By George Friedman (Honorary Political Season contributor)
Iranian speedboats reportedly menaced U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 6. Since then, the United States has gone to great lengths to emphasize the threat posed by Iran to U.S. forces in the strait — and, by extension, to the transit of oil from the Persian Gulf region. The revelation of an Iranian threat in the Strait of Hormuz was very helpful to the United States, coming as it did just before U.S. President George W. Bush’s trip to the region. Washington will use the incident to push for an anti-Iranian coalition among the Gulf Arabs, as well as to push Iran into publicly working with the United States on the Iraq problem.
According to U.S. reports and a released video, a substantial number of Iranian speedboats approached a three-ship U.S. naval convoy moving through the strait near Iranian territory Jan. 6. (Word of the incident first began emerging Jan. 7.) In addition, the United States reported receiving a threatening message from the boats.
Following the incident, the United States began to back away from the claim that the Iranians had issued threats, saying that the source of the transmission might have been hecklers who coincidentally transmitted threats as the Iranian boats maneuvered among the U.S. ships. Shore-based harassing transmissions are not uncommon in the region, or in other parts of the world for that matter, especially when internationally recognized bridge-to-bridge frequencies are used. And it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish the source of a transmission during a short, intense incident such as this. The combination of Iranian craft in close proximity to U.S. warships and the transmission, regardless of the source, undoubtedly increased the sense of danger.
Two things are interesting. First, the probability of a disciplined Iranian attack — and, by U.S. Navy accounts, the Iranian action was disciplined — being preceded by a warning is low. The Iranians were not about to give away the element of surprise, which would have been essential for an effective attack. While the commander on the scene does not have the luxury we have of dismissing the transmission out of hand — in fact, the commander must assume the worst — its existence decreases the likelihood of an attack. Attacking ships need every second they can get to execute their mission; had the Iranians been serious, they would have wanted to appear as nonthreatening as possible for as long as possible.
Second, the U.S. ships did not open fire. We do not know the classified rules of engagement issued to U.S. ship captains operating in the Strait of Hormuz, but the core guidance of those rules is that a captain must protect his ship and crew from attack at all times. Particularly given the example of the USS Cole, which was attacked by a speedboat in a Yemeni harbor, it is difficult for us to imagine a circumstance under which a ship captain in the U.S. Navy would not open fire if the Iranian boats already represented a significant threat.
Spokesmen for the 5th Fleet said Jan. 13 that the U.S. ships were going through the process of determining the threat and preparing to fire when the Iranians disengaged and disappeared. That would indicate that speed, distance and bearing were not yet at a point that required a response, and that therefore the threat level had not yet risen to the redline. Absent the transition to a threat, it is not clear that this incident would have risen above multiple encounters between U.S. warships and Iranian boats in the tight waters of Hormuz.
The New York Times carried a story Jan. 12, clearly leaked to it by the Pentagon, giving some context for U.S. concerns. According to the story, the United States had carried out war games attempting to assess the consequences of a swarming attack by large numbers of speedboats carrying explosives and suicide crews. The results of the war games were devastating. In a game carried out in 2002, the U.S. Navy lost 16 major warships, including an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious ships — all in attacks lasting 5-10 minutes. Fleet defenses were overwhelmed by large numbers of small, agile speedboats, some armed with rockets and other weapons, but we assume most operated as manned torpedoes.
The decision to reveal the results of the war game clearly were intended to lend credibility to the Bush administration’s public alarm at the swarming tactics. It raises the issue of why the U.S. warships didn’t open fire, given that the war game must have resulted in some very aggressive rules of engagement against Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz. But more important, it reveals something about the administration’s thinking in the context of Bush’s trip to the region and the controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program.
A huge controversy has emerged over the NIE, with many arguing that it was foisted on the administration against its will. Our readers know that this was not our view, and it is still not our view. Bush’s statements on the NIE were consistent. First, he did not take issue with it. Second, he continues to regard Iran as a threat. In traveling to the Middle East, one of his purposes is to create a stronger anti-Iranian coalition among the Arab states on the Arabian Peninsula. The nuclear threat was not a sufficient glue to create this coalition. For a host of reasons ranging from U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq to the time frame of an Iranian nuclear threat, a nuclear program was simply not seen as a credible basis for fearing Iran’s actions in the region. The states of the Arabian Peninsula were much more afraid of U.S. attacks against Iran than they were of Iranian nuke s in five or 10 years.
The Strait of Hormuz is another matter. Approximately 40 percent of the region’s oil wealth flows through the strait. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the tanker war, in which oil tankers moving through the Persian Gulf came under attack from aircraft, provided a sideshow. This not only threatened the flow of oil but also drove shipping insurance rates through the roof. The United States convoyed tankers, but the tanker war remains a frightening memory in the region.
The tanker war was trivial compared with the threat the United States rolled out last week. The Strait of Hormuz is the chokepoint through which Persian Gulf oil flows. Close the strait and it doesn’t flow. With oil near $100 a barrel, closing the Strait of Hormuz would raise the price — an understatement of the highest order. We have no idea what the price of oil would be if the strait were closed. Worse, the countries shipping through the strait would not get any of that money. At $100 a barrel, closing the Strait of Hormuz would take an economic triumph and turn it into a disaster for the very countries the United States wants to weld into an effective anti-Iranian coalition.
The revelation of a naval threat from Iran in the Strait of Hormuz just before the president got on board Air Force One for his trip to the region was fortuitous, to say the least. The Iranians insisted that there was nothing unusual about the incident, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said that “Some political factions in the U.S. are pursuing adventurism to help Bush to spread Iran-phobia in the region. U.S. officials should apologize to Iran, regional countries and the American people.” This probably won’t happen, but he undoubtedly will be grateful that the Iranians said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the incident. If this incident was routine, and if the U.S. war games have any predictive ability, it means that the Iranians are staging routine incidents, any one of which could lead to a military confrontation in the strait. Bush undoubtedly will be distributing the Iranian statement at each of his stops.
