Samstag, 7. Januar 2012

A Strait Too Far - Iran's (Probably) Empty Threat

Courtesy of the U.S. Navy
As 2011 drew to a close and yours truly was taking too short a hiatus in Bremen and Berlin, Iran stepped up its military posture in the Strait of Hormuz, warning that a further escalation in tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme might trigger Tehran to enact a blockade of the vital chockepoint. It also warned the United States not to re-deploy an additional carrier group to the strait and staged a ten-day military exercise in order to underscore its aggressive posture. The sabre-rattling was in all probability a reaction to the then-pending additional embargoes on the Iranian oil market, recently enacted by the European Union and stronger banking sanctions already passed by the United States. In short, they demonstrate that sanctions finally seem to have a serious impact on the Iranian economy, calling into question the durability of Iran's stance vis-à-vis the international community. But is Iran really in a position to threaten the Strait of Hormuz? And if so, is it likely to do so?

Despite the sabre-rattling one should keep in mind that the Strait of Hormuz is not only Iraq's and Saudi Arabia's major avenue for oil exports. In fact, Iran's own exports have to be conducted through the Strait. And while it is sometimes assumed that the United States is fully dependent on Middle Eastern oil, Europe and China are in fact far more reliant on Middle Eastern oil supplies than the U.S. The economic effect of a potential blockade would be devastating to the world economy. But in terms of actual supply China and Europe would be hit harder than the United States. Such a blockade would hence bring China fully in the Western boat making such a move strategically self-defeating for Iran. Moreover, not only would Western navies intervene, such a move would virtually require a military response from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A potential blockade would therefore seem rather unlikely, but it becomes outright ridiculous once you take a look at the military capabilities of Iran. Iran does not have a traditional military structure. In fact, its regular armed forces and navy suffer from years of neglect and though the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the real military backbone of the country, have some experience in operations against ground forces, certainly do not have the capabilities for a fully fledged naval campaign. Iran's navy, consisting largely of Soviet-era Kilo submarines and virtually ancient frigates does not stand a chance in a confrontation with the U.S. Navy. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards might be deployed in such a scenario, but their swarming tactics have never been put to a test. And whether the regular Iranian navy and the naval wing of the Revolutionary Guards can coordinate effectively in terms of jointness is more than doubtful. Iran might deploy some anti-ship ground missiles but the effect of those is more than questionable, since for those to be effective Iran would need reconnaissance that Iran does not really have.

But the most important aspect is this. Trying to essentially shut-down the Strait of Hormuz is a real military objective that does not adhere to the logic of asymmetric conflicts. For it to be effective, it needs durability. Iran would fall short of its objective would it not be able to maintain the blockade. In fact, would the U.S. or some other navy break the blockade in a short couple of days—as is likely—Iran would have lost the conflict decisively. And that is something Ahmadinejad and Khamenei certainly cannot afford.

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