way i see the Iran hostile behavior in their plan about their submarine used in the gulf, they resulted to the designed of inflicting damage to their enemy naval armada by using the unconventional tactics of strike and swift withdrawal it is a tactics of the Chinese communist… this kind of tactics were already obsolete, its better for the Iran to keep simple and become human to their fellow human being or else Iran will be destroyed in the long run because of their psychotic strategy…

concerned
January 25, 2012 at 09:19

Despite the hubris in which it wallows, Washington understands the vulnerability of its Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and would not risk losing a fleet and 20,000 US naval personnel unless it was to gain an excuse for a nuclear attack on Iran.

A nuclear attack on Iran would alert both China and Russia that they could suffer the same fate.

The consequence would be that the world would face a higher risk of nuclear armageddon than existed in the mutually assured destruction of the US-Soviet standoff.

MO
January 25, 2012 at 09:03

You are confusing Obama with the GOP….it should read it’s a shame that’s the way the GOP thinks can boost its dwindwling popularity!

Doug
January 25, 2012 at 05:57

If Iran were to try and implement its threat, what it would boil down to is how much punishment it is willing to accept to its infrastructure in order to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf. I would have to think that besides protecting any tankers and freighters transiting the straight, our naval and air forces in the region would be striking every Iranian military and industrial asset within range. Those are the attacks that will quickly bring any Iranian adventure to a quick conclusion.

Roy Lofquist
January 25, 2012 at 05:39

Remember the amphibious assault on Kuwait? Didn’t think so. The U.S. has an overwhelming armada of land based aircraft that can strike Iran’s coastal regions with impunity.

muted
January 25, 2012 at 02:44

U.S. naval superiority in and around the Persian Gulf ensures the secure transit of energy resources from this vital area to points beyond. China has neither the desire nor the capability to provide this type of global good. I don’t disagree with the author that there are motivations for Beijing to sell naval armaments to Iran, but his assessment of these motivations are off-the-mark. Few countries are as dependent on global trade as is China. So long as it maintains generally positive relations with Washington, Beijing is able to ‘free ride’ on the security the U.S. Navy provides for global shipping.
China wants to see a military conflict involving Iran and the Western powers about as much as it wants to take responsibility for securing global sea lines of communication.

Dale Lanan
January 24, 2012 at 23:52

Earth is the only platform capable of supporting life in the Universe within striking distance of what I can possibly say here on the internet for peace.. That is important as the little guy, whoever wants can step from essentially anywhere and perhaps alter the course of history.
There is talk of power and symmetry in the world but the leverage things like oil and nuclear power, their byproducts and mixing with chemically unstable explosive is like a ‘thousand points of light’ all fuses lit while at the same time the sky is filling or has filled to point of self inundation with gasses capable of keeping heat from escaping to space.. Don’t know where that says anything of the kind in the Koran or Bible but I bet it can be read between the lines somewhere or something. Money is leveraged by fractional reserve loan as well and defusing is like strike Hope

SLO
January 24, 2012 at 23:18

it’s a shame that’s the way obama thinks can boost his dwindwling popularity!

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