News out of the Middle East has dominated world events over the last week. Between Iran’s war games and their subsequent threats to shut down the incredibly vital Straits of Hormuz shipping channel in response to looming sanctions over their ongoing nuclear weapons program, to the finalization of America’s military withdrawal from a very unstable Iraq, to ongoing social unrest in Egypt and Syria, to massive new weapons deals among the Sunni dominated Gulf States, it seems like this already unstable region is coming unglued at an alarming pace.
I have been trying to highlight the reality that the Iranian nuclear problem has less to do with Israel than it does with Iran’s rich oil-producing Sunni neighbors. In fact, we may be seeing the beginnings of an odd set of circumstances where oil kingdoms like Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s interests align in spectacular fashion with those of Israel. The possibility that Iran will take up somewhat of a “scorched earth” policy, by design or by force, is very unsettling. This type of aggressive strategy could manifest itself as a likely retaliation against a preemptive strike from Israel and could include a counter attack via Iran’s proxies, namely Hezbollah and Hamas, a possible ballistic missile barrage, and even an attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz as a payback to the world for “allowing” Israel to execute such an attack. A higher probability of an attempt at a naval blockade in the Persian Gulf following an Israeli preemptive strike would come about if Israel was allowed overflight (or even basing) over Saudi Arabian or other Sunni dominated oil kingdoms’ airspace.
Outside the possibility of a preemptive strike by Israel, the hard-line sanctions that the US is pulling for against Iran may make it so they cannot export their oil to the world. Almost 80% of Iran’s export revenue comes from crude oil, and much of this makes up the revenue that the Iranian government uses to fund itself, including it’s costly nuclear program. Iran has stated that if they are not able to sell their oil to the world market, then the world market will suffer directly by their response. This response would apparently include the shutting down of the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway that carries over one-third of the world’s oil. By doing so Iran would also open up a pandoras box of conflict possibilities. In other-words, such an act could very well light the region literally on fire. But can Iran really shut down this crucial waterway, even in the face of a large American naval presence? And if they are indeed able to do so what would that mean for the region, and even more crucially, the world?
Iran has hundreds of fast attack boats, cruise missiles, sea mines, and even a small but relevant surface and submarine force. The Strait at it’s thinnest navigable point is only about twenty miles wide. This equates to a very small line to control in naval terms. Iran could deploy swarms of its fast attack boats, and may even attempt to begin mining the channel by surprise, possibly under the guise of another naval “exercise.” At the same time it would set to sea its small indigenously developed submarine force and it’s three prized Russian built “Kilo” class diesel submarines, along with other corvettes and heavier naval vessels. At some point during this time, the Iranians will probably proclaim the channel shut down and threaten any vessel that sails within a certain distance of their stated line of control. If an American Naval vessel is attacked during the installation of such a blockade than that would only be the beginning of the hostilities. If Iran is able to quickly and successfully setup such a blockade without a US naval confrontation than it will come down to a crossing the line scenario, similar to that of the Cuban Missile crisis, where hostilities will begin once a ship attempts to run the blockade. Otherwise, America will have to fire the first shot in order to begin dismantling the blockade. Whichever way the conflict erupts, once Iran commits to such a tactic the situation becomes almost as equally as volatile. The only way to end such a conflict without bloodshed would be to negotiate with the Iranians in an attempt to have them dismantle their blockade once it is installed. Something I highly doubt would happen.
Although most people see Iran’s fast attack boats, many with short-range guided missile launchers attached, as some sort of token third world naval force, they could actually prove to be an incredibly effective “pack” weapon, one of which the US does not have a robust defense against. Even a modern Arleigh Burke class destroyer, a ship built much more for over-the-horizon warfare than to fight in the littorals of the Persian Gulf, with all its wiz-bang technology is ill-suited to deal with swarms of these fast attack craft. These boats have small radar signatures and offer a very low profile in the water for which to engage via main deck guns, 25mm Bushmaster cannons, and CIWS systems which can be depleted after only a few targets are destroyed. Additionally, these craft can be packed with explosives and carry suicide bombers or they can even be driven remotely to impact the hulls of overwhelmed American surface combatants. Something in the sub 50lb guided weapon class, such as the Griffin guided missile, really needs to be integrated into all US Naval ships that will operate in the region in order to counter this threat efficiently and economically. But even if these weapons were furnished it would be hard to defend against the light guided missiles that equip some of these Iranian fast attack boats one they are within a couple of miles range. Although these weapons are not capable of sinking an american destroyer, frigate, or cruiser, they can disable it’s radar and fire-control systems, which would leave these lumbering vessels vulnerable to further attack.
