“War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” Barbara Tuchman
Iran’s navy chief Habibollah Sayyari briefs media on the naval exercise
The greatest danger in the current war of words between Iran and the United States is the danger that the Iranians one side or the other will miscalculate the will, resolve and strength of the other. Teddy Roosevelt made the comment “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Iranians have been shouting loudly and brandishing a small stick and if they are not careful they will bluster their way into a naval war that they cannot win and that will cause significant economic and physical disruption in the region.
The Iranian Navy and Revolutionary Guards Naval Forces are about halfway into a 10 day series of exercises in the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz and the Northern Arabian Gulf, or what they call the Persian Gulf. Iranian leaders have increased their rhetoric in regard to closing the Strait of Hormuz if more sanctions are leveled against them for their nuclear program.
The bellicosity of the Iranians comes at a time when they are feeling internal political pressure from Iranian young people, as well as external diplomatic and most likely espionage campaigns. The latter are designed to slow down or halt their nuclear program which most analysts now believe to be designed to produce nuclear weapons.
For what it is the Iranian Navy can threaten the strait and maybe even close it for a limited time. It is possible if they ever launched a surprise attack on an isolated US or Western warship using their “swarm” tactics close inshore to Iran in the constricted waters of the strait or in a narrow part of the NAG that they could sink or cause severe damage to it. They would probably mine the straits if they could do so before hostilities began or before sufficient forces could be deployed to stop them. Likewise their missile forces and special operations forces could cause some damage and chaos in the Gulf but the repercussions would isolate and devastate Iran. However closing the strait or attacking a US or Western warship would be the end of Iran’s naval forces and cause more damage to the country than its leaders are willing to accept at least right now. The Iranians would find that they were fighting far more than the United States Navy should this happen and their Russian and Chinese supporters would more than likely do everything possible to dissuade them from trying this. Since China imports the bulk of its oil from the Gulf it is unlikely that they would support the Iranians.
While such a direct attack is unlikely the possibility of an accidental war caused by miscalculation on the part of one side or the other is always real and should the Israelis strike Iran’s nuclear facilities Iran would certainly retaliate against Israel but also US Forces and installations in the Gulf and probably against the Gulf States and even Iraq.
USS John C Stennis (US Navy Photo)
Regarding how such a campaign would be fought the United States would stand off a safe distance and pound Iranian naval, air and coastal defenses and not allow Iranian surface ships to get close enough to make a swarm attack. This is a big reason that the USS John C. Stennis transited the straits and entered the Gulf of Oman (GOO). Operating in the open seas gives the blue water US Navy the edge. The Iranian navy’s ships lack the range and endurance for sustained operations at sea and could not sustain a blockade. US attack submarines would hunt down the Iranian Kilo class subs before they could become a threat and US Naval Aviation assets would sweep the surface assets of the Iranian Navy and Revolutionary Guard Naval Forces from the sea while destroying Iranian coastal defenses on the islands in and the Iranian side of the strait. Once the strait was cleared tanker traffic would resume and Iran would be the biggest loser. History shows time and time again that light coastal naval forces are no match for a professional seagoing navy even if they score an occasional victory.
Much has been made about Iranian claims to have tracked the USS John C Stennis as she transited the straits. That is nothing new, the Iranians have air, sea and land surveillance of the narrow straits. The fact is that US ships transit the strait and its approaches on high alert and have done so since the Tanker Wars of the 1980s. Every Iranian move is watched by the US Navy. Likewise while transiting the strait the ships of both sides communicate with each other regarding navigation. It is standard practice.
Since I believe that the Iranians despite their rhetoric are far more prudent than some believe and that they will not launch an unprovoked attack. Even if they succeeded in temporarily closing the straits and even scoring some kind of naval victory by sinking a US ship the victory would be extremely short lived. US and other forces would stream to the region and devastate all that is Iran. The costs for the Iranians and their long term goal of regional hegemony would be too great for them to intentionally start a naval confrontation in the Gulf. However the chances of either side miscalculating and stumbling into war should not be underestimated.
The biggest danger now is the potential for miscalculation but Iran’s long term goal of dominating the Gulf and acquiring nuclear weapons will probably keep them from attempting anything of this sort. That said there are factions in Iran that could try to use the threat of new sanctions to force a confrontation in the straits and for that we must be ready to meet the threat. Iranian threats should not be disparaged nor their political and military will underestimated. To underestimate an Iran’s capabilities and will are extremely dangerous. At the same time we should not overestimate their capabilities and yield to their threats when they threaten to cut off the flow of oil from the Gulf.
The United States needs to follow Theodore Roosevelt’s advice and remember history as we follow the situation and ensure that whatever Iran does that we will not be surprised or unprepared.