A war of words continues over Iran’s military exercises and public statements regarding its ability and willingness to block the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial waterway in the Persian Gulf through which 40 percent of the world’s oil flows.
U.S. officials have vocally opposed the maneuvers and have warned Iran against any attempt to prevent free navigation of the strait. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called its possible closing “a red line.”
The Iranian threats began in late December, as the U.S. Congress sent to President Obama new legislation sanctioning the Iranian central bank. The White House attempted to water down the bill when it was being considered by
Some pundits have argued that Iran’s threatened closure of the Strait of Hormuz has more to do with its domestic policy. Iran may be attempting to raise the price of oil to buoy its own economy and blunt the increasingly damaging effects of international sanctions. The Iranian Rial has already been severely impacted by the sanctions, which led to skyrocketing prices. The European Union agreed to extend its efforts to curtail the import of Iranian oil, and China, which normally shirks anti-Iran sanctions, extended an import cut that more than halved its import of Iranian oil.
Setting aside the question of true motivation, analysts have focused on two questions of supreme importance: Are the Iranians able to close the strait effectively in the face of American military might? If so, are they willing to do so, considering the damage such closure does to their self-interest?
How one answers the first question depends on what one considers to be “effective.” In 2005, Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified to Congress that Iran could “briefly close” the strait. Other experts have stated that an Iranian closure might last a few days to a few weeks. These projections seem overly optimistic. Consider that the two most recent examples of American mine-clearing operations took place in 1991 and 2003, in response to Iraqi mine-laying operations. In both cases, the United States was clearing static moored contact mines in areas no longer at risk of enemy contact. They averaged 18-20 mines cleared a day under ideal conditions. By contrast, Iran possesses approximately 2,000 mines, at least a percentage of which are likely influence contact mines, which are more difficult to sweep. Additionally, Iran can utilize its surface-to-surface missiles, and its fast-attack boats to make any mine-clearing operation extremely hazardous without a substantial military action against shore-based Iranian facilities. Such attacks would greatly delay mine-clearing operations, thus prolonging the strait’s closure to commerce. Despite that the Iranians have crafted their military doctrine around this scenario; some analysts believe that Iran would not be able to resist a U.S.-led naval campaign to reopen the strait for very long, and that an Iranian attempt to close the strait would be playing to American strengths.
But in a paper he prepared in 2010 for the Naval War College, “Rethinking the Strait of Hormuz: A Recommended Course of Action that Establishes Operational Advantage,” Commander Daniel Dolan warns,
Inherent with this school of thought is the risk of seriously underestimating the true capabilities and determination of the Iranian forces. To present Iran as the kind of war the United States excels in fighting ignores the lessons of the Iran’s new style of hybrid warfare demonstrated in Lebanon 2006. When the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) entered Southern Lebanon, they were prepared to fight the type of war they excel in fighting, but as the popular adage of military strategy states, “the enemy gets a vote” and Hizbullah did not choose to fight on Israel’s terms. The [Commander Naval Forces] would be naïve to think that Iran will fight on ours.
Notable in the 2006 campaign was Hezbollah’s use of a C-802 anti-ship missile to damage the INS Hanit, killing four Israeli sailors. Hezbollah frequently serves as a test for new Iranian weapons and tactics. Despite Israel’s intelligence on Hezbollah’s possessing such weapons, and, indeed, warnings that the weapons were likely to be deployed against the Israeli blockade; Jerusalem did not take the threat seriously enough. The United States ought not underestimate Iranian capabilities.
Iran’s reliance on martyrdom units as a linchpin of its strategic capability also should not be ignored. As Dolan writes, “The inclusion of martyr squads, when combined with Iran’s burgeoning arsenal of conventional weapons equates to a potent hybrid force that would be difficult to defeat or deter.”
This is especially true with Iran well aware of America’s strong aversion to suffering casualties. The Iranians may calculate that sinking or severely damaging a U.S. capital ship would be an enormous political and psychological victory, even if their own loss of life and naval assets are completely disproportionate by Western standards.
Using these metrics, the Iranians can almost certainly close the Strait of Hormuz in a manner requiring substantial U.S. military action to dislodge them, probably taking a month or more to accomplish. Additionally, the Iranians may be able to create such U.S. casualties that even after reopening the strait, the United States would be sufficiently humbled so as to shy away from future military conflict. That would constitute a strategic victory for Iran.
We now must still address the question of whether Iran is willing to close the strait.
The pundit Walter Russell Mead wrote last week that Iran’s stance against sanctions conjures up “the defiance of a cornered animal rather than the insolence of a rising power.” He cited rising economic distress, the results of the Arab Spring, and the current uprising against Syria, which is Iran’s chief ally and major client — combining, he said, to create an image of Iran in retreat and in need of economic stability and security more than it desires to pursue its ideological revolution and global confrontation.
But the Iranian leadership likely doesn’t see the situation this way. The Iranians can claim to have defeated the United States in Iraq, with U.S troops departing as Iran solidified control over Baghdad’s government. Iran is attempting a similar maneuver in Afghanistan, with success there, too. Tehran maintains close relationships with radical leftist leaders in South America, moving freely in America’s backyard. One of its major regional opponents, Egypt, is now headed by Islamist factions with more in common with Tehran than with the United States during Hosni Mubarak’s rule. And while Syria is under pressure due to its slaughter of domestic protestors, the West has barely intervened against Bashar Assad; Iran seems to calculate that Assad will cling to power. Despite killing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even conspiring to kill a Saudi diplomat (and undoubtedly American civilians) in Washington, Iran has not suffered any overt retribution from U.S. forces.
In other words, Iran sees itself to be a rising power, and the United States to be a waning power with increased reluctance for confrontation.
While international sanctions undoubtedly increase pressure on Iran, the Islamic regime has spent its entire existence under sanctions of one degree or another, and has never put its economic well-being before its revolutionary aspirations. Iran may calculate that while it will suffer additional economic hardship, it is well-positioned to endure, compared to the West, which struggles with bad economic conditions that will be exacerbated by an Iranian closure of the strait. Additionally, if sanctions are truly having such a deleterious effect, Iran may calculate that it has nothing to lose from inflicting comparable economic pain upon its enemies.
If Iran will risk the economic hardship of closing the strait, is it willing to risk providing the United States with an opportunity to engage, and destroy, both Tehran’s naval forces and its nuclear program? One argument against Iran’s closing the strait postulates that it would be foolish to risk its nuclear program when it has continued to make progress — such as by successfully bringing a better-shielded, more efficient enrichment facility at Fordo online, despite covert attacks against Iranian facilities and personnel.
Arguing that Iran will not risk its nuclear program by provoking the Americans puts the cart before the horse. The nuclear weapons program is a means, not an end to itself. Its purpose is to grant Iran a kind of immunity from regime change and to better enable the Islamic Republic to pursue its strategic goals.
If Iran believes that implemented sanctions will weaken the regime to an extent that it risks being overthrown by domestic opposition or that it would be unable to continue its strategic campaign to establish regional dominance, then safeguarding its nuclear capability may cease to be a priority. The comparable historical example is to Japan’s decision to attack the United States in 1941 in response to the U.S. oil embargo. Doing so meant engaging the sleeping giant and its superior industrial and military capability. But not doing so meant Japan’s abandoning its China campaign and not seizing the regional hegemony perceived as theirs by right.
Iran’s ability to close the strait and risk military confrontation with the United States doesn’t mean that it will do so. However, analyses that make assumptions about Iranian will or capability, based on a Western misconception of Tehran’s worldview, would be a serious error with potentially grave consequences.
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