Iran’s Strait Games

James S. Robbins — USA Today June 7, 2016

When Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, our knee-jerk response might be to say, “Make our day.” But unfortunately we might have to take the threat, uttered repeatedly by Iranian officials, more seriously than we first expect.

Just last month, General Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, said that Iranian forces will close the Strait if the United States “threatens” Iran. “If the Americans and their regional allies want to pass through the Strait of Hormuz and threaten us,” he said, “we will not allow any entry.” The comment came days after Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly criticized the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf.

IRGC marines board a scale replica of a US Aircraft carrier during drills Wednesday. Click to enlarge

IRGC marines board a scale replica of a US Aircraft carrier during drills Wednesday. Click to enlarge

This was the latest in a series of explicit or implied threats from Iran over the strait. During Iran’s “Great Prophet 9″ naval exercise in February 2015, a barge with a mock U.S. aircraft carrier superstructure was pummeled with missiles until it dramatically detonated. “American aircraft carriers are very big ammunition depots housing a lot of missiles, rockets, torpedoes and everything else,” said Admiral Ali Fadavi, the Guards’ naval commander, at the time. (Note that they also house high performance aircraft, which make them somewhat more formidable than a target barge.)

Then, last December, Iran conducted rocket tests near U.S. military vessels and commercial ships near the Strait. And in January, a U.S. warship was warned off approaching an Iranian missile exercise in the area. Iran also flew an unmanned drone over a U.S. carrier, and has claimed to be testing “suicide drones” that would be used to attack American ships.

The Islamic Republic appears to be emboldened by perceived weakness on the part of the Obama administration and Tehran’s clear diplomatic victory in the Iran nuclear agreement. That one-sided deal bought the U.S. little to none of the expected goodwill from Tehran. Indeed, in a speech last Friday, Khamenei vowed that Iran “will not cooperate with America over the regional crisis. … Their aims in the region are 180 degrees opposed to Iran’s.” State Department spokesman Mark Toner shrugged this as “hyperbolic” rhetoric – a turn of events which shows either the administration’s continued ignorance of, or arrogance toward, Tehran. Perhaps it demonstrates both.

That brings us back to the Hormuz issue. Ships passing through the Strait carry a third of global oil traded by sea, so it is certainly possible that Iran’s bluster is simply intended to create upward pressure on crude oil prices. More likely, however, is the possibility that Iran – emboldened by the nuclear agreement – is again expressing a long-standing strategic objective of expelling the United States from the region. Iran’s threats regarding Hormuz may be hollow, but they are also aspirational. It would be a mistake to believe that Tehran would not take control of the critical chokepoint if it could.

At the moment, Iran probably does not have the military capability to force the issue, but Tehran may well be strong enough to foment a crisis that would seriously harm the image of U.S. naval dominance. In the 2002 “Millennium Challenge” exercise, based on a Hormuz Strait-closure scenario, the U.S. suffered massive simulated losses, including an aircraft carrier and 10 cruisers. Since then, U.S. capabilities in the Gulf region have only diminished, and the Navy is facing increasing global pressure from Russia and China. At some point, somewhere, our forces are going to be put to the test.

In addition to the potential capacity gap, there is the matter of whether the White House would respond forcefully enough to a Hormuz crisis. A diffident president trying not to offend the aggressive mullahs might not make the immediate commitment necessary to keep the crisis from escalating. Leading from behind would not work because the White House has alienated our Sunni coalition partners in the region, and they lack the military assets to challenge Iran even if they trusted we would back their play. And a lucky Iranian missile strike or successful swarming attack on a major U.S. vessel could paralyze the risk-averse White House and send diplomats scurrying to Geneva to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

In other words, Iran wins.

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