A powder keg that could engulf the world

Source: A powder keg that could engulf the world

Iran has two naval forces – its official one, and the secret maritime forces of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. How far is it willing to push the envelope in the Persian Gulf to retaliate for the death of Qassem Soleimani?

Last week, the ongoing escalation between the United States and Iran turned into an open conflict between the world superpower and the Islamic Republic – the first time this has happened since US President Donald Trump was elected. The airstrike that killed Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani; Iran’s outright warnings of revenge; and missile attacks perpetrated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps on US bases brought to light how close Washington and Tehran, and therefore the entire Middle East, are to an all-engulfing conflict.

But while Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile programs were making headlines following Wednesday’s brazen attack, Iran’s most destructive response would be naval action in the Persian Gulf, both in terms of the American presence there and the world economy.

The US comprehends the nature of the threat perfectly, and issued a rare warning to its ships in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf about possible Iranian raids that could come as retaliation for Soleimani’s death.

The warning is not theoretical: this past year, Iran has raided a few vessels, most notably the British Stena Impero, which was a response to a similar British action against an Iranian tanker that was bringing oil to Syria.

The West is also claiming that Iran was behind attacks at Fujairah Port, one of the most important oil shipping ports in the United Arab Emirates, as well as attacks on oil tankers in open waters. Tehran never claimed the attacks, but the US disseminated footage of the IRGC’s navy returning to the scene of the incident, and it resonated. Iran’s belligerent maritime actions peaked when it shot down a high-tech US drone over international waters last June.

‘One strike is enough’

Iran’s growing prowess at sea is more confusing than anything. Along with building advanced weaponry such as missile ships and submarines, the Iranians also maintain a huge fleet of small boats that it operates secretly.

“What is important to understand in terms of Iran’s naval power is that it is in effect two separate forces,” explains Ido Gilad, a research fellow at the Maritime Policy & Strategy Research Center and the Chaikin Chair for Geostrategy at the University of Haifa.

“Alongside Iran’s official navy, which has an impressive number [of vessels], even if some are outdated; there is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ naval force. That is a secret force that maintains a large, unknown number of small vessels and submarines designed to carry out actions that are ‘extra-governmental,’ or actually terrorism,” Gilad says.

That is one of the ideas for which Soleimani was noted – sophisticated, high-level operations in a number of arenas, thus allowing for many different types of actions and responses. Indeed, the IRGC’s naval forces are believed to be behind most of Iran’s maritime terrorist actions this past year. It also frequently serves to send Iranian threats to the US. In 2015, the IRGC conducted a military drill that simulated the attack and seizure of an American aircraft carrier, an unequivocal threat to one of the US’ most valuable military assets.

Then-commander of the IRGC’s naval forces, Admiral Ali Fadavi, bragged at the time that “American aircraft carriers are easy to sink … They are full of missiles, ammunition, jet fuel, and torpedoes. One strike is enough to set off a wave of secondary explosions,” he said. Since then, Iran has repeated its threat against US aircraft carriers multiple times.

According to Professor Shaul Chorev, director of the Maritime Policy & Strategy Research Center, “It’s very difficult to attack American aircraft carriers. There is definitely an element of braggadocio here. Aside from the planes and firepower it carries, that particular vessel is defended by an impressive group of [other] ships, submarines, and small boats.

“This doesn’t eradicate the threat from the IRGC’s naval forces. The US maintains an enormous navy – the Iranian navy doesn’t come close to it, but the idea behind the IRGC’s perception is to exact a price, to hurt, to deter conflict and escalation. Their tactics, such as using small missile-armed boats to confuse and attack larger ships; heavy use of surface-to-surface missiles and raiding vessels like they did the American patrol boat – these are operations that leave an impression and cost the enemy,” Chorev explains.

No one wants to wake the sleeping giant

A maritime conflict in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz, on any scale, is not merely a military question but also one of prestige for Iran and the US. Over 20 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait of Hormuz each day en route to the world’s markets. Not only the national economies of local nations, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE depend on oil revenues – so does the world energy market. This makes any conflict in the Gulf, even a relatively small one, an international incident.

Nevertheless, Chorev thinks that there is a real chance Iran could opt to carry out a response in that region precisely because it is so exposed.

“The possibility of closing the Strait of Hormuz or attacking some of the traffic there is definitely in Tehran’s bank of responses. They might limit the extent of the closure or make some excuse for it or through a proxy force, without officially declaring it, like they have done in the past when raiding ships. It’s not certain the US has a way of handling that scenario,” Chorev observes.

Gilad, on the other hand, thinks that a complex operation to close the Strait of Hormuz, even temporarily, would mean Iran shooting itself in the foot. He says that Iran is dependent on its already-shrinking revenue from oil that passes through the strait, and that even a low-level conflict in the Gulf is the last thing Tehran needs.

Gilad sees Iran’s actions in a different light.

“The maritime drill Iran conducted with China and Russia a couple of weeks ago, which caused an international storm, was aimed at not only showing that it was not diplomatically isolated but also that in cooperation with nations that have a clear interest in the region such as India, Russia, and China, it can ensure freedom of movement in the Gulf. They don’t want to wake the ‘American giant’ at this stage,” Gilad says.

Whether Tehran wants to calm the waters of the Gulf, or is preparing to relaunch its terrorist actions there, the maritime powder keg should worry leaders of the world at large, and leaders of the Persian Gulf region in particular.


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