Leaving aside the politics for a moment, the Iranian naval threat is a far more realistic, immediate and devastating threat to regional interests than the nuclear threat ever was. Building an atomic weapon was probably beyond Iran’s capabilities, while just building a device — an unwieldy and delicate system that would explode under controlled circumstances — was years away. In contrast, the naval threat in the Strait of Hormuz is within Iran’s reach right now. Success is far from a slam dunk considering the clear preponderance of power in favor of U.S. naval forces, but it is not a fantasy strategy by any means.
And its consequences are immediate and affect the Islamic states in ways that a nuclear strike against Israel doesn’t. Getting the Saudis to stand against Iran over an attack against Israel is a reach, regardless of the threat. Getting the Saudis worked up over cash flow while oil prices are near all-time highs does not need a great deal of persuading. Whatever happened in the strait Jan. 6, Bush has arrived in the region with a theme of widespread regional interest: keeping the Strait of Hormuz open in the face of a real threat. We are not certain that a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier could be sunk using small swarming ships. But we are certain that the strait could be closed or made too dangerous for tankers for at least a short period. And we know that, as in land warfare, finding the bases that are launching ships as small as speedboats would be tough. This threat had substance.
By dropping the Iranian nuclear threat and shifting to the threat to the strait, Bush moves the Iran issue from being one involving the United States and Israel to being one that excludes Israel but involves every oil producer in the region. None of them wants this to happen, and all of them must take the threat seriously. If it can establish the threat, the United States goes from being an advocate against Iran to being the guarantor of very real Arab interests. And if the price Arabs must pay for the United States to keep the strait open is helping shut down the jihadist threat in Iraq, that is a small price indeed.
This puts Iran in a tough position. Prior to the issuance of the NIE, the Iranians had shifted some of their policies on Iraq. The decline in violence in Iraq is partly because of the surge, but it also is because Iran has cut back on some of the things it used to do, particularly supporting Shiite militias with weapons and money and urging them to attack Sunnis. It also is clear that the limits it had imposed on some of the Iraqi Shiite politicians in the latter’s dealings with their Sunni counterparts have shifted. The new law allowing Baath Party members to return to public life could not possibly have been passed without Iranian acquiescence.
Clearly, Iran has changed its actions in Iraq as the United States has changed its stance on Iranian nuclear weapons. But Iran shied away from reaching an open accommodation with the United States over Iraq following the NIE. Factional splits in Iran are opening up as elections approach, and while the Iranians have shifted their behavior, they have not shifted their public position. The United States sees a shift of Iran’s public position as crucial in order to convince Iraqi factions, particularly all of the Shiite parties, to move toward a political conclusion. Reining in militias is great, but Washington wants and needs the final step. The NIE shift, which took the nuclear issue off the table, was not enough to do it. By raising the level of tension over a real threat — and one that has undebatable regional consequences — the United States is hoping to shape the internal political discussion in Iran toward an open participation in reshaping Iraq.
Iran doesn’t want to take this step for three good reasons. First, it wants to keep its options open. It does not trust the United States not to use a public accord over Iraq as a platform to increase U.S. influence in Iraq and increase the threat to Iran. Second, Tehran has a domestic political problem. In the same way that Bush saw an avalanche of protest from his supporters over the NIE, the Iranians will see resistance to open collaboration. Finally, the Iranians are not sure they need a public agreement. From their point of view, they have delivered on Iraq, the United States has delivered on the NIE and things are moving in a satisfactory direction. Why go public? The American desire to show the Iraqi Shia that Iran has publicly abandoned the quest for a Shiite Iraq doesn’t do Iran a bit of good.
The Iranians have used the construction of what we might call a guerrilla navy as a lever with the United States and as a means to divide the United States from the Arabs. The Iranians’ argument to the Arabs has been, “If the United States pushes us too far, we will close the strait. Therefore, keep the Americans from pushing us too far.” The Americans have responded by saying that the Iranians now have the ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, potentially regardless of what the U.S. Navy does. Therefore, unless the Arabs want to be at the mercy of Iran, they must join the United States in an anti-Iranian coalition that brings Iran under control. In its wooing of the Arabs, Washington will emphasize just how out of control the Iranians are, pointing out that Tehran is admitting that the kind of harassment seen Jan. 6 is routine. One day — and the day will be chosen by Iran — this will all get really out of hand.
The Iranians have a great deal to gain from having the ability to close the strait, but very little from actually closing it. The United States is putting Iran in a position such that the Gulf Arabs will be asking Tehran for assurances that Iran will not take any action. The Iranians will give assurances, setting the stage for a regional demand that the Iranians disperse their speedboats, which are purely offensive weapons of little defensive purpose.
The United States, having simplified the situation for the Iranians with the NIE and not gotten the response it wanted, now is complicating the situation again with a completely new framework — a much more effective framework than the previous one it used.
In the end, this isn’t about the Strait of Hormuz. Iran isn’t going to take on the U.S. Navy, and the Navy isn’t quite as vulnerable as it claims — and therefore, the United States obviously is not nearly as trigger-happy as it would like to project. Washington has played a strong card. The issue now is whether it can get Iran into a public resolution over Iraq.
The Iranians appear on board with the private solution. They don’t seem eager for a public one. The anti-Iranian coalition might strengthen, but as clever as this U.S. maneuver is, it will not bring the Iranians public. For that, more concessions in Iraq are necessary. More to the point, for a public accommodation, the “Great Satan” and the charter member of the “Axis of Evil” need to make political adjustments in their public portrayal of one another — hard to do in two countries facing election years.