Significance of Iran rocket tests in the Strait of Hormuz

Friday 15/01/2016
File picture shows US aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman transiting the Strait of Hormuz.

Dubai - Iran test-fired unguided rock­ets from small vessels less than 1.5km from a US aircraft carrier and destroyer, and a French frigate passing through the Strait of Hormuz on December 30th, a US military spokesman said.

Iran quickly dismissed US com­plaints of a rocket test, labelling the reports a “psychological opera­tion”, but a week later, the US Navy released a video clearly showing small vessels, purportedly Iranian, launching unguided rockets within close range of US Navy vessels.

Iranian forces regularly conduct naval drills near the Strait of Hor­muz to test and demonstrate their asymmetric capabilities at sea and highlight their potential to effec­tively block one of the most strate­gic waterways and maritime choke­points in the world, through which as much as 90% of globally bound oil shipments pass on a daily basis.

Iranian military strategy attaches great importance to being able to execute access denial operations in the strait of Hormuz as a way to raise the international costs of any conflict it could face with the Unit­ed States and Tehran’s rivals in the Arab Gulf.

Iranian forces also “harass” US Navy vessels in the region, some­times approaching them at high speed, moving small, fast boats close and dispatching remotely pi­loted vehicles to tail movements. For years, Iran has conducted naval drills that involve building replicas of US military vessels and sinking them. This is seen as a way to better understand the design, construc­tion and structure of such ships, give Iranian forces more realistic “target practice” and to support strategic messaging objectives.

But what was unusual — though not unprecedented — is the Iranian denial of the US reports because Tehran typically uses missile and rocket tests and exercises to sup­port its strategic messaging and posturing whenever possible.

In October 2015, for example, Iran tested its Emad medium-range ballistic missile — drawing sharp criticism from the United States in particular. Reuters reported that a UN sanctions monitor panel concluded that the Emad ballistic missile test was in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which prohibits Iran from conduct­ing launches of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weap­ons.

The UN panel considers missiles that can deliver a payload of 500 kg at least 300km as being capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

However, Iranian President Has­san Rohani was full of praise for the Emad ballistic missile launch and declared the necessity for Iran to “continue with greater speed and seriousness the plan for production of various missiles needed by the armed forces within the approved defence policies”.

With the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in place, Iran is attaching an even higher premi­um to protecting and expanding its missile programme — it worries the agreement may be interpreted as a sign of weakness and set a prec­edent for its missile programme to be made the subject of an interna­tional effort next.

There have been growing calls in the US Congress to impose a new round of economic sanctions against Iran for its missile pro­gramme. While the White House has not ruled out taking measures against Iran, President Barack Obama’s administration is sensitive about jeopardising the nuclear deal. Iran has declared that sanctions re­lated to its missile programme will threaten the agreement.

In the current context, Iranian forces firing unguided rockets in the sort of scenario captured in re­ports and footage released by the US Navy would have been designed to achieve three objectives: First, to harass US Navy vessels and dispel perceptions of any détente at home and abroad; second, as a demon­stration to the United States and international players of the anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabili­ties Iran possesses in the strait; and third, as a reminder that Tehran attaches strategic rather than “sea­sonal” importance to its missile programme — and that the nuclear deal reached with the P5+1 does not affect or relate to that missile pro­gramme.

The reported incident was not the most threatening manoeuvre Iranian forces have engaged in at sea with the United States and Iran may have believed it was un­likely to receive the publicity it did, which is damaging at a time when Iranian diplomacy has brought suc­cess with the nuclear deal and lift­ing of international sanctions.

For now, the rocket test incident is likely to pass without significant ramifications but Iran has faced a higher political cost than it may have anticipated and it will need to be more mindful of how it con­fronts increasing attention on the horizon to its growing missile ca­pabilities in the United States and elsewhere.