Fast gun boats and torpedo corvettes are powerful asymmetric weapons, but Iran’s real ace in the hole may be Silkworm anti-ship missiles and other cruise and medium range ballistic missiles that really do pose a massive threat to many undefended commercial tankers and installations along the Gulf. An opening volley of cruise missiles could see hundreds of ships destroyed or disabled, creating massive chaos in the region and a real potential for ecological disaster. Iran’s trio of Russian diesel submarines, as well as their less capable indigenous submarine fleet, would most likely also be put to use in the opening hours of the conflict. Although it would seem that eventually these submersibles would be destroyed by American anti-submarine helicopters and patrol aircraft, their damage during the opening barrages of such a conflict could be devastating.
Iran’s medium range ballistic missiles could do serious physical damage to key installations that line the west coast of the Persian Gulf, and their psychological effect may even be more damning. Everything from oil loading stations to the home of America’s Fifth Fleet, stationed in Bahrain, could be under fire from Iranian ballistic missiles. This threat is undoubtedly why the UAE has very recently signed an initial deal with the US to supply the THAAD ballistic missile defense system in an attempt to create some sort of missile shield against Iranian MRBMs. These missile defense systems can be fairly effective, and America’s AEGIS cruisers and destroyers are rapidly increasing their anti-ballistic missile capabilities as well, but this is not yet a solid shield by any sense of the word. Real world conditions, the advantage of surprise, and simply overwhelming numbers, would tax these limited capabilities to their breaking point. In other words, even in a layered defense scenario, some warheads very well could and would break through and hit their intended targets.
As aforementioned, even America’s latest combat ships can only deal with so many threats at one time, and they are least effective in tight quarters. A 20 mile channel full of fast attack boats, submarines, and mines, and an eastern gulf coast that is lined with anti-ship missiles, medium range ballistic missiles, and other standoff weaponry, is one heavily saturated combat environment for any US naval vessel to operate within. Such an environment would be best dealt with using airpower to degrade the large variety and large volume of threats presented by the Iranians, while keeping large US naval combatants at safe at standoff distances from the epicenter of the conflict. Basically sanitizing the skies over the strait, and eliminating any enemy air defense systems would be key in the beginning of such an operation. Once air dominance is achieved, fixed wing attack aircraft, and eventually AGM-114 “Hellfire” missile equipped attack helicopters and drones, would be sent in to start “thinning out the herd” of seaborne targets in an attempt to bring heavier Naval vessels in closer to the fight. Once the seaborne threat has been vastly reduced and with the help of mine-sweeping and maritime patrol aircraft, these heavier cruisers, destroyers and frigates could be used to open up a lane for shipping convoys to make their way through the channel. This type of plan may also be combined with strikes on fixed Iranian targets along the shore, including missile launchers, air bases, and naval bases. Although all this is doable it will not be without great financial cost and losses of US aircraft and possibly vessels, and most notably, it would take time, possibly lots of time. And with time comes opportunity for rapid escalation.
The truth is that when you game out a conflict like this between the US and Iran, the US will win, especially once air-power can be brought to bear in dealing with the Iranian Navy. Regardless of what you hear in the mainstream media where simple generalizations regarding Iranian military capabilities vis-a-vis America’s technological edge run amok, the sheer amount of individual targets that would need to be hit to ensure that Iran’s blockade would be destroyed or to forestall a possible retaliatory missile barrage is massive. Staggering really. In order to avoid a massive target list and protracted conflict once Iran decides to attempt a blockade, America would have to fire the first shot to preempt it, which would probably lead to a response by the Iranians and so on and so forth. As a conflict that is this volatile in nature evolves it can escalate rapidly and with reckless abandon. Once the Iranians decide to close the Strait, the only way to end the standoff in a peaceful manner is via negotiation, which means capitulation by the US, something that will not happen.
