Velayat-e 90, the 11-day Iranian naval exercise that began on December 24, 2011 in the strategically critical Strait of Hormuz, has brought Iran and the United States close to a military conflict. While Tehran originally maintained that the war games were merely for defensive purposes, a number of Iranian politicians and senior military officers described the exercises explicitly as a warning to the West that the Iranian navy is capable of closing the Strait and obstructing the transportation of oil in response to U.S. sanctions on the country’s central bank and oil exports (Press TV, December 28, 2011; IRNA, December 28, 2011; Tehran Emrooz December 31, 2011). In the words of the commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), Rear Admiral Habibullah Sayyari: “Closing the Strait of Hormuz for Iran’s armed forces is really easy, or, as Iranians say, it will be easier than drinking a glass of water” (Press TV, December 28, 2011).
While Iran could easily close or disrupt the Strait, it is obvious that an American military response would squash its naval forces in a short period of time, which leaves the question as to whether Iran really has the will to make such a risky move at a time when it is experiencing severe domestic economic problems.
The Tactical Element of Iran’s Naval Exercises
Several military issues should be considered here. From the outset, the Velayat-e 90 war games could be described as one of the most grandiose naval exercises Iran has conducted (Fars News, January 6). The war games comprised four operational phases, each phase leading to a dramatic display of Iranian naval power, with the most important phases beginning on December 30 (IRNA, December 23, 2011; Tehran Emrooz December 31, 2011). In terms of military operations, the drills involved the use of fighter jets in special airborne operations and the deployment of mines, warships, various missiles (most importantly the Iranian-built “Qader” surface-to-sea missiles), and even, according to Iranian navy claims, new sonar-evading submarines (IRNA, December 31, 2011; IRNA December 30, 2011; Fars News, December 30, 2011). These submarines are most likely the three “Ghadir” class midget submarines designed for littoral defense work that were delivered to the Iranian Navy last November. Velayat-e 90 also highlighted an expansion in the use of various classes of recently built speed boats known as “Shahab,” “Rad” and “Azarkhesh” in the eastern part of the Strait, indicating Iran’s strong willingness to engage in asymmetrical warfare in the event of a military conflict (IRNA, December 31, 2011; Fars News January 6, 2011). The tactical focus on the eastern part of the Strait may be a sign that the Iranian navy plans to hinder shipping away from the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet and al-Udayd Air Force base in Qatar by conducting waves of asymmetrical attacks designed to cause the greatest damage possible to oil tankers prior to a decisive U.S. naval response. In light of this tactical move, with its obvious military risks, the ultimate strategic objective is to cause major chaos in the oil markets and the global economy on which the United States relies heavily for its own survival (Fars News, January 6).
Iran’s naval exercises have also underlined the significance of missile operations for the Iranian navy in any attempt to disrupt transportation through Hormuz. A combination of attack capabilities was displayed, namely, ranging from the use of surface-to-surface missiles to torpedoes (Press TV, December 24, 2011). The use of these weapons appears to be most important, as the Navy plans to target oil tankers and U.S. warships from the Iranian territories in the northeastern region of the Strait of Hormuz (Tehran Emrooz, December 31, 2011). There is also an emphasis on Special Forces units of military combatants whose mission would be to attack enemy forces with speed-boats or scuba diving operations (Tehran Emrooz, December 31, 2011). With such combined military tactics, the Iranian navy seems to be focusing heavily on the element of surprise provided by a combination of asymmetrical and conventional warfare.
However, even if Iran succeeds in reproducing what Ali Fadavi, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGC-N) has described as the “nightmare” caused by Iran’s maritime domination over U.S. naval forces in 1987, would Iran really engage in such military adventurism? (Tehran Emrooz, December 31, 2011; Fars News January 6).  It is important here to place the Iranian naval war games in their proper political, domestic and geo-political context. At the core of the tension lies the broader and ongoing U.S.-Iran conflict. Since 1979, the United States and Iran have engaged in a series of low-intensity conflicts, with the American entry into the Persian Gulf “Tanker War” in 1987 representing the most serious military conflict between the two states. However, beyond the legacy of over thirty years of conflict and confrontation, the most recent naval adventure in the Persian Gulf has opened a new phase in the contentious relations between Iran and the United States.
