Iranian naval exercise in Gulf: A calculated provocation?
The Iranian Navy has begun exercises in the Gulf involving an estimated 100 vessels, most of which are reported to be small attack boats. Iran normally has such drills later in the year, leading to speculation the date was moved forward to coincide with soon-to-be-reimposed US sanctions.
If that is the case, the action should be regarded as a calculated provocation by Iran that will ratchet up tensions even if it does not lead to armed confrontation.
The US Defence Department’s Central Command issued a statement saying that “we are aware of the increase in Iranian naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. We are monitoring it closely and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways.”
The statement added that “we also continue to advocate for all maritime forces to conform to international maritime customs, standards and laws.”
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) maintains its own vessels that periodically harass US ships in the Gulf but there is no indication IRGC ships are involved in the current exercises, which began August 2.
Iranian leaders have made thinly veiled threats to close the Strait of Hormuz to shipping, a move that would have a devastating effect on global oil prices and supplies.
An elevated threat level alone could raise insurance rates on shipping through the strait, which could lead to higher prices for oil and natural gas. The US Energy Information Administration calls the Strait of Hormuz “the world’s most important choke point” and any serious attempt by Iran to block it would represent a dangerous escalation in the war of words between Washington and Tehran and the war-by-proxy between Iran and Gulf Cooperation Council states.
An action that closes the strait would almost certainly lead to a direct military confrontation between Iran and the United States and its Gulf allies.
Iran’s Fars news agency quoted Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi on August 1 as saying “the cruel sanctions against Iran will have an effect on the performance of the Strait of Hormuz.” He added: “If any oil faucet in the region is turned on and the petrodollars go to the pocket of those who threaten Iran, it will definitely have effects on the security of the strait.”
Khanzadi said Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the IRGC and the Iranian armed forces to maintain security in the region. “The Strait of Hormuz remaining open hinges on Iran’s interests and the international community should live up to its obligations towards the Islamic Republic,” he said.
Threatening words and naval exercises aside, US analysts say it is highly unlikely that Iran would try and choke off the strait.
Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told CNN that Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz would be “the strategic equivalent of a suicide bombing.” Iran, Sadjadpour said, “would hurt a lot of other people but they would above all hurt themselves.”
The International Crisis Group (ICG) issued an analysis that concluded Tehran would be “unlikely to go too far in tangling with the US Navy with its superior capabilities.” More likely, the ICG said, “Iran might choose indirect retaliation against US forces in Iraq and Syria, which are in close proximity of militias backed by Iran.”
The ICG warned that an unintentional confrontation between US and Iranian naval forces could spiral out of control. Such an incident occurred in January 2016 and led to the detention of ten US sailors. At the time, the United States and Iran were implementing the nuclear deal negotiated under former US President Barack Obama and maintained contact and communications at a high level.
“There is little at the moment to suggest that the type of swift resolution facilitated by (former US Secretary of State John) Kerry and (Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad) Zarif during that episode could be replicated now,” the ICG said.
Another important regional choke point, the Bab el Mandeb Strait that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, is becoming a source of potential conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that Israel would deploy its military if Iran were to try to block the Bab el Mandeb Strait. Saudi Arabia suspended oil shipments through the strait, on the main sea route from the Middle East to Europe, after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis attacked two of its tankers in the waterway.
“If Iran will try to block the strait of Bab el Mandeb, I am certain that it will find itself confronting an international coalition that will be determined to prevent this, and this coalition will also include all of Israel’s military branches,” Netanyahu said August 1 in a speech to new naval officers in Haifa.