Wednesday 29 August, 2018 Update: Iran Claims Control of the Strait of Hormuz



Since US economic sanctions were reimposed on Iran early this month, Iran’s government and military leadership has responded with salvos of defiant, aggressive warnings, promises, and predictions. The most recent Iranian saber-rattling has focused on the Strait of Hormuz. First it was President Hassan Rouhani stating that if Iran’s oil exports are threatened by US sanctions, the Middle East’s other exports will be threatened too. This was interpreted to be a thinly veiled threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Now it is the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards navy making assurances that Iran has control of the strait, and the Persian Gulf. General Alireza Tangsiri’s comments have raised some eyebrows around the world, and prompted a response from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. SecState responded with a tweet on Monday night which clarified the US position and left little room for interpretation:  “The Islamic Republic of Iran does not control the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait is an international waterway. The United States will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways.”

The strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz cannot be overemphasized. Saber-rattling, or a subtle reminder of Iran’s willingness to use military power in the area is often enough to give global oil markets a panic attack. Iran’s military is not capable enough to permanently close the strait. It can disrupt commercial traffic for a period of time, however. As Pompeo said, the United States is committed to ensuring the safe flow of commerce in international waterways. If Iran sparks a crisis in the straits, a strong US response will come almost immediately.

Thursday 2 August, 2018 Update: Iranian Naval Exercise Planned


The United States is closely monitoring preparations for what appears to be either an Iranian exercise, or a show of force in the Strait of Hormuz. US CENTCOM tweeted that it is watching the situation carefully, and the exercise is expected to begin at some point in the next 48 hours. Much of the preparation underway is being conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC has assembled nearly 100 light, fast attack boats (largely of the Boghammar type, etc) in the waters near the strait. There has been no indication yet if Iranian naval and air forces will take part in the upcoming exercise.

Although US officials do not see any signs of hostile intent at the moment, the timing of the exercise raises concerns. Last week, Houthi attacks on Saudi oil tankers in the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait prompted Saudi Arabia to halt oil shipments in the Red Sea.  As if this were not enough, the US and Iran have been engaged in a war of words in recent weeks, with tensions steadily rising. Economic sanctions are set to be placed back in effect against Iran next week as a result of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

With all of this in mind, the coming exercise/show of force appears to be nothing short of a warning message to the United States. Tehran wants Washington to be reminded of how easily it can close the Strait of Hormuz, and hold the global economy hostage. Iran’s leadership, already beset by domestic and economic problems at home, wants the Trump administration to take into account the Hormuz factor in its decision with regards to placing economic sanctions on Iran.

Stormy Straits Ahead?


International attention is beginning to focus on the Persian Gulf, and Red Sea areas since Saudi Arabia suspended Red Sea oil shipments earlier this week following attacks on two of its oil tankers in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The cntentious rhetoric coming out of Tehran of late, along with its open support of the Houthi rebels, has flared US-Iranian tensions, and contributed to the unease. As the prospect of the US sanctions against Iran being reinstituted in the near future grows, Iran’s next move could very well be an attempt to deter Washington from that course of action by way of thinly-veiled economic blackmail.

Since the outbreak of war in Yemen, the Bab el Mandeb Strait has become a highly vulnerable chokepoint for oil shipments, and commerce. In October, 2016 a UAE ship was attacked by Houthi rebels in the strait. Two weeks later, Houthi rebels fired anti-ship missiles against US Navy warships in the area. The missiles were defeated by defensive countermeasures and SAM fire. In response, US warships launched cruise missile strikes on Houthi radar sites in rebel-controlled territory. These sites had enabled the rebels to track shipping in the strait and provided essential targeting data for Houthi attacks.  Although the Houthi missile attacks were unsuccessful, the action in October, 2016 emphasized how vulnerable civilian-flagged merchant ships, and tankers become when transiting the Bab el Mandeb.

Now, the prospect of renewed Houthi attacks in the straits, as well as the recent Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, are reminding the world once again how vital these two chokepoints are to the global economy. Saudi Arabia’s suspension of oil shipments through the Red Sea rattled oil markets and contributed to a 3-day rise in oil prices. A potential major disruption in the Bab el Mandeb is manageable, however. A similar suspension of oil shipments through Hormuz would deliver even more severe ramifications to the global economy. Quite frankly, even the threat of a Hormuz closure would likely be enough to crash oil markets, and lead to an economic domino effect.

Iran has long understood the value of the strait to the world economy, and its own geopolitical interests. It has attempted to use the Strait of Hormuz as a bargaining chip in the past, most notably during the Tanker War phase of its conflict with Iraq. This led to the US to initiate Operation Earnest Will in 1987. Earnest Will consisted of Kuwaiti oil tankers being reflagged, and escorted through the Strait of Hormuz by US Navy warships. Despite a few setbacks, Earnest Will was largely successful, however, it did lead to clashes between the US Navy and Iranian forces. Operation Praying Mantis was the largest of these skirmishes, and saw the destruction of 50% of Iran’s operational naval fleet at US hands.

