Red Lines in the Strait of Hormuz
By Taylor Marvin
Wired’s Spencer Ackerman is worried that the US Navy’s presence in the Gulf will tempt the Iranians into war:
“Now consider that in the coming days, there will be a whopping three U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups near Iranian waters at the mouth of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. The Carl Vinson is there to relieve the John C. Stennis, which Iran recently threatened directly and has yet to sail for home. Almost there is the Abraham Lincoln. All these deployments were scheduled long ago. But if you were Iran, would that reassure you? Or would you see three U.S. aircraft carriers near your shores with tensions as high as they are?
One of these days — the Pentagon, for obvious good reasons, will not say when; I would not report the date even if I knew it — one of those carriers will pass through the strait en route to Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. It will have the right to do it: the strait is an international waterway. Hold your breath when that happens. The prospect for miscalculation is really, really high. If Iran fires at the carrier, the battle group has to show it is not to be fucked with. Otherwise every U.S. Navy ship in the Gulf and the north Arabian Sea becomes a target. And no one knows how a U.S.-Iranian fire exchange stops. Ever there was a time for cooler heads to prevail.”
I’m more optimistic. While an escalation between US and Iranian forces is certainly possible, I don’t see how the Iranian leadership’s incentives scheme favors an escalation into actual combat. What are Iran’s strategic goals? In the short-term, reducing the severity of the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States, EU, and UN; in the long-term, achieving regional hegemony at the expense of the US, Israel, and its Sunni Arab rivals. It’s possible that the Iranian leadership sees closing the Strait of Hormuz as a tool to coerce the rest of the world into moderating sanctions. While the Iranian Navy almost certainly lacks the capability to completely close the strait for an extended period of time, asymmetric attacks by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy against the US Fifth Fleet would significantly raise oil prices and massively disrupt the recovering global economy.
However, it’s an even bet whether this would successfully coerce the rest of the world into dropping sanctions in exchange for an Iranian guarantee to keep the strait open. Disrupting the global economy would generate a lot of ill will around the world, especially from energy-hungry states like China that have historically preferred a hands-off approach to Iran. Iranian defiance could easily provoke heightened global appetite for sanctions. This scenario is the more likely of the two. Weakening Iran’s coercive position is that fact that an Iranian threat to close the strait would be a one-time deal. Even relatively successful asymmetric surface warfare against US forces would destroy military assets — especially surface to air missile systems and Kilo-class diesel submarines — Iran’s status as an international pariah make difficult irreplaceable.
This doesn’t mean that a war with Iran would not be immensely costly. Defeating Iran militarily even in a limited conflict confined to the strait would be difficult. A wider conflit could be extremely costly. As Adam B. Lowther recently noted in The Diplomat, Iranian air defense capabilities would challenge US strike access:
“If it comes to war, the proliferation of advanced air defense systems to countries like Iran may give it one of the best integrated anti-aircraft defense systems the United States faces in combat. They may be capable of inflicting casualties on American airpower not seen since Vietnam. And with a declining bomber force, losses could be unacceptable.”
Of course, there’s a lot of daylight between Iran’s Soviet-legacy S-200 SAM systems and the newer and vastly more capable S-300s the Russians declined to sell to Iran in 2010. But operating in defended Iranian airspace would probably require stealthy B-2s or F-22s, and it’s always possible that the right circumstances could allow and Iranian SAM site to down a US aircraft. Losing a B-2 or F-22 would be a disaster for the US, demonstrating that these advanced aircraft can be downed and destroying much of their valuable mystique. But despite Iranian military capabilities, it’s likely that US and allied Arab forces would force open the strait to shipping before rising oil prices forced an end to sanctions. A limited war over the Strait of Hormuz would not be a strategic victory for Iran.
The coercive power of an Iranian attempt to close the strait is lessened by Iran’s own reliance on shipping through Hormuz. In The Atlantic, Hamed Aleaziz and Robin Mills recently explained:
“Despite Iran’s tough talk, it seems unlikely that the country would cut off what amounts to its own lifeline. Iran also relies on an open and fully operational Hormuz. As reported in the New York Times, Iran exports almost “2 million barrels of oil a day” through the Strait to countries like China. And the Iranian government, according to researchers at the U.S. Institute of Peace, receives 65% of its revenues through its oil industry; would Iran’s shaky economy be able to take such a hit? Probably not.”
The Iranian government’s actions are a balancing act between their short-term and long-term goals. Abandoning the nuclear program and reconciling with the West would bolster Iran’s immediate objective of moderating sanctions, but a nuclear capability is Iran’s best hope at medium-term regional hegemony — Iran can’t credibly challenge the Israelis when Israel has 300 nuclear warheads pointed at them. Iran’s inconsistent diplomatic behavior — what Time’s Joe Klein describes as having “no idea how to play the hand they’ve been dealt because they don’t know very much about the other players at the table” — comes from the fundamental conflict between these short and long-term strategic objectives. Iran knows a war tomorrow would be disastrous. But not acquiring nuclear capability is in the long-term just as bad: it means acquiescing to continued Israeli and Saudi hegemony and Iranian marginalization in the region outside of Iraq, a scenario not improved by the shakiness of Iran’s Syrian ally. Nuclear capability and continued defiance of the West is popular within Iran, and while the Iranian government remains reasonably stable it has a strong popularity incentive to continue its enriching program despite sanctions. Iran’s long-term strategy is to pursue a nuclear capability while straying just shy of the red lines that would lead to war. Increasing the costs of war — building up its SAM and asymmetric naval capabilities, and insisting that it could close the Strait of Hormuz — moves these red lines closer to Iranian goals. We’ve already seen this: President Bush insisted that the US would not allow Iran to enrich uranium, but didn’t act when it passed this milestone in 2006. The Bush Administration rationally concluded that pervious rhetoric aside, a war with Iran to prevent uranium enrichment would fail a cost benefit test. If Iran can continue to raise the costs of war, it can likely pass additional US red lines without consequence.
In the immediate term, this is actually a stable equilibrium. Iran knows that attempting to close the Strait or firing on a USN vessel will lead to war — these are serious boundaries that can’t be crossed. Iran has an incentive to threaten the US, but stronger reasons to carefully avoid actually escalating to a disastrous conflict that would decimate its military capabilities and weaken its long-term strategy. This incentive is strengthened by the recent US withdrawal from Iraq: Iran can no longer deter a US response by threatening to step up covert operations against US troops next door. Usually a strategy that favors escalation to the brink of conflict is dangerous, but here war is unlikely: in the short-term the Iranians clearly understand the US’s firm red lines and are aren’t likely to cross them. In the longer term this equilibrium is less stable. While the Iranian strategy likely seeks to avoid actual conflict, the Israelis have made it clear that they do consider war a more favorable outcome than an Iranian nuclear capability. It’s unlikely that Iranian efforts to raise the cost of war will shift this Israeli trip wire — the Israeli government has spent over a decade insisting that a nuclear Iran is completely unacceptable, and is likely electorally committed to war if an Iranian nuclear weapon appears imminent. This is where Israel’s democracy hurts it. The autocratic Iranian government hasn’t electorally committed itself to following through on its threats to close the Strait. In Israel the stakes are higher, and while Israel’s multi-leg nuclear forces mean it could probably safely accept an inferior Iranian nuclear capability, electoral pressures make it difficult for an Israeli government to back down from its insistence that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.
So in the short-term, war is unlikely: the John C. Stennis will safely leave the Gulf, and Iran is unlikely to act on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. In the long-term the status quo is less stable. Israel will probably attack Iran before it acquires nuclear capabilities.