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Analysis | Subtle Sabotage: Iran's Other Option in the Strait of Hormuz

by REZA SANATI in Miami

03 Jan 2012 22:13Comments
c_iran_hormuz_111228.vslice.jpgThere's more than one way to disrupt the vital sea lane, and the result could be catastrophic.

[ opinion ] A significant consequence of the rising rhetorical hostility between the West and Iran has been speculation that Iran will attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz if it is attacked. In recent weeks, tensions have increased due to Iran's military maneuvers in and around the strait and reciprocal U.S. warnings. As the communications channels between Iran and the United States are very limited and poor, any misunderstanding of intentions and capabilities by either side could quickly lead to grave consequences for both countries, for the region, and for the global economy. It is thus imperative to reach a sober perspective on what the likely response of each player would be in the event of the conflict's escalation, particularly with respect to the Strait of Hormuz.

According to the conventional narrative of how escalation would progress, in response to the imposition of "crippling" sanctions -- such as full implementation of central banking restrictions -- some sort of oil embargo, or military strikes, Tehran would have the choice of either mining the strait so as to make commerce through it extremely hazardous or of forcefully imposing a full naval blockade, blocking passage between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The U.S. Navy, possibly with the aid of allied states, would in turn swiftly attempt to clear the strait. If the Iranians did not back down, all-out war would be the likely result. Those who regard Iranian threats to close the strait as a bluff base their view on two assumptions: (1) Iran would never close the strait due to its economic dependence upon the vital choke point, and (2) any attempt to close the strait would bring the weight of the world down on the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian rationale: Why do it?

Look at the issue through the Tehran prism, however, and both of these assumptions appear uncertain. To comprehend how Tehran could and would actually retaliate in the strait, one must first understand the Iranian rationale in dealing with the West. For Tehran, what is at stake is the concept of the modern global commons, in which states trade and otherwise interact with each other. Iran believes that international law is fundamentally incapable of protecting its interests, that due to the sway the Western powers maintain over international bodies, which they routinely use to advance their own foreign policy aims, the cards are stacked against the Islamic Republic no matter what it does.

For example, Iran sees itself as a victim of terrorism and thus does not take seriously the charge that it is responsible for promoting terrorism itself. For Iran, the logic of the nonproliferation regime, which supposedly protects the rights of states to peaceful nuclear technology, is also deeply suspect. Though every International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report concerning Iran has confirmed that there is no evidence of diversion of nuclear material from peaceful to potentially military use and though the IAEA has access to and cameras installed in all of the country's nuclear sites, Iran is still labeled an imminent nuclear threat by the United States and its allies.

The Iranian approach to the Strait of Hormuz is linked to its general skepticism of international law. Iran feels that its economy, which has now been subject to sanctions for over three decades, is being singled out arbitrarily. It does not accept the argument that it is being sanctioned due to nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and human rights concerns, as it is surrounded by neighbors, some of them client regimes of the West, whose record in those areas it regards as markedly worse. If what Tehran perceives as the unfair denial of its access to the global economy reaches a certain level, it may well be provoked to disrupt access to a crucial geographical facilitator of that economy -- the Strait of Hormuz.

The Iranian response: "Somalia-ization" of the strait

Iran is fully aware that any blockade or direct attack on such a crucial choke point would incite massive retaliation by the international community, led by the United States. It understands that such a move would completely isolate it from its fellow OPEC members and invite a coalitional war on the country.

So is Iran bluffing when it claims that it will use oil and its transport as a weapon? Absolutely not.

In the event of an escalation of the Iran-U.S. conflict, the Iranians will avoid any semblance of the traditional narrative that involves an overt attempt to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. Instead, Iran could seek to create perpetual, low-grade instability in the strait, mostly through asymmetric means, with the objective of making it an aquatic "no-man's land," similar to what has transpired in the waters off the Horn of Africa. Rather than follow the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the Suez Crisis, Iran can utilize highly advanced piracy and sabotage tactics, while looking to maintain plausible deniability.

This approach has three distinct advantages. The first is that it will still allow Iran to utilize the straits, with manageable consequences for its own economy. The most challenging aspect would be the adaptations required in transport strategy, but the country's long coastline would mitigate that concern. Second, it will provide Iran with regional and global leverage without the unified international opprobrium that would come with a naval blockade. Policy makers and military strategists among its adversaries might well know who was causing instability in the strait, but without an overt, conventional attempt to close the passage, would be unable to stop it. And third, perhaps most importantly, this enterprise could be extended indefinitely and in direct proportion to how long and to what extent the United States and its allies maintain heightened pressure on Iran.

The matter of what specific tactics would be employed remains speculative, contingent upon the regional and global strategic environment present at the time Iran's strategists decide to take action. They could run the gamut of sabotaging ships in all sorts of asymmetric ways to "soft" mining and obstruction tactics that could be blamed on "pirates." If regional exporting states collaborated with the United States on an Iran oil embargo, those measures could be accompanied by infrastructure sabotage, as seen in conflicts in southeast Turkey, Nigeria, or Egypt.

