December 29, 2011

Iranian Navy versus the U.S. Fifth Fleet?

Sea lanes in the Strait of Hormuz

Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz if the West carries out its plans to impose more stringent sanctions on Iran, specifically on its central bank. While the western nations stopped short of the threat of an outright embargo on Iranian oil exports, tough sanctions on the central bank will have almost the same effect. If Iran cannot process payments for its oil, it can't export it.

The Obama Administration has been reluctant to sanction Iran's central bank, sometimes called Bank Markazi (Persian for "central bank"), claiming that it could cause a dramatic increase in the price of oil and disrupt the global economy. Possibly, but it appears that given the response from Tehran, it is the type of sanction that might actually force Iran to comply with international demands to halt its uranium enrichment program. It is widely accepted that the program is nothing more than a precursor to the development of a nuclear weapon, despite Iran's claims that it is merely building a nuclear energy capability.

The previous four United Nations sanctions protocols have not had the desired effect. Iran's immediate reaction and threats to halt the flow of one-sixth of the world's oil (a third of the oil that moves on the water) indicates how effective sanctions on Bank Markazi might be. President Obama has said recently that despite his misgivings, he will sign a sanctions bill.

If the President is serious about preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, this is a good first serious step - and a welcome one. I credit Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for what appears to be an infusion of spine in dealing with the Iranians.

Panetta's words are pretty clear: "The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us and that's a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it we will deal with it. ... If they proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it. There are no options off the table. ... A nuclear weapon in Iran is unacceptable."

Iran also responded with military demonstration in the Persian Gulf in the guise of an exercise named Velayet-90. The exercise, currently underway, is being conducted in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, the bodies of water on either side of the Strait of Hormuz.  The timing and venue are not a coincidence. It is meant to send a message to the West that Iran can close the world's major oil choke point if it wishes. Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian navy (and I use the term loosely), claimed that closing the strait "will be easier than drinking a glass of water."

That's the message Iranian leaders hope to send - that they can close the strait at will. They are saying it, and maybe even a few of them believe it, but there are some serious issues they may want to consider.

Although the sea lanes through the Strait of Hormuz transit the territorial waters of both Iran and Oman, the strait falls under the legal protocol of "transit passage" as codified by the United Nations and is thus open to ships of all nations. Basically, it is an international waterway.

The free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf is a vital U.S. national interest - this is not an area for missteps. It has been our stated policy for decades to guarantee that flow, using military force if necessary. In the past, the United States has gone so far as to re-flag Kuwaiti tankers to allow the U.S. Navy to escort the ships through the Strait during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

In response to the latest Iranian threat, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fifth Fleet made this statement: "Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated." That's a polite way of saying to the Iranians, "If the Iranian Navy tries to close the Strait of Hormuz, the United States Navy will reopen it."

U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group

The Iranian navy would be no match for the firepower of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The Fifth Fleet, the maritime component of the U.S. Central Command, commands ships on rotation from the Pacific (Seventh) Fleet or the Atlantic (Second Fleet). The fleet normally consists of a carrier strike group, an expeditionary strike group, and a variety of support assets. That translates to about 20 surface combatants and submarines, with 15,000 personnel (including a U.S. Marine expeditionary unit) and almost 100 combat aircraft. If the Iranians are serious about this, the Navy has another 10 carrier strike groups and 11 expeditionary strike groups from which to draw augmentation.

The Fifth Fleet will not operate alone. Since Iran's threatened action also impacts the Gulf Arab nations, they will likely allow basing of U.S. Air Force combat aircraft at their many excellent air bases. While the participation of our Arab allies is uncertain, they will open their facilities to maintain the flow of oil.

Iranian challenges to the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf are not new. In 1988, the last year of the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War, there was a series of escalating events between the Iranians and Americans. When the U.S. agreed to escort Kuwaiti tankers in the Gulf, IRGC sailors laid mines in the shipping lanes, one of which damaged a U.S. Navy frigate.

In retaliation, the Navy destroyed an Iranian oil platform used for surveillance of U.S. operations. That caused the Iranian navy to attempt a surface engagement with the U.S. flotilla. In the battle that followed, two Iranian surface combatants and half a dozen speedboats were sunk and many other units and facilities damaged. The action was a stinging defeat for the Iranians.

If the Iranians are serious about provoking an armed confrontation with the United States, they must know what will happen to them. They have had a front row seat for decades of American combat operations in the Gulf, starting with our support of our Arab allies in the 1980s, the defense of Saudi Arabia and liberation of Kuwait in 1990 and 1991 (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (Operation Enduring Freedom), and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Operation Iraqi Freedom).

If there is a confrontation, it will not be a localized maritime confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz. American aircraft and cruise missiles (air, sea and submarine launched) will strike targets all over the country to neutralize the air defense system, establish air dominance over the country, and disrupt the regime's command and control systems. Air and naval assets will begin the elimination of the Iranian navy inventory. The Iranian navy possesses Chinese surface to surface missiles that are both ship and land launched - these are of concern, but in the end, they will be destroyed.

The Defense Intelligence Agency and the Office of Naval Intelligence have been collecting intelligence for three decades to support this exact operation - it is the key concern of the Fifth Fleet. This was always a threat posed by the Islamic Republic. The U.S. Navy has been planning, training and preparing for this for a long time - after all, this is why we have a navy. I am sure the plans are being updated as I write this.

There is a final consideration. If the Iranians mean to do this - and I don't think Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is that insane - they may just precipitate the very action they are trying to avert. Whether they carry out the threat or not will be Khamenei's decision. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have some input, but something with ramifications this extensive will be made by the Supreme Leader himself.

Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz are in direct response to the U.S./Western threat of sanctions that will seriously hurt Tehran's nuclear weapons development program. If they are willing to trigger an armed confrontation with the United States, what is to stop the United States from attacking the nuclear facilities as well?

A confrontation between the United States and Iran has been brewing since the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979. If we are once again going to send young Americans into harm's way, this time in Iran, we should break all of Ahmadinejad's toys.