For instance, the lets say Iranians scornfully shut down the Strait, then what? Who fires the first shot? And for every wound inflicted on either side the violence of action will only increase. What about fixed targets such as Iranian naval ports, and surface to air missile sites along the shore, or even mobile targets such as ballistic missile launchers? If these are attacked then you have American weapons hitting Iranian soil, not just boats or airplanes directly involved international waters and airspace where the dispute is underway. In effect America will be “bombing” Iran. What will Iran’s response be then? Further, there is no way the US can apply air power if they do not take out Iran’s anti-aircraft capabilities that spill out into the Gulf. If Iran attacks US bases in Bahrain or Oman, or even unsuccessfully attempts to do so, then these host countries will become involved if they are not already. Further, all these factors would be further inflamed by a modern world economy that would be instantly starved of as much as 40% of its energy. The whole scenario can simply spin out of control much more rapidly than many “experts” are stating. This may be because these experts are incapable of rationalizing complex scenarios such as this one or they may not have a detailed knowledgeable base of current US capabilities, the tenants of asymmetric warfare, or the complexity of the cultural tensions in the region. So hearing pundits bloviate on end about the simple deficit in high-tech military “parity” between the US and Iran is a silly way to assess such a complex situation and is a sad disservice to the interested public by and large.
Most people are viewing the possibility of such a conflict as one between America and Iran, and possibly Israel as well if an attack by the IAF were to provide a catalyst for such events to occur. The reality is that there has not been a rapid arms buildup among the Arab oil kingdoms for no reason. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fully aware that their ability to maintain there “unique” social and economic systems depends on a constant flow of cash from oil sales. If Iran were to cut off shipping in the Gulf it would mean that there would be a disruption of oil exports in the best case for a few weeks, at the worst for months or longer. If Iran were to attack oil transfer stations, military bases, and ports located across the Gulf in these counties during an opening volley of such a conflict, or once they have realized that their blockade was failing, it could mean an even longer disruption on exports as these facilities would literally have to be rebuilt after hostilities have ceased. Even worse, such an attack would “Arabize” the conflict, and thus vastly complicate an already chaotic situation as America could only be able to “hold back” the rich, and heavily armed, Arab oil-producing countries from getting involved for so long, if at all. Saudi Arabia has already said that it would offset Iran’s lost oil exports if heavy economic sanctions were applied in an attempt to force Iran to give up their nuclear program. This Saudi announcement is something the Iranians are clearly not too happy about. If Iran, for whatever reason, decided to punish the world via the shutting down of the Strait, oil-producing countries in the region would most likely see it as an act of war, one that they have been arming to fight, thus turning a localized brush fire into a forest fire in no time flat.
This is where the story changes and becomes even less predictable. If the Sunni Arab oil-producing kingdoms see the shuttering of their main oil shipment lane as something that will not be tolerated, or even more so, if they are attacked directly at any time during such a conflict, you then have a regional conflict that has a much higher ceiling when it comes to its ability to escalate into a wider, more deadly and prolonged regional war. If the US were to deal with the Iranian aggression alone and the Arab oil exporting states just provided combat air patrols and such for their own defense, that would keep the conflict most likely “contained” to the littorals of the Gulf itself. If Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, etc become active players in the battle, or are directly attacked and thus respond, you may see targets moving away from ones that are tactically relevant around the Gulf, to those that are strategically relevant farther inland. Deep strikes on command and control nodes and even politically relevant targets could possibly be on the table. A very scary possibility indeed.
If Iran was so bold as to attempt to close down Gulf shipping lanes in response to crippling sanctions than it would become brilliantly clear to everyone in the region that Iran must be stopped from obtaining nuclear weapons at all costs. In this case countries like Saudi Arabia could possibly strike Iran’s nuclear facilities in the short-term, and begin development of their own nuclear weapons in the long-term if the Iranian nuclear program survives such an attack. In other words, the implications of a regional conflict between Iran, and the US, Sunni oil kingdoms, and possibly Israel is so incredibly volatile that the ramifications of such and event could change the region into something akin to Pakistan and India in the late 1990’s, but with arguably even less rational actors involved.