This strategy does not rely on Iranian ingenuity or a newfound method of warfare. But the fact that it has the most strategic coastline on the waterway and the region's largest navy (whose strategic doctrine has long placed a premium on asymmetric warfare) means it is well positioned to disrupt, on a low-level, continuous basis, the vital shipping corridor.

This asymmetric approach would not close down the strait. For Iran, the choice is not "to close" or "not to close," but rather to clog. A major global choke point, once considered safe, would no longer be so. In practical terms, vastly increased costs for shipping -- including security, insurance, and reinsurance for both cargo and crew -- along with permanent market instability, would be the new norm. For oil producers, particularly Iran, this would be a far more advantageous strategy than a full-on blockade.

Though an Iranian naval blockade would have severe economic consequences for the West, which would endure a drastic hike in petroleum prices, it would provoke a swift, multinational extrication of the naval wall, severe punishment for the Iranian regime, and eventual restabilization of oil prices. The asymmetric approach, if executed cannily, would mitigate the backlash, while allowing Iran to reap the reward of higher oil profits, thus curtailing the effect of the sanctions regime. The Iranians would count on the sustained stress on the global economy to ultimately force the United States to shift course.

U.S. counters to Iranian asymmetry both limited and costly

Could the United States, with the assistance of its European and regional partners, effectively combat the virus of instability that would result from asymmetric action by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz? Surprisingly, no. While America can effectively deal with a conventional threat by Iran or any other state actor on the strait's functionality, its options against attenuated, asymmetric threats to the passage are very limited, expensive, and likely to be self-defeating.

The United States would most likely respond by either establishing a large-scale, permanent presence of naval forces in or near the strait, or performing daily flyovers from regional bases, or some combination thereof to maintain an open corridor. While this would dissuade the Iranians from overt acts of aggression, it would most likely drive them underground and underwater -- figuratively and literally. And the United States will soon realize that it does not take a great amount of effort or imagination to cause instability, whether the saboteurs pose as fisherman or local commercial traders in traditional dhows or Iran's mosaic of speedboats.

Once that recognition comes, the American response will more likely amplify the impediments to transit through the strait than mitigate them. One can imagine a circumstance where the large U.S. naval presence in the strait would have to clear physical blockage of some kind and search and seize all suspect vessels, producing a deleterious impact on the local fishing industry and interstate shipping in the region.

As for regional states sympathetic to the U.S. cause, but fearful of Iran, they will probably avoid open expressions of sympathy with either side while urging restraint. Also, since most of them are oil producers and would benefit from a rise in petroleum prices because of sustained instability, the likelihood of them adopting an overtly anti-Iranian position, unless directly attacked by Tehran, would be lower still. In all likelihood, they will just sit back, watch the show, and collect substantially higher oil revenues.

No good options for any involved party

If the United States finds itself in a situation where the Strait of Hormuz is destabilized and its efforts to clear it are failing, it will be confronted with two choices, neither salutary: diplomatically resolve its issues with Iran, for which scant political will exists in America, or gamble on still further escalation, which has delivered few positive results to date.

The rising hostility between Iran and the West, particularly if open conflict results, will yield no victors. Despite its advantages over a strategy of total blockade, disrupting the strait's stability will keep Iran outside of the regional security architecture, which undermines its long-term potential. Such an approach is in no way a substitute for a integrationist strategy aimed at improving Iran's relationships with its neighbors and the global community. For the United States, the cost of its Iran obsession, particularly if open hostilities arise, will do far more damage to its long-term position as a global superpower than any small short-term gain it might reap from temporarily weakening the Islamic Republic.

If escalation continues in slow motion and stability within the strait gradually deteriorates due to the application of an asymmetric Iranian strategy as described here, the result will be almost entirely negative for Washington. The United States would be drawn into providing the manpower and bearing the exorbitant cost for removing the impediments to transport through the passage -- essentially becoming the janitor of the Strait of Hormuz. And this sort of engagement, of course, would vastly multiply the odds that one side or another, however nondeliberately, would commit an act that would spark a war.

For the Persian Gulf region, which has suffered years of war and in which every state is gripped by political uncertainty, if not outright revolutionary upheaval, mounting Iran-U.S. belligerence holds catastrophic potential. In countries where the traditional autocratic authority is disintegrating, the radicalization that would follow increasingly open conflict between Iran and the United States would likely bring to power elements prepared to act forcefully against American interests in the region. In states such as Iran, Lebanon, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, and Pakistan with some tradition of reformist political figures favoring normalization of relations between the Islamic world and the West, those players would be completely pushed aside for the foreseeable future. And given the current instability in Europe, along with the fickle recovery around the developed world, an Iran-U.S. war could precipitate a global depression with ease.

Views expressed are the author's.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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