The 45 kilometer-wide Strait of Hormuz is the most important waterway for the movement of oil to Western markets and the Far East: Roughly 17 million barrels per day are moved through the Strait of Hormuz, or 20 percent of the oil traded worldwide. Yet on Dec. 28, 2011, the commander of the Iranian Navy, Admiral Habibolah Sayyari, declared that closing the Strait of Hormuz would be easier “than drinking a glass of water.” Iran wanted to intimidate the West, showing that it had options to respond to new sanctions against the Iranian oil industry that were being considered by the EU, and that had been signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama. Just the rumor that Iran was considering such a move could shoot up the price of oil, which in fact rose by 4% within days of Sayyari’s threat. Given the weakness of the European economies at present, Tehran was hoping that it had real leverage that it could employ against the West.
Where did Iran get this confidence? The last time Iran had a full-scale clash with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf, it was badly beaten. Iran adopted a policy of mining shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf in the mid-1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. An American frigate, the USS Samuel Roberts, was struck by an Iranian mine and nearly blown in two. It almost sank. The Reagan administration ordered a retaliatory raid destroying Iranian oil platforms that were being used by the Revolutionary Guard and four Iranian ships, including a frigate. Writing this month in the Wall Street Journal, Bradley Russell, formerly of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations recalled the Iranian attack on the USS Roberts and its implications for the present crisis: “The Iranians must realize that the balance of forces does not lie in their favor.” The article was optimistically entitled “Iran Won’t Close the Strait of Hormuz.”
The Iranians look back on their naval clash with the U.S. very differently, taking pride in their ability to cause considerable damage to an American warship. Admiral Ali Fadavi, the commander of the naval arm of the Revolutionary Guard speaks on the incident with the USS Roberts and takes away different lessons than many Americans. For example, speaking in 2007, he noted, “Even small operations can produce huge effects in the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.” By “small operations,” he is referring to the role of small speedboats armed with sea-to-sea missiles and torpedoes, mini-submarines, as well as sea mines in blocking the Strait of Hormuz. For Fadavi, a “huge effect” is undoubtedly the capability of Iran to sink large American warships, even if Iran has considerable losses in its fleet of small boats, as a result.
Iranian naval commanders have been almost obsessive about defeating large ships with small attack boats equipped with sea-to-sea missiles. But today, they do not focus on the vulnerability of a frigate-size warship alone, but hope that they can cripple an aircraft carrier.
Thus, this January, the Iranian Army’s chief of staff issued a warning after the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis left the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz: “Iran will not repeat its warning … the enemy’s carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf.” He then added: “We are not in the habit of warning more than once.” To emphasize their threat, the Iranians released a film clip of the USS John S. Stennis photographed from an Iranian surveillance aircraft. A few months earlier, in July, 2011, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace command stated explicitly on Iranian television that a U.S. carrier “is a target for us.”
What can the Iranians hope to accomplish? Their strategy is based on asymmetric warfare at sea, which would seek to prevent the deployment of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf for as long a time as possible, using hundreds of anti-ship cruise missiles they have dispersed on islands and oil platforms, as well as along their long shoreline. A study published in Washington last year authored by a former Pentagon official, Mark Gunziger, points out that the U.S. would have to first suppress and degrade the anti-ship missile threat throughout the Persian Gulf, before it could send in ships to clear Iranian mines in the Strait of Hormuz. That could take time. The Iranians clearly will seek to drive up the price of oil as much as possible, undermine Western economies, damage U.S. ships, and in the end break the will of the West.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, took seriously the Iranian threats this month. Speaking on the CBS news show, Face the Nation, on Jan. 8, he admitted: “They’ve invested in capabilities that could, in fact, for a period of time block the Strait of Hormuz.” But he added: “We’ve invested in capabilities to ensure that if that happens, we can defeat that. And so the simple answer is yes, they can block it.” But at this point, Tehran is not ready for a showdown in the Persian Gulf. Last weekend, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard withdrew the Iranian threat to U.S. warships in the Gulf and the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, through the Strait of Hormuz earlier this week. The present crisis appears to have passed. But both sides are building up their capabilities for the future should a naval conflict break out.