Iran’s Empty Threats

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Iran’s Empty Threats

Iran’s military could probably make life uncomfortable for the U.S. in the Strait of Hormuz. But the downsides far outweigh the advantages of trying.

The growing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program in 2011 didn’t let up as the year drew to a close. Iranian officials threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if Western governments adopt more sanctions aimed at hindering its nuclear program, prompting U.S. government representatives to state that they won’t allow this to happen.

On December 27, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, Iran’s first vice president, warned that, “If they [Western Powers] impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.”  The following day, Iranian naval commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari stated that, “Iran has total control over the strategic waterway…Closing the Strait of Hormuz is very easy for Iranian naval forces.”

About one-fifth of the world’s oil production, or some two-fifths of the world’s tanker-borne oil, traverse the Strait, amounting to about 15 million barrels per day. Western officials have therefore kept a wary eye on Iranian warships as well as various units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that have been engaging in maritime exercises in the Persian Gulf in a 2,000 square-kilometer zone in international waters between the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. These exercises, code named Velayat 90, began on December 24 and are scheduled to last about 10 days. Iran regularly holds such exercises, but the timing of these drills has attracted more international attention than usual.

Indeed, tensions were heightened still further when Iran this weekend tested medium-range missiles capable of hitting Bahrain and other Gulf states with U.S. military bases, including a Qader (Capable) shore-to-sea and a Nour (Light) surface-to-surface missile. Iran is located some 140 miles at its nearest point from Bahrain, and Sayyari was quick to suggest that the missile firings and other capabilities displayed during the exercise demonstrated that the Iranian military had the ability to close the Strait if so ordered.

So, are Iranian officials serious? For now at least they probably wouldn’t carry out such a threat, and are more likely trying simply to deter additional sanctions by highlighting the specter of a military confrontation, which would raise insurance costs to shippers even if their vessels weren’t physically attacked. The threats are a reminder to the world that Tehran might not react passively to additional sanctions, and the Iranians might well hope that Russia and China will press the EU and Japan to avoid adopting new sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. Making threats is also useful to Tehran as it can raise world oil prices and therefore generate some extra Iranian export revenue.

And there are domestic considerations – Iranian leaders might be hoping to show their people how tough they are in defending Iranian interests from foreign challenges. Certainly, making threats is less costly than taking concrete action such as attacking foreign targets in other Gulf States or Israel.

Still, the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Washington is a reminder that when it comes to Iran, nothing is certain. Some Iranians appear to be simply crazy, rather than “crazy like a fox.” There’s also the risk of inadvertent conflict through misperception or accident due to the increased military activities by U.S. and Iranian forces in close proximity in the Persian Gulf. After all, the Strait is about 34 miles wide at the narrowest point, but the navigable part is only some 20 miles wide.

All this comes at a time when tensions between Iran and the West had already escalated after the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report apparently detailing reported Iranian bomb-making activities. More recently, Iran has detained and tried Americans as spies and has refused to return a U.S. surveillance drone. U.S. officials and experts also worry that Iran will try to move into the vacuum created by the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.

Still, U.S. officials believe the Iranians are bluffing with their threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner, for example, declared that the Iranian threats are just another attempt to divert attention from their banned nuclear activities. Iran’s military is much weaker than that of the United States, which would also be supported by a number of Persian Gulf governments anxious to prevent disruptions to traffic through the Strait. Iran’s overall strategy has anyway been to bide its time while developing its conventional military and potentially nuclear weapons rather than engage in behavior so provocative that it precipitates a war before Iran is ready.

World oil prices, already higher on average than in recent years, haven’t (yet) been affected much by the Iranian threats. In addition to discounting Iranian threats, market traders are reassured by the existence of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, established decades ago to help cushion the United States and its allies from interruptions in global oil deliveries. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has already offered to boost its oil exports if necessary to stabilize global output.  The reality is that Iranians fear that an embargo of their oil exports would gravely harm their economy. Approximately two-thirds of the Iranian government’s revenues derive from oil exports. Iranian officials acknowledge that the existing U.N. and Western supplementary sanctions are already harming Iran’s economy. The Iranian currency has recently fallen sharply in value compared with the U.S. dollar and other international currencies.

What would happen if Iran did decide to follow through on its threats? International law guarantees freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz since it’s an international waterway. This means that Iranian officials might use ship safety as a pretext for impeding shipping. For example, they could insist that tankers slow their speed, travel one at a time at a great distance through the strait, and so on, claiming that such measures were needed to ensure the safety of their coast from potential environmental or other threats. But any Iranian decision to close the Strait would lead the U.N. Security Council to convene to consider appropriate steps to resolve the crisis, including military solutions to protect civilian shipping and reopen the Strait. China and Russia would likely insist on a less vigorous response, but the United States has frequently conducted military action without explicit Security Council authorization by claiming the right of its own self-defense and that of its local allies.

