The Real Iran Threat
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The Real Iran Threat

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As the Naval Diplomat and his trusty editor Harry Kazianis batten down the hatches for Hurricane Sandy, our minds turn to…the Middle East.

Yesterday we established that anti-access is neither novel nor especially radical. It is a method the weak use to overcome the strong when the strong venture onto their home ground. Coastal defenders can hope to win despite their overall inferiority. Or they can hope to prevail without fighting, persuading stronger yet far away powers that the costs of operating offshore exceed the payoffs from doing so. If so, they can dissuade adversaries from making the attempt. They win by convincing prospective antagonists to keep their distance.

Iran, like China, wants to keep U.S. forces at bay. Can it do so? Before undertaking warlike competition, Clausewitz urges strategists to survey each belligerent’s political stakes, its strength and situation, and the capacity of its government and people, as well as the likely sympathies and actions of third parties. A quick survey of these factors illuminates the differences between Iranian and Chinese anti-access strategy. Leave aside the glaring disparities between the two coastal states’ populations, economic capacity, and other indices of material strength. The Islamic Republic clearly cannot field the imposing array of anti-access weaponry China does.

But Tehran’s capacity for mischief-making remains considerable. Look at the map. As it gazes eastward across the Pacific Ocean, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy must defend a broad, distended front—namely the China seas—against oncoming U.S. forces and America’s Asian allies. U.S. forces must approach the Persian Gulf along a narrow front. They must traverse the very predictable route through the focal point at Hormuz. The Iranian military, accordingly, can simplify its anti-access problem by closing the Strait of Hormuz. If Iranian commanders deploy their limited military capabilities adroitly, they can threaten to pummel U.S. naval forces trapped within the Persian Gulf while holding U.S. reinforcements at risk outside the Gulf, along the Gulf of Oman approaches to Iran’s coasts.

Am I predicting that Tehran can render the Strait permanently impassable? No. But think about the politics, rather than the hardware and tactics, of access denial. Clausewitz observes that you can win wars in three ways: disarm your enemy, rendering him powerless to resist your demands; show him he’s unlikely to win; or convince him the costs of winning will be exorbitant, far beyond the value he places on his political stakes. Defeating the U.S. military outright probably lies beyond Iranian capacity, but Clausewitz’s other options remain open to Tehran.

Tehran, that is, can put Washington on notice that it will pay a high if not unacceptable price for access to the Gulf region. A U.S. president might hesitate before making a decision of this gravity in times of strife; he might modify U.S. deployment patterns, forcing U.S. airmen and seamen to fight inside the Persian Gulf from aircraft carriers and land bases outside the Strait of Hormuz; he might abjure the effort altogether. Tehran would either prevail or, more likely, gain time to accomplish its goals. That could be a win from the Iranian standpoint. Americans must not assume the mismatch between U.S. and Iranian military capabilities guarantees automatic victory in the Gulf.

This barely scratches the surface of a large topic. But examining the geospatial aspects of strategy is always a good way to begin parsing such topics. In my next post we’ll survey how North Korea approaches the anti-access question.

Comments
4
M. Mir
October 31, 2012 at 21:25

Let's not get melodramatic. What's the real threshold the USG is not willing to cross to remain the Persian Gulf? I'm sure it's somewhere far short of the state of Montana.
Is it the 5th fleet in the PG? Is it the 10000 troops in Kuwait? Is it $250/bbl oil?
If the Iranians can reach a military point where they can reliably assure that the USG will lose most of its assets currently stationed around Iran, and that it would have to gear up for a Japan sized operation to retaliate, is that worth it to the USG to maintain its position in this tiny spot on the the planet?
In the end, its Iran's backyard. And at some point the USG has to conceed that they do indeed run it.

Kurt Scholz
October 30, 2012 at 18:31

I agree, but the author of the article is right that Iran will do what best option is left for them, just like Iraqi forces tried to attack in a sandstorm. Looking at WWII, you notice some nations willing to acknowledge defeat on the battlefield and some that did not. The nations that did insurect and not acknowledge the battlefield as decisive from the start often perceived themselves cheated of being able to accomplish. Being cheated not necessarily relates to the available power level as France and Yugoslavia can be counted here. Denying Iran the option of believing into a success on the battlefield can be quite dangerous, because military clashes are about solving disputes and acknowledging the result of some trial at arms. They can otherwise become very messy until they reach genocidal levels as outmost measure to impose one's will upon another human. Our ethics don't go that far, because they have been developed in a context of reasonable rituals. Japan violated our rituals with their different warfare tradition and was reminded of the genocide option. If the enemy does not play according to our rituals, we have a problem. You can keep in power by many forms of violence, like the Taliban show, and the better organized Iranians would showcase as a refined art. If the ritual is denied there's the genocide option. One way out has often been tried with a cooperative official "traitor puppet regime" that amounts to a minor genocide, because it becomes a pretext to settle different scores in a society that gets torn apart . To limit the fallout from such a situation, the official Afghani leader must be a Pashtu, just like most Taleban.

Matt
October 30, 2012 at 13:34

If you won't hit your own property re: drone, you won't do a thing. Unless forced, which allow Iran to use pressure but not pass a level in which the President is forced. As was the case when Iran closed the Straits of Hormuz during war games.

Bronc
October 30, 2012 at 01:48

Properly Formatted Post
 
Holmes wrote, "Tehran, that is, can put Washington on notice that it will pay a high if not unacceptable price for access to the Gulf region. A U.S. president might hesitate before making a decision of this gravity in times of strife; he might modify U.S. deployment patterns, forcing U.S. airmen and seamen to fight inside the Persian Gulf from aircraft carriers and land bases outside the Strait of Hormuz; he might abjure the effort altogether. Tehran would either prevail or, more likely, gain time to accomplish its goals."
 
The Japanese Imperial Navy, circa 1940 to Nov. 1941, said the same things and made the same calculations. And look at what happened… Listen carefully as I know what I am saying. The first frigates of the United States Navy were built to deal with the Barbary States in circumstances VERY similar to the Iranian situation. It would be a tragic mistake for the Iranians to ignore (or misunderstand) the import and implications of this history. There is a ZERO chance, a null set of possibility, that ANY US administration will allow an anti-access strategy to be implemented, much less succeed. The US will sell the state of Montana and delete a star off the flag before that ever happens.
 
Bronc  

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