Iran’s leadership has to remember Operation Praying Mantis, as well as US Navy action in the Bab el Mandeb in 2016, as it considers it’s next move. An attempt at economic blackmail now will surely bring about a US military response of some type. Tehran’s recent threats, and rhetoric was calculated to force the United States to seriously reconsider its intent to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Unfortunately for Iran, it is not dealing with the Obama administration any longer. President Trump has taken strong stance against Iran, having already removed the US from the JCOPA. He is now pressuring US allies not to purchase Iranian oil, a move that is likely contributing to the current Iranian discomfiture.

Over the past two days, the fears of US sanctions being placed on Iran have been joined by speculation in some circles that a US military attack against Iran might be in the works. Pre-emptive US action against Iran is not probable in the near future, although if a situation develops that sees Iran support Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, or should Iran move to close the Strait of Hormuz, all bets are off the table. In either case, a US military response is not only probable, it is essentially guaranteed.


The Legacy Of Desert Shield Part II


The 90s were a time of adjustment for the US military. Following the tense stability of the Cold War years, the branches had to contend with a high ops tempo at a time when the force was shrinking in both size and capabilities. In simple terms, the military was forced to do more with less. And with the Cold War now over, the military was being asked to perform more missions with a smaller force.

Also during the 90s, America’s presence in the Middle was expanding. Much of this was due to the continued saber rattling of Saddam Hussein. However, there was growing indications of other potential problems on the horizon. The rise of Osama Bin Laden was attracting the attention of US intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Iran, after a dormant period in the late 80s and early 90s, was beginning to make noise.

As the decade went on, the US military’s infrastructure in the Middle East expanded. In 1995, the US Navy recommissioned the 5th Fleet to handle operations in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Its headquarters was based in Bahrain. With the presence of a large number of US Navy warships in the region now a regular event, the creation of a numbered fleet and the building of support facilities was reasonable. The 5th Fleet has proven its value numerous times in the last twenty years.

From 1991 through 2001, the US conducted a number of reprisal strikes against Iraq. The reasons for the strikes were varied. They include Iraq’s failures to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, continuous violations of the No-Fly Zones, and even an attempted assassination of former President George H.W. Bush. The operations generally were made up exclusively of cruise missile attacks and airstrikes. One exception was Operation Vigilant Warrior in 1994. In early October of that year, Iraq began to mass forces in close proximity to the Kuwait border, the US responded by sending troops to the area. A brigade from the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division and elements of the 1st MEF deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, met up with prepositioned equipment and deployed to the Kuwait/Iraq border. The effort was successful in deterring Iraq from moving forward with an operation against Kuwait. By the end of October, Iraqi forces had withdrawn from the border area and the crisis was defused.

Iraq was not the only threat to US military forces in the region. Terrorism was always a major concern. As the decade went on, the potential for terrorist attacks increased. Radicalism was spreading and fueling anti-American rhetoric and feeling across the region. It was only a matter of time until terrorists struck. In June 1996, it finally happened. Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, a USAF barracks, was bombed. Twenty US airmen were killed and over three hundred injured. Hezbollah was responsible for the attack. The attack led to increased security measures across the region and led US and Coalition forces to relocate to Prince Sultan Air Base, a secure and remote Royal Saudi Air Force base seventy miles south of Riyadh. PSAB, as the base is generally known to US airmen, became the centerpiece of US and allied air forces in the Middle East. Its importance rose in the subsequent years.

In October of 2000, terrorists struck again. This time the target was a US Navy warship docked in Aden, Yemen. A small craft loaded with explosives approached the port side of the USS Cole as it underwent refueling. The craft exploded, causing extensive damage to the ship and killing 17 US Sailors. This attack was carried out by Al Qaeda and served as a precursor to the more devastating attacks that were coming in September of 2001.

In the first decade of the 21st Century, US installations and forces in the Middle East were invaluable pieces of American foreign policy and war fighting efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part 3 of this series will talk about this.

The Strait of Hormuz Pressure Cooker


Tensions between the United States and Iran have been simmering for the last month. Iran’s actions over the past forty eight hours, and the subsequent US response suggest that the level of tension might be approaching the boiling point. Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged container vessel, as it transited the Strait of Hormuz has brought about a rapid US response. A security compact exists between the United States and Marshall Islands. It gives the US authority for security matters that relate to the Marshall Islands, which holds the status of an associate state of the US. On Thursday afternoon, Pentagon officials stated that US Navy warships will now be accompanying US-flagged merchant vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.

Accompaniment is not a synonym for escorting. By accompanying American-flagged vessels, elements of the US 5th Fleet will remain in the area to provide assistance if needed to the merchant and commercial vessels transiting the strait. If the 5th Fleet was tasked to actually escort the ships, American warships would convoy the merchants through the Strait of Hormuz. At first glance, the disparity of the wording may appear semantic. In the operational realm, however, the difference is more significant.

Seizing the Maersk Tigris is not the sort of spontaneous action that one would expect from Iran given the current situation in the region. It is, in all likelihood, a calculated move. One piece to a far larger plan. With the nuclear negotiations as the backdrop, the timing of this incident is rather curious. Why has Iran chosen now to provoke the United States? And why in this manner? There are many possibilities, none of them good for the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.

The seizure could be a warning to the US regarding the final approval of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Or perhaps it is a display of Iranian power and influence. A reminder of what the Iranian military is capable of in and around the straits of Hormuz. Another possibility is that the move is designed to distract US attention away from the Gulf of Aden, where an Iranian convoy was forced to turn back last week under the watchful eye of an American carrier strike group.