Playing Poker in the Strait
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Playing Poker in the Strait


Does Iran boast the capacity to bar the Strait of Hormuz to commercial and naval shipping, as influential officials and lawmakers have repeatedly vowed to do? Doubtful – but Tehran can make serious trouble for the United States, the West, and its Middle East neighbors short of putting a stopper in the bottle of the Persian Gulf.

Just after the New Year, Iranian army chief Ataollah Salehi cautioned the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to stay clear of the Persian Gulf. “I advise, recommend and warn them over their return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf,” intoned Salehi, “because we are not in the habit of warning more than once.” The U.S. Navy paid these words little if any heed. Stennis remained in the area and was joined by its sister ship, USS Carl Vinson, in the Indian Ocean theater a few days later. Last week, after the European Union levied new economic sanctions to dissuade Iran from pressing ahead with its nuclear-weapons program, Muhammad Ismail Kowsari, deputy head of the Islamic Republic’s committee on national security, warned that the strategic waterway would “definitely be closed if the sale of Iranian oil is violated in any way.” Kowsari proclaimed that regional and Western navies would be unable to force the Strait should Iranian forces close it.

We have to allow for the bluster quotient in any pronouncement issuing forth from Tehran. Still, the Iranian armed forces possess sufficient seaward reach – in the form of anti-ship cruise missiles, speedboats and other small craft, sea mines, and so forth – to give Western capitals pause. The logic of “access denial” and “area denial,” two terms much in vogue among American commentators, involves manipulating perceptions among antagonists as much as it does girding oneself to actually fight battles on the high seas. Amassing and displaying the capacity to do significant damage sends a message. Tehran may believe it can convince Washington and its partners that persevering with sanctions will exact costs that vastly outstrip any gains the coalition can hope to extract from economic coercion. In effect, the Iranian leadership has threatened to hold hostage the 17 million barrels of oil that passes through the Strait every day, and the prosperity of oil-dependent economies with it.

As he usually does in matters of such gravity, Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz offers some sage counsel. Winning in competitive endeavors isn’t always about bludgeoning enemy forces into submission and imposing a favorable settlement. “Many treaties,” writes Clausewitz, “have been concluded before one of the antagonists could be called powerless – even before the balance of power had been seriously altered.” Belligerents often find “two other grounds for making peace” if they are unable to vanquish adversaries in combat. The “improbability of victory” sometimes prompts leaders to seek the best settlement they can. Or, the “unacceptable cost” of prevailing by force of arms can elicit a settlement. Issuing a credible threat to the sea lanes – credibility being a function of physical capability and the resolve to use it – represents Tehran’s way of trying to impose unacceptable costs on Western countries unless they abandon economic sanctions.

So in a sense, the debate over whether Iranian forces can close the Strait of Hormuz misses the point. Iranian mariners, pilots, and rocketeers can certainly menace shipping that passes hard by Iranian shores. In so doing they ratchet up insurance rates and oil prices, perhaps to unbearable levels. It doesn’t take much to give markets and maritime insurers the jitters. The Strait is only about 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, well within reach of shore-based missiles, artillery, and tactical aircraft. Confined waters, moreover, encumber the freedom of maneuver for large merchantmen and warships. Such “narrow seas” offer ideal hunting grounds for small craft and submarines not so encumbered. Mining the Strait is yet another option for Iran. Iranian engineers can manufacture certain types of advanced sea mines. The leadership has negotiated imports of others. Tehran doubtless learned from the Iraqi experience in 1990-1991, when Saddam Hussein’s military dumped hundreds of mostly crude mines into the Gulf, holding a US-led amphibious invasion force at bay off the Kuwaiti coast.

Such weaponry, in short, provides disproportionate bang for the buck. History is rife with examples when one combatant imposed high costs on another through minor actions at sea. Russian cruisers based at Vladivostok raided Japanese shipping halfheartedly during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, driving up insurance rates while taking a toll on sorely needed imports. Or, in today’s Indian Ocean, pirate attacks are little more than a nuisance in the Gulf of Aden, affecting only a statistically insignificant minority of shipping. Yet it prompted governments to dispatch naval forces and shippers to take expensive precautions like hiring private security firms to defend their vessels. Replicating these tactics is well within Tehran’s reach.

