The United States, with support from the United Kingdom and Bahrain, is escorting some oil tankers and other ships in the Persian Gulf to safeguard them from Iranian attacks or hijackings. But the situation is, in many ways, quite different from past encounters in the Gulf. The mid-term prospect is that if a conflict with Iran breaks out and escalates, the United States will likely be alone in the fight. And there is a risk that Americans will become disenchanted with taking on another conflict, particularly when the Iraq war has not turned out very well for the United States and its friends (leaving Iran growing in influence and power) and while Afghanistan is still an expensive, inconclusive, and bloody American-led effort.
With respect to the possibility of conflict in the Persian Gulf, perhaps growing out of the oil tanker escort effort, a summary of the strategic, political and military factors in play:
1. The strategic situation has shifted a great deal to the disadvantage of the United States and its Gulf allies;
2. Iran has built up its military forces including missiles of many types, fast attack boats, and submarines. Operations in the Gulf (land, sea, and some air) are run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is also very active in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria and is supporting the Houthi rebels against the internationally recognized government in Yemen;
3. For Europe, oil from the Middle East is of negligible interest. Europe today gets most of its petroleum products from Russia, followed by Norway. Aside from the United Kingdom, Europe is not supporting U.S. ship escort operations in the Persian Gulf. Europe’s main interest is supporting Iranian industry and related trade with Iran;
4. The United States is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, importing approximately 11 percent of its oil from the Middle East;
5. Washington has different policy objectives in the Persian Gulf and Middle East than in past years when it primarily was focused on oil. Primary among American objectives today is preventing Iran from taking control of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Such control also could lead to renewed attacks on Jordan (once the Syrian civil war is settled) and on Israel (which already have started);
6. The United States also is protecting oil supplies to its Asian allies, particularly Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, that depend on oil from the Middle East. China is partially dependent on Middle Eastern oil (especially from Saudi Arabia) although its biggest supplier is Russia. Russian and Saudi exports to China have increased. China is also allegedly smuggling oil from Iran; and
7. The most likely war scenario would be an Iranian attack on U.S. warships that escalates into a missile war.
Changed Strategic Situation
America maintains a significant presence in the Persian Gulf area, especially the U.S. 5th Fleet that is home-ported in Bahrain. The deployed 5th Fleet is a powerful force that includes an aircraft carrier; Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile cruisers equipped with the AEGIS combat system – a ballistic missile defense system; amphibious assault ships such as the USS Boxer, that carry F-35B stealth jets, Harrier vertical takeoff tactical fighter planes, helicopters and V-22 Osprey multi-mission tilt-rotor aircraft that can transport Marines for combat insertions and carry out special operations. The V-22 has a crew of four and can carry 24 passengers plus equipment.
Iran does not have a competitive air force compared to U.S. systems deployed in the Gulf.
Even so, the strategic situation in the area has shifted to the disadvantage of the United States. America faces different attack scenarios that could be initiated by the Iranians. A possible attack by swarming fast patrol boats equipped with missiles and torpedoes against American warships has drawn much attention in recent years, highlighted by Iran’s willingness to interfere with U.S. naval operations in the Gulf.
During the years prior to the Trump administration, Iran profited by harassing U.S. warships, knowing that the ships would not shoot at or ram Iranian vessels. Iran went so far in 2016 as to seize two U.S. Navy riverine boats and the 10 sailors on board after one ship wandered into Iranian waters due to mechanical issues. Iran broadcast footage of the sailors, crying, in detention, on television across the country, and later announced plans to build a “monument commemorating the event.” While never announced, it is clear that the U.S. Navy’s operating orders changed under President Trump, and the Iranians have stopped operations against U.S. warships, fearing strong retaliation.
Might the Iranians resume operations targeting American warships? The oil tanker escort operation, called Operation Sentinel, could trigger an Iranian attack on American ships or on the vessels they are escorting, or both.
Iran operates a submarine fleet composed of conventional diesel-electric Kilo-class submarines supplied by Russia, and between 10 and 19 Ghadir class, 150-ton mini-submarines – a technology transfer from North Korea. Iran is also building a new class of semi-heavy submarines called Fateh (500 tons) and Besat class submarines (1,200 ton). These are all capable of firing torpedoes and laying mines.