Finally, the big question is what could a conflict like this mean to world markets? Even a short clash, say three weeks in duration, would cripple the world’s energy markets. Almost overnight something like 30-40% of the world’s crude oil production would no longer be hitting the marketplace. Gas prices would leap to an unprecedented level and over time supply would become scarce. Air travel and shipping could eventually come to a halt, thus starving world markets of much-needed goods, which are now often procured on a “just-in-time” basis. Further, such a drastic and abrupt change in energy supply would ripple through every sector of the marketplace, and could very well paralyze the world’s economy as a whole. Exchanges could very-well enter a free-fall, especially if such a conflict lags on or appears to have further, region altering consequences.
We live in a time when the global economy is still trying to wrestle with the realities of the crash of 2008. Europe is on the brink, America is slow to recover and some are talking about a Chinese bubble that very well may abruptly pop if the right catalyst is present. Amazingly, some seem to think that an attempted Iranian blockade and the resulting mass reduction in energy supplies would never happen, and that markets are somehow prepared to weather such a catastrophic event. When I hear this I literally ask myself if these folks are living on the same planet that I have been for the past four years?
Regarding the odds of this actually happening, think about it folks: If Iran is no longer able to sell its crude oil to world markets due to aggressive sanctions, why would they not respond the exact same way as we would to a similar devastating event, in this case a naval blockade of the worlds most vital energy artery? I am not saying that Iran does or does not deserve such sanctions, that is NOT the focus of this piece, but if the Iranian State cannot fund itself without oil exports what options do they have? Their only options would be to give up their nuclear program, or at least to allow inspectors to truly evaluate what their true intentions are regarding it, something that the Iranians obviously find unbearably humiliating, or they will lash out in an attempt to show the world that their ability to export crude is not to be molested without recourse. Do we really expect them just to take the sanctions and watch their nuclear program go unfunded and their all to important central government be dangerously weakened via revenue starvation? Considering the recent events of “Arab Spring” I think not. A war, even a small one, would help galvanize public support and nationalism when their central government and ruling elite need it most. In other words, this is a massive game of chicken being played, not just militarily between the Iranians and the US, but with the globe’s oil supply and consequently with world’s economy as a whole.
Once again this piece has nothing to do with how to deal with Iran’s budding nuclear program diplomatically, I just wanted to paint a comprehensive picture of what is really at stake if such a conflict were to materialize. A picture that is much more detailed than the black and white pencil drawing many of us are force-fed on major cable TV outlets, where the majority of “expert military opinions” blow this all off by stating that America has much more high-tech weaponry and three carriers in the region etc etc etc. This is a very narrow and uninformed answer to what would absolutely be a very complex and abruptly challenging situation. I also have to mention that I actually see alarming specters of a “pre-invasion of Iraq mindset” in so many who claim to be informed on these topics. The whole “shock and awe” mentality proved to be near-sighted and superficial in 2003, and it does in this scenario as well in 2012. What we sadly found out in Iraq was that the latest and greatest main battle tank or fighter jet were of little use to our soldiers once they had to get out and pound the concrete, in the process moving in close proximity to the enemy in order to complete their missions. This is somewhat analogous to our high-tech fleet of destroyers and heavy cruisers getting involved with a battle against swarms of fast Iranian gunboats and midget submarines in the Arabian Gulf. Although America’s technological edge is vast, when the distance from a potential threat or threats is no longer measured in thousands of yards or even tens of miles, but instead by the hundreds of yards or even feet, our technological advantage rapidly decays. Simply put, distance is the American warfighter’s friend. The Iranians know this. They have become masters of asymmetric warfare, and this is why the closure of the Straits of Hormuz is a real possibility, especially if the Iranians are willing to lose men and material in the process.
Bottom line: Do not underestimate the Iranians when they are backed into a corner, and do not blow off the massive amount of damage that could be done to an already weak world economy, or just how mammoth and complicated such a conflict could blossom into if Iran were to even attempt a blockade of the globe’s primary supply of energy. Even if some see such an event as improbable, it is still alarmingly possible.