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Rattling the Sabers at Iran

But the Strait is no place for picking a fight

The geography of the planet has always been a determinant of power and a decisive influence over the outcome of war. Yet judging from the actions of Congress, and the bravado of both Republican candidates and the Administration, a geography course won’t be found on their school transcripts. Have they looked at a map?

Iran sits at unique location on the Persian Gulf, not only bordering a body of water through which 20% of the world’s oil passes daily, but a at spot where a spine of
land rising northward from the Emirates squeezes the waterway to form a strait — the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a waterway as little as 21 miles wide with Iran looming over its northern shore like an open hand poised to choke a passerby.

We'll get to just how serious is Iran's ability to do battle in a moment. First, the situation.

Iran’s other straits are dire. Sanctions have been ruinous for its economy, its currency is in free fall, Europe has agreed in principle to an embargo of Iranian oil, and the U.S. president is now required by a 100-to-0 vote in the Senate to sanction any company doing business with the Central Bank of Iran. That step is the most severe of all because it would impede Iran from selling its oil, which undergirds 60% of its economy.

In retaliation, Iran has threatened to block the Strait, has told the recently-departed carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis and its battle escort not to return to the Gulf, and, in a show of intent, has just conducted 10 days of naval maneuvers near the Strait with a vow to repeat those exercises soon.

The latest sanctions will prove drastic for Iran and would seem certain to provoke reaction. So, although weakened by two wars and a comatose economy, we are quite ready deliberately to trigger yet another war. Everyone seems all for it, without much forethought about the consequences.

Obama's Balancing Act

President Obama will need to conduct a delicate balancing act, phasing in the sanctions beginning at the end of January while simultaneously preventing oil shortages if they succeed in choking off Iran’s export of 2 million barrels a day. Shortages would trigger an increase in the price of gasoline; it’s an election year and he, not the Senate, will get the blame. It gets far worse if the Strait becomes a battleground. The estimate is that the price of oil will zoom by 50%.

♦ Mitt Romney has said, "the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon”.

♦ Rick Santorum: “Iran must not get a nuclear weapon and we will go about whatever it takes to make sure that happens”.

♦ Newt Gingrich: “We could break the Iranian regime, I think, within a year".

♦ Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says, “The United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Strait of Hormuz. That's another red line for us”.

Using back channels, the Administration has now said the same to Iran. At least that suggests that officials no longer seem complacent; earlier comments seemed to assume that Iran is bluffing. If most of Iran's economy is reduced to rubble by the new sanctions, we should assume that the Iranian government, which has been issuing threats of its own, could find itself forced to act lest it betray weakness to a restive public. The severity of our actions is forcing their hand.

So be it, one could say. Action against Iran looks increasingly unavoidable. But the prevailing attitude of the Administration and those Republican candidates is that America's military might is invincible wherever it goes. That pays no attention to geography and we ask whether we have chosen the right battlefield.

strait talk There have been threats in the past to mine the strait or to sink ships to block its channels. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has mentioned using "minesweepers", but how would they cope with the far more advanced mine technology developed by China and Russia and, it is believed, supplied secretly to Iran? China, especially, has shown indifference to Iran's nuclear aspirations and is focused on Iran's oil.

That technology is alarming. There are mines that are virtually non-detectable, that can "swim" underwater just above the seabed for miles and be guided to exact geographical coordinates, where they will then drop and immerse themselves into the seabed. Pre-programmed to recognize the magnetic and acoustic signatures of specific ships, they can be fired remotely and from great distances. When fired, they do not simply explode but rather launch a missile at the identified ship directly above, or angled to within a certain radius. The Strait has been a subject of threat and counter-threat before, making it probable that Iran had reason already to have extensively mine the Strait with such highly advanced mines in preparation for a day such as this.

Do we think that Iran, naval maneuvers notwithstanding, would never confront the far more powerful U.S. Navy? Perhaps not, but there were reports in 2006, the last time the Hormuz choke point was in the headlines, that its Revolutionary Guard Navy had prepared for a massive assault on international shipping in the Persian Gulf to disrupt trade.

