When the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on June 9 authorizing a fourth round of sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran for its controversial nuclear program, the risk of conflict in the Persian Gulf also escalated considerably. One of the potential points of tension is the resolution’s explicit call for cargo inspection. Iran has warned vehemently against such a move. According to Brigadier Ali Fadavi, Iran’s military forces, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), maintain a “special and suitable response to the inspection of Iranian vessels” (Fars News, June 14; Press TV, June 22, July 4). However, a major military move to challenge this particular regime of sanctions in the Persian Gulf would probably involve an attempt to close off the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway between Iran and Oman through which nearly 40% of crude oil supplies pass, including 88% of Saudi Arabian and 98% of Iraqi oil exports (Press TV, May 4; Fars News, June 13).
Since 2008, Tehran has warned bluntly of its potential to seal off the Strait of Hormuz, together with targeting U.S. shipping, to create turmoil in the oil market with a consequent major impact on the global economy (IRNA June 29, 2008; ISNA, July 8, 2008). As an Iranian analyst puts it, the Strait of Hormuz is the “hanging rope” of the American economy (Fars News, May 16). But to what extent is Iran militarily capable of bringing about these tactical objectives in response to a possible U.S. attack? Could Iran effectively close the Strait of Hormuz?
Iran’s main military goal in the Persian Gulf is to exploit the vulnerability of the Strait of Hormuz as leverage over possible Israeli or U.S. attacks on its nuclear facilities and Iran’s air defense system, which would be the main target of the initial assault. Since Iran is fully aware of American military superiority, the key to Iranian success is not to impair of U.S. naval forces through conventional military means, but to disrupt, dislocate and confuse the adversary in order to deter further attacks on its land-based strategic sites – nuclear or otherwise. Defensive military operations of this sort could be effective insofar as slowing down the progress of the opposing forces and, in psychological terms, allowing Iran to claim victory by surviving a conventional military assault – similar to Hezbollah following the 33 day war with Israel in 2006.
In the event of an attack, both the Iranian navy and the IRGCN (which operates its own force of small boats in parallel with the national navy) would rely on coastal defense forces and asymmetrical warfare, with the aim of limiting the activities of U.S. naval forces from either a far distance (with missiles) or in close proximity (using speed boats or mines). In terms of coastal defense, Iran has recently acquired a number of surface-launched fixed and mobile anti-ship missiles like the Ghased-1 and Nasr-1 (most likely bought from China) (Fars News, March 7; IRNA, May 21). In conventional military operations, these missiles could be used in addition to the anti-submarine torpedoes and Noor C-802 surface-to-surface missiles deployed on newly built frigates like the Jamaran (Press TV May 11).  Meanwhile, the presence of mines also poses a major threat to the U.S. navy, which is busy, along with British naval forces, in a constant minesweeping mission throughout the Gulf. The target of such coastal missile and mine operations would most likely include oil rigs, oil tankers, commercial ships (from Arab states in the Gulf) and other possible soft targets with the objective of disrupting shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
In terms of asymmetrical warfare, the IRGCN would lead the charge in operations in the Strait (see Terrorism Monitor, April 29). This aspect of Iranian naval warfare entails the highest risk for military conflict, since the IRGCN is typically undisciplined in its organizational and tactical operations. The unruly tactics of the Revolutionary Guard in the Strait of Hormuz could increase the possibility of misinterpretation and miscalculation on both sides, as was the case with the near confrontation of Iranian fast boats and a flotilla of American naval forces in early 2008 (IRNA, January 8, 2008). In many ways, the 2008 introduction of 74 domestically built missile boats (based on the North Korean Peykaap ISP-16 model), effectively used in war exercises, indicates Iran is turning toward reliance on asymmetrical tactics (IRNA, February 22, 2008). These missile boats can be the deadliest form of naval warfare against U.S. forces, particularly if used in unconventional operations such as suicide attacks.
In spite of structural shortcomings and its role as the smallest branch of Iran’s armed forces, the Islamic Republic’s navy and particularly the IRGCN remain a substantial threat to U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. With the new wave of sanctions and President Obama indicating that Iran may not be included in Washington’s new commitment not to attack non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons, the Islamic Republic is becoming considerably alarmed by the prospect of war (Press TV, June 22). These fears are making Iran more aggressive in its military policy in the Persian Gulf, with a possible increase in the presence of the IRGCN in the Strait of Hormuz in the months to come. In light of the element of miscalculation, the prospect looms large of a military conflict in a vital maritime region, with consequences for economic security on a global scale.
1. The Jamaran and other ships in her class are classified as destroyers by Iran, which habitually exaggerates the size of its warships.
2. Author’s interview with a senior U.S. navy officer, July 7, 2010.