Iran reportedly has gotten Chinese copies of the Shkval Russian torpedo. This is a very fast super-cavitating torpedo (propelled by a rocket motor exploiting super-cavitation bubbles produced by the torpedo) that can reach between 200 and 300 miles per hour and pose a significant threat to U.S. Navy operations. Russia, China, and others (perhaps Europe) also have supplied Iran with sea mines of all types, including the Russian SMDM sea bottom mine that is fired from a torpedo tube to arrive at a fixed destination where it sits on the ocean bottom until one of its sensors activates it and it becomes self-propelled. These are very difficult to detect and can remain effective for a long time, perhaps as long as 10 years. Iran could use these to close the Straits of Hormuz, although that would also isolate its own fleet.
But perhaps the most capable Iranian asset is its considerable variety of surface-to-surface missiles, especially missiles that can damage or sink warships. The least sophisticated but nonetheless dangerous are missiles carried on Iran’s fast patrol boats such as the C-801 from China. The C-801 is, more or less a copy of the Franco-British Exocet missile that can be launched from a ship or aircraft. In the 1982 Falklands War with Great Britain, the Argentinians sank the HMS Sheffield, a type 42 guided-missile destroyer with two Exocet missiles – and may have also sunk the container ship, Atlantic Conveyor with one Exocet missile.
Iran also has different missiles that are renderings of Chinese and Russian designs, such as the Hormuz anti-ship missile that tracks enemy radars; Fateh-Mobil (Bright Conqueror) and the Zolfager short-range ballistic missile. Iran also has a cruise missile (NASR-1) and armed drones. In any conflagration it can be expected that Iran will be able to launch swarming type missile attacks against high-value U.S. ships, causing damage if they are not shot down. On Oct. 9, 2016 the USS Mason, defending the USS Ponce, a command ship with a very large crew, shot down two Houthi missiles which were later identified as C-801 type that may have been “liberated” from the Yemen Navy. The two Houthi missiles were knocked out by US Navy SM-2 missile interceptors.
Europe has no real skin in the game when it comes to oil from the Persian Gulf, because European countries import very little. This is especially true of Germany, which is heavily dependent on Russia and Norway for oil and natural gas. Behind that is the fact that the Germans see Iran as a very big market for their wares, one in which they have a natural advantage over the United States. Despite sanctions, German official trade with Iran still continues in permitted goods. Today approximately 60 German companies still are active in Iran and accounting officially for about $1 billion, down from a high of nearly $4 billion a few years ago. Iran says Germany accounts for 30 percent of Iran’s industrial infrastructure.
There is also considerable resentment in France and Germany to the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA or “Iran deal”) – which they are trying to reverse. Because the United States can leverage companies that violate the embargo, the overall sense of industrialists and politicians on the European continent is that Washington is directly responsible for any trouble in the Gulf with Iran. (There are, of course, other consequences to Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, not the least of which is to undermine NATO defense commitments, which Germany particularly is doing by not meeting NATO defense spending requirements.)
Washington is trying to prevent Iran from conducting a power grab in the Middle East, one that would inevitably threaten American’s regional allies. Iran’s growing missile arsenal and its confrontational style, its operations supporting Shi’a factions in Iraq (including supplying arms and missiles), its support of Hezbollah both in Lebanon and Syria, its supply of IRGC personnel to Syria – including the notorious Quds special operations force – and its semi-covert support of the Houthis in Yemen are examples of Iran’s spreading influence. Iran is also squarely behind all the various attacks on Israel and continues to funnel in precision missiles to Hezbollah along with other weapons and an attempt to build a missile production facility in Beirut. In the bigger picture, if Iranian influence isn’t soon rolled back, the situation on land as well as on the sea can be expected to deteriorate and Iran’s boldness will increase.
The United States also needs to try to protect oil supplies to its allies in Asia, particularly Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. China’s bases illegally acquired in the South China Sea threaten the sea lines of communication for oil and other supplies; the possibility of Iran shutting down transit through the Gulf, and specifically through the Straits of Hormuz, is another threat that can’t be easily dismissed, nor should it be disregarded. And Iran’s support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen provides it with a position in the Red Sea by the Straits of Tiran near the American base in Djibouti.
In Asia, the U.S. position has eroded thanks in large measure to China’s military buildup and its threat to take back Taiwan and isolate Japan. The latest political feud between Japan and South Korea also has significantly undermined U.S. regional influence.
For the time being, the Gulf situation seems under control, but that could change at any moment. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces could miscalculate, which could touch off a wider conflict. The United States also is isolated from most of its allies in Europe other than Britain (and British support for escorting ships in the Gulf could end with a change in government in the United Kingdom); and it gets no practical help from Japan or South Korea. Whether the American public will want to pursue new or expanded overseas efforts, particularly in the Persian Gulf, could become a question in the coming presidential election campaign.
So far, that has not happened. But it can’t be ruled out.
Stephen D. Bryen, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow at The American Center for Democracy.