Then there is the serious threat that that ships have become vulnerable in the face of missile technology. The strait is reportedly targeted by Iran with anti-ship missiles. If an American carrier, with its crew of 5,000, were struck, it would mean all out war.

Not even missiles are needed. Four years ago, five speedboats taunted three U.S. warships entering the Gulf in a provocative action that almost drew our fire. Speedboats may seem to be no match for powerful naval ships, until one remembers that an even lesser suicide craft blew a hole in the destroyer USS Cole, when it was docked in Yemen in October 2000, killing 17 sailors. More ominous still, a war game conducted by our Navy in 2002 showed that warships are disturbingly susceptible to waterborne guerrilla tactics. In that simulation a Navy convoy lost 16 major ships, including an aircraft carrier, in a matter of minutes to a “swarm” of such speedboats.

This article in Foreign Affairs by Colin H. Kahl School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service paints a still more alarming picture of Iran's preparations which are...

designed to prevent advanced navies from operating in the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf. These systems integrate coastal air defenses, shore-based long-range artillery and antiship cruise missiles, Kilo-class and midget submarines, remote-controlled boats and unmanned kamikaze aerial vehicles, and more than 1,000 small attack craft equipped with machine guns, multiple-launch rockets, antiship missiles, torpedoes, and rapid-mine-laying capabilities. The entire 120-mile-long strait sits along the Iranian coastline, within short reach of these systems.

Our Navy says it has a plan, but it may be in for a devastating surprise.

3 Comments for “Rattling the Sabers at Iran”

  1. Doug F.

    Iran is acting in its own interests. It is currently surround by US military bases in its own backyard (Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar, etc.). Can they be talked to? Yes. Have we really tried? No. Ahmadinejad is not in complete control of power – the mullahs are.

    Before asking an overstretched military (Army/USMC in particular) to take on another war, one must weigh the costs and benefits. Soldiers are returning home from 3+ combat tours without the required downtime. This is psychologically and spiritually devastating on a massive scale. If we are going to attack Iran because they MIGHT one day get a nuke while North Korea and Pakistan both own them, we had better institute a draft so that all the sons and daughters – not just those of the underprivileged – serve in combat. The all-volunteer force is caring a pretty large burden for the armchair generals in the US government.

    This is, of course, not to mention the financial cost of another war. We know what that can do. I’m sure the oil and military hardware firms will make out, but few others will find much to like here.

    Iran is geopolitically rational – whatever their rhetoric may state. They know use of a nuke is suicide. The mullahs want to stay in power. The best way to do that is too keep their people focused on a foreign threat. When a country is prosperous, calls for democracy grow and the elites lose control. Threatening from the outside increases their hold on power. Right now they are holding strong geopolitical cards. That can change with a different approach. War with Iran is the wrong place and time right now. Failure to see that will be costly.

  2. Phil Stout

    This article offers no solutions. No one wants the strait of Hormuz as part of a battelfield. But you offer no solutions. Let’s give visa’s to anyone in Iran who wants to come here and fight us. Maybe the Iranian government will sneek people across our borders and do subversive fighting. I’m surprised your article didn’t state the holy city of Qom is off limits too. After all, we don’t want to damage a holy city and make Iran mad. War is hell. No one wants it. If war is needed to stop evil aggressors, then it must be done. I don’t know of any war ever fought where the U.S. dictated the battlefield and it only favored us. Your argument seems to be, the strait of Hormuz would be part of the battle. It’s not an advantage for the U.S. so let’s not confront Iran. That is just stupid.

  3. The author seems to think we should do nothing. Iran has placed it’s self in this predicament. All they need to do is drop there nuclear ambitions. If the author thinks keeping a strait Open is tough or that there might be loss of life imagine Iran with a nuclear weapon! Iran has openly stated they would use nuclear weapons if they had them. Should anyone take the chance that they are just ” talking tuff” but wouldn’t really use one? In my opinion a world with Iran having a nuclear weapon is a dangerous one! As for our military, don’t underestimate them. Sure there are new technologies out there but I am sure our military is more than ready. The defense spending in this country is enormous. We should have the best technology to date and if something is new or more dangerous, we probally already have it!

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