Iran has been seeking to establish itself as the hegemonial power in the Middle East. Its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave an interview to the Iranian daily Ressalat on July 7, 1991, and asked a rhetorical question: “Do we look to preserve the integrity of our land, or do we look to its expansion?” He then answered his own question: “We must definitely look to expansion.” And indeed, in the years that followed, Iranian forces have been involved in regional subversion from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Khamenei’s spokesman, Hossein Shariatmadari, wrote on July 9, 2007: “Bahrain is part of Iran’s soil.” In 2009, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, who was Khamenei’s candidate for president in 1997, bluntly called Bahrain Iran’s “14th province.” For the last twenty years, the Iranian leadership has been remarkably consistent.1
Within the Iranian parliament there were voices supporting this neo-imperial role for Iran as well. A member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee released a statement reminding the Arab states as a whole that “most of them were once part of Iranian soil.” The Sunni Arab leaders monitored these Iranian ambitions. Once, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah complained about the rise of Iranian power in the aftermath of the Iraq War, berating a high-level U.S. official: “You have allowed the Persians, the Safavids, to take over Iraq.”2
Reference to the sixteenth century Safavid Empire emanated from the fact that under its rule, Persia made Shiite Islam its official religion. Moreover, the Safavid Empire stretched eastward to Herat in Afghanistan and westward to Baghdad, covering both shorelines of the Persian Gulf. If Iran indeed had ambitions to restore the glory of the Safavid Empire, the ultimate political fate of the Arab Gulf states, from Kuwait to Oman would be in the balance.
Perhaps for this reason, the Iranians from time to time related to the Persian Gulf as an internal sea and not as an international waterway. For example, in 1997, Maj.-Gen. Mohsen Rezai, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, stated: “Let me send a clear message to the Americans; the Persian Gulf is our region; they have to leave the region.”3
What military measures was Iran taking to realize these long-term goals? After the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran focused on building its military power in two fields: ballistic missiles/weapons of mass destruction and naval power. Its ground and air forces did not receive the same degree of investment and modernization. Iran also intensified its efforts to become the dominant power inside the Persian Gulf. Back in 1971 it was the Shah of Iran who seized the island of Abu Musa from the Emirate of Sharjah, which would eventually join the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Subsequently, he sent forces to occupy two additional islands, Greater and Less Tunb, which belonged to the Emirate of Ras al-Khaima.
While the Shah agreed that Abu Musa should be under the joint administration of the UAE and Iran, the Islamic Republic changed that policy. After a high profile visit of President Rafsanjani to the island in early 1992, Iran evicted the UAE, keeping the island under its exclusive control. The UAE argues that the islands are occupied territories, though since 1995, Tehran regards the islands as an inseparable part of Iran.
Iran integrated Abu Musa into its strategy to dominate the Persian Gulf and especially the 35-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz, its outlet to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. During the 1990s Iran deployed ground forces on Abu Musa and equipped them with Chinese HY-2 Silkworm anti-ship missiles. There have been reports that the Iranians also deployed 130-km.-range C-801 anti-ship missiles on Abu Musa as well as a Revolutionary Guard contingent. At the time of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards began to operate from a number of Persian Gulf islands, such as Sirri, Larak, and Hormuz, as well as from oil platforms at sea. This is the context for understanding the importance Iran attached to the islands it occupied that belonged to the UAE. Additionally, the two Tunbs are nearly adjacent to the outbound shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf through which oil tankers generally move as they head to the Strait of Hormuz, making them critical for an Iranian strategy that aims to control the flow of oil through this strategic waterway.
Iran engaged in other political-military activities that served its strategic interest in the Persian Gulf to remove the American military presence and dominate the region by itself. Already in 1995, the Bahraini government shared intelligence with the Clinton administration that Bahraini Hizbullah was working with the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards to install a pro-Iranian government in Bahrain, which that same year became the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Were such a change to transpire, one of the first initiatives of such a government would undoubtedly be to evict the U.S. Navy from Bahrain by closing down its main naval base. Subsequent protests by Bahrain’s Shiite majority against the ruling Sunni government, like those held in 2008, frequently featured signs reading “U.S. Bases Out of Bahrain.”