The other big question that has had analysts speculating is whether Iran could bring shipping to an effective halt? Drawing lessons from its 1980-88 war with Iraq as well as from a 1988 clash with the U.S. Navy that left one of its corvettes destroyed and another severely damaged, Iranian defense analysts no doubt realize that they can’t win a conventional naval battle against the U.S. Navy. Iranian naval forces would therefore likely use asymmetric tactics such as conducting hit-and-run attacks on large warships through speed boats, mining the waterways, and possibly suicide attacks by some vessels. Iran has the sea mines, homing torpedoes, cruise missiles, and small fast boats to carry out such an anti-access/area-denial strategy.

Iran could also mix conventional warfare, including gunfire and missiles fired from surface vessels, planes, and coastal batteries, with nonconventional tactics such as ambushes with small, fast naval boats. The ships passing through the Strait are within range of Iranian coastal defense missile systems. Such a narrow stretch of water can be mined fairly easily if there’s no force resisting such an action. The Iranian coast is full of inlets and coves that can serve as hiding places and launch pads for attack speedboats. 

In addition, Iran possesses dozens of fast-attack craft and even more inshore attack vessels that can sally forth from the country’s more than 70 ports and 1,300 miles of coastline and lay mines, launch missiles, shoot at, and otherwise seek to disrupt navigation in Gulf waters. Iran has three Russian Kilo-class submarines that can carry anti-ship missiles, mines, and surface-to-air missiles. Iran’s missile capabilities include anti-ship cruise missiles as well as longer-range surface-to-surface systems.

In addition to military options, IRGC agents and local sympathizers might explore trying to stir up trouble in Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, or other Middle Eastern countries. Bahrain is particularly vulnerable given its proximity to Iran and given that it has already experienced considerable internal strife due to its Shiite population’s alienation from the Sunni monarchy.

But equipped as Iran might be to create trouble in the Strait, the reality is that the United States wouldn’t allow Iran to close it. The Strait’s closure would have a disastrous impact on the flow of world oil and, therefore, global oil prices. U.S. credibility would also be hurt if Iran succeeded in closing the waterway after U.S. officials have said that they wouldn’t permit such a development. U.S. Fifth Fleet spokeswoman Lt Rebecca Rebarich declared that, “Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations: any disruption will not be tolerated.”

The United States certainly has the military capacity to meet any Iranian challenge. U.S. warships are constantly present in the waters near and sometimes in the Persian Gulf. The Fifth Fleet is also headquartered in Bahrain and typically has at least one Carrier Strike Group, Amphibious Ready Group, or Expeditionary Strike Group, as well as other warships and aircraft on hand. These naval forces typically represent some 60 percent to 80 percent of all U.S. military forces in the Gulf area.

This isn’t to say that U.S. forces are invulnerable. Certainly, a carrier’s guns can defend against Iranian cruise missiles. It has four Raytheon/General Dynamics 20mm Phalanx 6-barrelled Mk 15 close-in weapon systems that have a firing rate of 3,000 rounds/min and a range of 1.5 kilometers. With this firing rate, it’s likely that these guns can shoot down incoming cruise missiles to avoid a potential strike. However, if the carrier were attacked by multiple cruise missiles coming from different vectors, it’s unlikely that all missiles could be destroyed in time.

Still, the carrier is also equipped with multiple decoys that offer another layer of protection.  These include four Sippican SRBOC (Super Rapid Bloom Off-Board Chaff) 6-barrelled Mk 36 decoy launchers, which can deploy infrared flares and chaff, SSTDS torpedo defense system and AN/SLQ-25 Nixie torpedo countermeasures system. The Raytheon AN/SLQ-32(V) system is designed to detect hostile radar emissions using two sets of antennae that help identify the threat and direction and provide a warning signal while interfacing with the ship’s countermeasures systems.

Chances are, though, that the United States wouldn’t let it get this far. U.S. ships and planes would most likely aim to rapidly destroy most Iranian military assets in the region before they could be used against U.S. targets, and would likely be able to detect Iranian crews trying to lay mines, while Iranian submarines are vulnerable to U.S. anti-submarine capabilities. U.S. forces would also rapidly respond to an Iranian missile strike by destroying any Iranian missiles within range (especially if the targets weren’t initially known to U.S. intelligence sources as potential launch sites).

Ultimately, despite its significant military edge, the United States will want to deter an Iranian move against the Strait before it happens. It has, for example, confirmed that it will sell 84 F-15s to Saudi Arabia, as well as warplanes to Iraq.  Such weapons sales are clearly aimed at discouraging Iranian threats, as well as reassuring these countries that the United States is concerned about their security.

For now at least, Iran’s threats are likely to remain just that.