Will the Iranian threat persuade the West to cancel sanctions? I doubt it. There would be no better way to incur the enmity of the entire industrial world than to close the Strait of Hormuz, and Iranian leaders know it. But as political scientist Thomas Schelling points out, being seen as less than fully rational can be an invaluable asset in international interactions. The other side never quite knows what you might do! Schelling and Clausewitz probably wouldn’t approve of the goals of Iranian diplomacy. But they would recognize Tehran’s strategy instantly.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

Sean Robinson
January 31, 2012 at 15:15

As to my knowledge, the threat of a Marine amphibious invasion of Kuwait was a feint to draw prime Iraqi Republican Guard forces to defend the coast while the major theater of US operations would be the armored invasion in the Western desert. It never happened because the Iraqis had placed a large number of assets (including prime armored brigades of the Republican Guard) directly on the shores along with mines. If an emergency necessitated it, those Marines were prepared to storm ashore even under the threat of some mines (see Desert Storm At Sea: What the Navy Really Did by Marvin Pokrant)

Although the threat of mines was considerable to coalition planning for Desert Storm/Desert Sabre, I think you extrapolate too much from this example. If there is any type of amphibious operations against the Iranian coast, it will be small scale special operations to destroy/hamper naval facilities (like in Bandar Abbas) or on any of the missile installations in the straight. The mines this article discusses do not pose a threat to the very small boats that would be used in such an exercise.

January 31, 2012 at 08:17

I find it curious and a bit disturbing how the most noise is coming out of America and Europe while Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE etc are all rather quiet. Iran’s threats affect these Gulf States directly yet they have not made so much as a peep!
Why have these Gulf States not mobilized their navies? The Saudis and the Emiratis have one of the most powerful militaries in the region, yet their ships aren’t patrolling the strait. Instead, American warships and aircraft carriers are patrolling these seas. Now, we hear that the Europeans are also started their chest beating and are sending out their own warships to the region!
How nice of the Europeans and the Americans to once again risk their soldiers lives and teach the enemies of the Arab’s a lesson while the Arabs sit back and watch you work!

January 31, 2012 at 00:54


I absolutley agree, I like your emphasis in it being the MIDDLE EAST, it really is a different game there as opposed to Asia, etc. All of the effects that we talk about if the U.S or Israel attack Iran (closing the Strait, missile barages at Israel, Hezbolah/Syria/Hamas involvement) would only get worse if Iran were providing them a nuclear umbrella. It is better to get the attack out of the way now, or force even more crippiling sanctions on them to force them to give it up (I doubt the later would work as they are probably second to NK for hardheadedness).

This is just bluster, Iran has no choice but to bluster, as it is the only real effective weapon they have. This author talks about surface to sea missile sites like they are somehow invincible. Just like in Libya all of those sites would be bombed and destroyed before ships move within their range. As for the mines, the ships would be sunk soonafter they leave port. The Iranian airforce is practically non-existent and we know the capabilities of their best fighters because we sold them to Iran in 1978. Can you picture an F-22 dogfigthing a vietnam-era Phantom, while a modified fishing boat takes on the USS Vinson?? The only effective weapon Iran has is bluster.

January 30, 2012 at 22:12

It is always nice to add theory to a discussion. However, I believe it must be noted that this application of it only touches on part of the situation. The West and the GCC are pressing ahead with sanctions as the strongest coercive measure available short of war because the alternative of a nuclear-armed Iran is entirely unacceptable. Adding nuclear weapons in the hands of multiple states in the MIDDLE EAST is a very bad idea. Perhaps it would force stability upon the region out of universal fear of the alternative… but who in their right mind would willingly take that chance? In the Middle East.

I think knowledgeable people understand the potential disaster that could result from an interruption in the removal of 17 million barrels of oil from the daily global supply, but that can be more easily mitigated than snow in Riyadh. Iran is going about its business in a rational manner, even if we don’t like it. We need to do so as well – the stakes are simply too high to falter now. And while debates over Iran vs. the US Navy are not particularly meaningful, they do have the very useful effect of providing reassurance to the global public in the face of Iranian threats. Missing the point or not, I call that a good thing.

January 30, 2012 at 18:51

Iran, do not build nuclear power infrastructure. Do not build nuclear bombs. To dissuade you, we’ll just park two nuclear powered carriers in your neighbourhood.

shahriyar Gourgi,....shahin
January 30, 2012 at 17:27

Iran doesn’t need to carry out its threats over the #StraitofHormuz to cause the U.S. and others a headache.

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