Reacting to Sanctions
Largely in response to an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iranian nuclear activity, President Obama brought into force new sanctions against the Iranian Central Bank on December 31 (Press TV, January 2). Tehran views the move as a direct threat against its most crucial economic life-line; the export of oil. The U.S.-led sanctions come at a critical time; the Iranian economy is suffering from serious problems due to mismanagement, corruption and, more importantly, the loss of revenue caused by the last round of sanctions, which targeted Iran’s banking sector in the United Arab Emirates and key countries in Asia. With the EU joining the next round of sanctions, Iran could lose major buyers for its oil. For a rentier state that is gradually phasing out subsidies in place of distributing money to the poorest segment of the population, cash is in short supply. The Iranian rial has been seriously devalued in recent weeks and inflation is surging on a daily basis (Aftab News Agency, January 2; Mehr News, January 2). With a long history of social uprisings, the Islamic Republic is vulnerable to political unrest.
There is also the military aspect to consider. With the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, Iran may seem to have more space to expand its influence, but in reality its military activities remain focused on the protection of key infrastructure (including its nuclear sites) and remain limited largely to the Persian Gulf. In every direction except its western neighbor of Iraq, Iran is surrounded by American forces. The establishment of a U.S. missile defense shield based in Malatya, eastern Turkey, marks the latest military effort to contain Tehran (Aftab News Agency, December 26, 2011; IRNA, December 30, 2011). The geo-strategic context explains why Iranian military strategy may become more erratic as Iran focuses on the Strait of Hormuz to seriously hurt the oil market by not only disrupting the flow of oil by neighboring countries but also, according to former senior IRGC officer and current Iranian Petroleum Minister Rustam Ghasemi, but also by preventing the export of Iranian oil that would be impossible to replace with Saudi Arabian crude (Roozeghar, January 2).
Iranian Divisions over the Strait Strategy
In reality, however, there is a major security risk in the Iranian Hormuz strategy. With the Strait representing Iran’s best chance to confront overwhelming U.S. military power, the narrow passage serves as both the first and the last bullet to fight off American threats against its nuclear program and economic life-line. This emphasis on a single region for military operations could increase the risk of military conflict as both Iran and the United States enhance their military capability in the region to overcome threats by the either side. Warnings from hardline Iranian politicians that the Strait may be closed have caused more moderate politicians to criticize such a risky policy. As Emad Hussein (a senior figure in the Energy Commission of the Iranian Majlis) explained, rhetoric threatening to close off the Strait does not help Iran gain a better position over its nuclear options, nor does it help the country’s economic situation (Roozghar [Tehran], January 2).
Yet it is in terms of internal Iranian politics that a potential naval conflict around the Strait of Hormuz may become a reality. Iranian domestic politics has seen a considerable rise in factionalism since spring 2011, mostly revolving around intra-conservative rivalries. The most important conflict occurred between the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While tensions between the two have subsided since summer 2011, conservative factions continue to vie for power ahead of the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections. The alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington underscores the possibility that an anti-Ahmadinejad faction has used the military-intelligence forces to diminish the influence of the president, who has recently shown subtle signs of a rapprochement with the United States.  The IRGC is the most vulnerable group in these circumstances. If such factionalism has already impacted the IRGC, then it is highly likely that the initiation of major covert and overt military operations could also reflect the factional strife created as competing elements within the IRGC vie for control. In this sense, last November’s takeover of the British Embassy by the Basiji forces (a volunteer force within the IRGC), might not have had the full support of the IRGC, since key commanders remained silent about the incident while the foreign ministry, under the control of Ahmadinejad’s administration, issued a public statement of apology.
What the plot against the Saudi ambassador and the siege of the British Embassy ultimately reveal is the unstable nature of Iran’s faction-ridden politics and the degree to which such a volatile environment could have an unpredictable impact on Iranian decision-making, possibly leading to a military conflict in the Strait of Hormuz. To many in Washington, Iran’s latest military posturing may seem mere bluster, but in light of increasing economic and political problems within Iran there is a strong potential for the threats to accidently or intentionally evolve into a full blown military encounter that could push the risk to the region’s security to historic levels. The key is to understand that behind any Iranian military action there is a political heartbeat, and at the moment the Iranian power structure, feeling threatened by domestic problems and U.S. military activities in the region, is getting ready for war.
Babak Rahimi was a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace from 2005-2006, where he conducted research on Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Shiite politics in post-Baathist Iraq. He is currently an Assistant Professor at the Department of Literature, Program for the Study of Religion, University of California, San Diego.
1. The IRGC-N operates in parallel to the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, but tends to restrict itself to much smaller craft focused on coastal defense.
2. See also Mahdi Khalaji, “The Domestic Logic of Iran’s Foreign Plots,” Project Syndicate, November 1, 2011, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/khalaji8/English.