Despite bravado, Iran knows its naval forces are no match for US power

Although Iran’s naval capabilities have probably improved since the late 1980s, it is highly doubtful that it can take on the US Navy.
Sunday 12/08/2018
The US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Porter and the Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney sail in formation during maritime exercise in the Black Sea, on July 13.  (Reuters)
Far more superior. The US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Porter and the Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney sail in formation during maritime exercise in the Black Sea, on July 13. (Reuters)

The war of words between Washington and Tehran may soon be played out in the Gulf.

Iran began naval exercises August 2 near the Strait of Hormuz, the vital and narrow choke point through which some 18.5 million barrels of oil per day pass, the US Energy Department says. These exercises involve about 100 vessels, US officials said, most of which are small craft.

Iran usually has an annual military exercise in the Gulf during the fall but this year it was apparently moved up in response to US President Donald Trump’s warning of severe consequences if Iran were to go through with its threats against the United States, such as Tehran’s warning of the “mother of all wars” and thinly veiled threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.

This is not the first time Iran threatened to close the strait; it has repeated this warning periodically for 35 years. Nonetheless, US officials watched the manoeuvres closely to gauge Iran’s capabilities. US Army General Joseph Votel, head of USCENTCOM, stated on August 8: “We’re extraordinarily vigilant and watching for changes in the environment.”

However, if there were actual clashes between the US and Iranian military forces in the Gulf, it is highly unlikely Iran would prevail.

In this regard, it is important to look at recent history. During the last years of the Iran-Iraq war, there were several clashes between Iran and the United States and Iran did not fare very well. Indeed, it was a lopsided affair.

Gregory Gause, professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University, said the episode began when the United States agreed to Kuwait’s request to reflag Kuwaiti oil tankers in 1987 to protect against Iranian attacks when Washington was tilting towards Iraq.

In his book “The International Relations of the Persian Gulf,” Gause wrote: “With this indirect American protection, Iraq accelerated its air campaign against Iran’s oil exports. Iran responded by laying mines. In September 1987, US forces attacked an Iranian ship laying mines, killing five crew members and seizing the ship. Iran continued its attacks on shipping, with [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard [Corps] forces using small speedboats in a version of guerrilla warfare at sea. In October 1987, an Iranian missile launched from al-Faw struck one of the reflagged tankers approaching Kuwait. The United States responded by destroying two Iranian offshore oil platforms.”

In April 1988, there were further clashes. When a US naval ship in the Gulf struck a mine that caused injuries to ten crewmen, the United States sank or damaged three Iranian ships, destroyed two Iranian oil platforms and attacked several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) speedboats.

Although Iran’s naval capabilities have probably improved since the late 1980s, it is highly doubtful that it can take on the US Navy. Over the past several years, IRGC speedboats have come dangerously close to US vessels in the Gulf as part of a harassment campaign but they have almost always backed off prior to an actual confrontation.

So, despite the bravado of the Iranian leaders, they know very well that if they confronted the US military in the Gulf or attempted to close the Strait of Hormuz, they would be met with overwhelming force. So why make the threats?

First, with the Iranian regime facing mounting economic difficulties, including demonstrations from the important bazaari merchant class, authorities need to show the Iranian people, most of whom are very nationalistic, they won’t be intimidated by the United States.

Second, they may want to warn Gulf Arab countries that any attempt to aid the United States with military support, if there were to be US-Iran clashes, would result in serious damage to their economic interests.

However, because the Iranians have a realistic assessment of their military capabilities compared to those of the United States, they are unlikely to initiate a military confrontation. The 1987-88 period is probably fresh in their minds and a humiliating military defeat at a time of economic stress is something the Iranian authorities keenly want to avoid.

T he war of words between   Washington and Tehran may soon be played out in the Gulf.

Iran began naval exercises August 2 near the Strait of Hormuz, the vital and narrow choke point through which some 18.5 million barrels of oil per day pass, the US Energy Department says. These exercises involve about 100 vessels, US officials said, most of which are small craft.

Iran usually has an annual military exercise in the Gulf during the fall but this year it was apparently moved up in response to US President Donald Trump’s warning of severe consequences if Iran were to go through with its threats against the United States, such as Tehran’s warning of the “mother of all wars” and thinly veiled threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.

This is not the first time Iran threatened to close the strait; it has repeated this warning periodically for 35 years. Nonetheless, US officials watched the manoeuvres closely to gauge Iran’s capabilities. US Army General Joseph Votel, head of USCENTCOM, stated on August 8: “We’re extraordinarily vigilant and watching for changes in the environment.”

However, if there were actual clashes between the US and Iranian military forces in the Gulf, it is highly unlikely Iran would prevail.

In this regard, it is important to look at recent history. During the last years of the Iran-Iraq war, there were several clashes between Iran and the United States and Iran did not fare very well. Indeed, it was a lopsided affair.

Gregory Gause, professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University, said the episode began when the United States agreed to Kuwait’s request to reflag Kuwaiti oil tankers in 1987 to protect against Iranian attacks when Washington was tilting towards Iraq.

In his book “The International Relations of the Persian Gulf,” Gause wrote: “With this indirect American protection, Iraq accelerated its air campaign against Iran’s oil exports. Iran responded by laying mines. In September 1987, US forces attacked an Iranian ship laying mines, killing five crew members and seizing the ship. Iran continued its attacks on shipping, with [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard [Corps] forces using small speedboats in a version of guerrilla warfare at sea. In October 1987, an Iranian missile launched from al-Faw struck one of the reflagged tankers approaching Kuwait. The United States responded by destroying two Iranian offshore oil platforms.”

In April 1988, there were further clashes. When a US naval ship in the Gulf struck a mine that caused injuries to ten crewmen, the United States sank or damaged three Iranian ships, destroyed two Iranian oil platforms and attacked several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) speedboats.

Although Iran’s naval capabilities have probably improved since the late 1980s, it is highly doubtful that it can take on the US Navy. Over the past several years, IRGC speedboats have come dangerously close to US vessels in the Gulf as part of a harassment campaign but they have almost always backed off prior to an actual confrontation.

So, despite the bravado of the Iranian leaders, they know very well that if they confronted the US military in the Gulf or attempted to close the Strait of Hormuz, they would be met with overwhelming force. So why make the threats?

First, with the Iranian regime facing mounting economic difficulties, including demonstrations from the important bazaari merchant class, authorities need to show the Iranian people, most of whom are very nationalistic, they won’t be intimidated by the United States.

Second, they may want to warn Gulf Arab countries that any attempt to aid the United States with military support, if there were to be US-Iran clashes, would result in serious damage to their economic interests.

However, because the Iranians have a realistic assessment of their military capabilities compared to those of the United States, they are unlikely to initiate a military confrontation. The 1987-88 period is probably fresh in their minds and a humiliating military defeat at a time of economic stress is something the Iranian authorities keenly want to avoid.

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