More generally, Iran has been seeking to recruit supporters for its regional subversion operations from the disfranchised Shiite communities of the Arab Gulf states, who constitute 30 percent of the population of Kuwait, 16 percent of the UAE, and close to 50 percent of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it was a Saudi branch of Hizbullah, known as Hizbullah al-Hijaz, which conducted the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing attack that was directed against U.S. Air Force personnel. The U.S. had definitive intelligence that Iran orchestrated the attack.4
Shiite Populations in the Middle East
Iran also wanted to demonstrate that its naval power was not just confined to the Persian Gulf, within its immediate neighborhood, but that its warships can reach into the Indian Ocean and even as far as the Mediterranean Sea. In December 2010, the Iranian Navy held a joint exercise with Djibouti, which is near Bab al-Mandab at the entrance to the Red Sea. On February 22, 2011, Iranian naval vessels passed through the Suez Canal for the first time since 1979. This Mediterranean mission was well beyond what might be expected of the Iranian Navy. It should be remembered that the regular Iranian Navy still consists of relatively old ships from the time of the Shah, which its commanders hope to modernize with new weapons systems, particularly naval missiles. According to a report by the Office of U.S. Naval Intelligence, the Iranian Navy is preparing itself to project its power beyond the Strait of Hormuz with new naval bases in the Gulf of Oman that will be ready in 2015. Previously, Iranian warships have in fact reached Sudan and Somalia, but they had not entered the Mediterranean.5
Iran had a number of interests in the area of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Improved naval access to these waters was critical for Iran if it wanted to re-supply its allies who were engaged in different insurgencies in the region. For example, on October 26, 2009, the Yemeni Navy seized an Iranian cargo ship, the Mahan-1, which was loaded with anti-tank weapons that were destined for the Houthi rebels fighting the Yemeni government. While theologically, the Houthi were Fiver Shiites (as opposed to Twelver Shiites in Iran), Tehran took their cause under its wing as part of its strategy to support Shiite militant groups across the Middle East.6
During the previous decade, Iran sought to re-supply Palestinian organizations, as well as Hizbullah, by dispatching multiple cargo ships under foreign flags. Iran sent the Karine-A, intercepted by Israeli naval commandos in the Red Sea on January 3, 2002. The Israeli Navy also intercepted the MV Francop in the Mediterranean on November 3, 2009, which carried thousands of rockets destined for Hizbullah. On March 15, 2011, the Israeli Navy captured the cargo ship MV Victoria, which was bound for the Gaza Strip – it carried thousands of mortar shells as well as C-704 anti-ship missiles. During this period, Iran also sought to re-supply Hamas with weaponry delivered to Port Sudan, on the Red Sea.7
Despite these tangible interests the limits of Iranian naval power suggest that the dispatch of Iranian ships to the Suez Canal and then into the Mediterranean was at this point ultimately political and not based on any ambitious military mission to confront another navy. It was a classic case of naval diplomacy. In short, a Mediterranean deployment was clearly premature for the Iranian Navy. What then could be the mission of the Iranian warships? What is the political message that their deployment suggests? Up until last year, Egypt led the Sunni Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which have been seeking to contain the spread of Iranian power.
However, with Egypt neutralized for now, the Iranians wanted to send a signal that they were prepared to fill the vacuum created by the fall of President Mubarak by dispatching warships through the Suez Canal for the first time. Iranian spokesmen sometimes expressed intentions that went beyond the Middle East, despite the fact that Iran was incapable of sustaining such long-distance deployments. Thus, on September 28, 2011, the commander of the Iranian Navy, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, announced that Iran intends to dispatch a force to the Atlantic and to maintain an impressive presence near U.S. territorial waters.
From the perspective of the Iranian leadership, which reiterates on multiple occasions that the U.S. and the rest of the West are powers in decline, there is likely a view that the fact that Washington could not help its old ally, Mubarak, means that U.S. power in the Middle East is waning. Looking at events in Cairo from the perspective of Tehran, it appeared that America was not able to defend what should have been its own interests (it does not matter that President Obama had no intention of saving Mubarak, given the extent of the demonstrations in Cairo).
Indeed, already in April 2009, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Washington: “We say to you today that you are in a position of weakness. Your hands are empty and you can no longer promote your interests from a position of strength.” The Iranian naval move is a simple signal: wherever the U.S. withdraws from, Iran will be there to enter. Should Iran cross the nuclear weapons threshold, this kind of assertiveness will only increase.8
This provides some of the context for understanding what Iran was doing in the Strait of Hormuz at the end of 2011. True, Iran directly confronted the U.S. Navy in 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq War and was badly beaten. Having used its sea mines against the USS Samuel B. Roberts, the U.S. Navy countered with a series of actions that led to the sinking of an Iranian frigate, two Iranian oil platforms, and a number of speedboats. Despite this history, on December 28, 2011, Admiral Habibolah Sayyari, the commander of the Iranian Navy, announced that Tehran could close the Strait of Hormuz, which is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. No other waterway had such a significant impact on the movement of global oil, considering that 17 million barrels of oil had moved every day through the Strait of Hormuz during the previous year. This amount constituted roughly 20 percent of the oil traded worldwide.9
Iran undertook a variety of escalatory moves. In early January 2012, Iran’s army chief of staff, General Ataollah Salehi, issued a warning after the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis left the Persian Gulf and entered the Gulf of Oman: “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….We are not in the habit of warning more than once.” To underline their threat, the Iranians released footage of the USS John C. Stennis, filmed from an Iranian naval surveillance aircraft.
Two weeks later, Iranian speed boats came within 500 yards of the USS New Orleans, an amphibious transport dock, in the Strait of Hormuz. It was not the first time Iran issued a direct threat to American aircraft carriers. Speaking on Channel 1 of Iranian Television on July 19, 2011, Brig.-Gen. Amir Ali Hajizdeh, commander of the Aerospace Force of the Revolutionary Guards, focused on the U.S. carrier presence. He plainly said that a U.S. carrier “is a target for us.”
Could the Iranians make good on these threats? Their strategy was 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, oil platforms, as well as along their long shoreline. 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. In early January 2012, Admiral Sayyari managed to push up the price of oil by 4 percent in less than a week.10
Regardless of the Iranians’ motives, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey took seriously their threats. Speaking on the CBS news program Face the Nation on January 8, 2012, he admitted: “They’ve invested in capabilities that could, in fact, for a period of time block the Straits 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.” The U.S. response to the latest Iranian threat to American carriers was to dispatch the USS Enterprise to the Middle East; it was expected to reach the Persian Gulf with another six ships, which are part of its carrier strike group, in March 2012. In the meantime, the U.S. had two carriers in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf.
At this point, no escalation followed from the U.S. naval moves. Tehran was not ready for a showdown in the Persian Gulf. As in past confrontations between Iran and the U.S., Tehran retreated when confronted with American determination. In mid-January, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards withdrew the Iranian threat to U.S. warships in the Gulf. He recognized that “U.S. warships and military forces have been in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East region for many years.” At the same time, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, through the Strait of Hormuz. The January 2012 crisis appeared to pass. But both sides were building up their capabilities for the future should a naval conflict break out.
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