Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to sanctions aimed at hindering the weapons program is fast becoming a casus belli for the United States. While Israel views a nuclear Iran to be an existential threat, the states of the Gulf consider a nuclear Iran to be a major threat to the region’s stability. The year 2012 could be tumultuous and prove suicidal for Iran if it proceeds to carry out the threats – both of acquiring nuclear weapons and closing the Strait of Hormuz. While it may be early to say in what manner the US, its Western allies and Israel would respond if evidence emerges that Iran in fact has been able to cross the nuclear threshold, certainly a military action would be imminent if Iran closes the Strait to shipping.
The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow, strategically important strait between the Gulf of Oman in the southeast and the Persian Gulf. On the north coast is Iran and on the south coast is the United Arab Emirates and Musandam, an exclave of Oman.
The strait at its narrowest is 54 kilometres (34 miles) wide. It is the only sea passage to the open ocean for large areas of the petroleum-exporting Persian Gulf. About 14 tankers carrying 15.5 million barrels (2,460,000 m3) of crude oil traverse the strait on an average day, making it one of the world's most strategically important choke points. This represents 35% of the world's seaborne oil shipments, and 20% of oil traded worldwide in 2011.
Ships moving through the Strait follow a Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), which separates inbound from outbound traffic to reduce the risk of collision. The traffic lane is six miles (10 km) wide, including two two-mile (3 km)-wide traffic lanes, one inbound and one outbound, separated by a two-mile (3 km) wide separation median.
To traverse the Strait, ships pass through the territorial waters of Iran and Oman under the transit passage provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Although not all countries have ratified the convention, most countries, including the U.S., accept these customary navigation rules as codified in the Convention. Oman has a radar site Link Quality Indicator (LQI) to monitor the TSS in the Strait of Hormuz. This site is located on a small island on the peak of Musandam Peninsula.
The navigable waters of the Strait of Hormuz are roughly 20 miles wide at their narrowest point. Commercial and naval maritime traffic, transits two designated shipping lanes inside Omani waters. Each lane (one into the Gulf, one out) is two miles wide and is separated by a two mile-wide buffer. (Almost the entire strait south of Qeshm and Larak islands is deep enough to support tanker traffic, so there is certainly room to shift the traffic further from the Iranian coast.)
Tehran has long been aware of the geo-strategic importance of its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz. The threat of mining the Strait or targeting tankers with anti-ship missiles is an important constituent of Iran’s strategy. By threatening shipping in these waters, Iran may be able to engage in psychological warfare and in fact has to some extent succeeded in pushing the prices of crude upwards (Crude for February delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose as much as 98 cents, or 1 percent, to $101.69 a barrel, the highest price since Jan. 12, and was at $101.56 at 10:56 a.m. London time).
Iran’s Strengths and Weakness
In the light of rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, the question is whether Iran possess the military capability to keep the Strait of Hormuz closed?
It must be in borne in mind that there is considerable difference in closing the Strait and keeping the Strait closed for a considerable length of time. This is not a question of semantics. Strategic experts all across the spectrum have expressed varying opinions on Iran’s capabilities on this issue. Just what is the composition of the Iranian forces? Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in his paper which was included in the US Institute of Peace’s book “The Iran Primer” states that Iran is comparatively a weak conventional military power. Iran’s defence budget is relatively small and further it is barred from procuring military hardware from the West. According to Cordesman Iran spends about $12 billion to $14 billion on defence. This is very small compared to the expenditure incurred by the Gulf States on defence.
Iran has in its arsenal about 300-odd combat aircraft and out of which nearly 60% have little or no mission capability because of most of the aircraft are of the Cold War era procured during the time of the Shah and are obsolete.
Anthony Cordesman’s assessment of the Iranian navy is most relevant to the present discussion.
Iran’s 18,000-man navy and 12,000- to 15,000-man Naval Guards pose the most serious threat to other Gulf States and the U.S. Navy. Iran’s Navy oversees operations in the Caspian and the Gulf of Oman. The naval branch of the IRGC oversees Gulf operations. Both have serious limitations. They lack modern surface vessel combat capability and depend on four obsolete frigates and three obsolete corvettes from the shah’s era with limited modernization and uncertain combat readiness. Iran is apparently building a prototype Mowaj-class corvette/destroyer, which is not yet operational.
The navy does, however, have three Russian Kilo-class submarines—which some reports indicate can lay smart mines and fire long-range homing torpedoes. The IRGC has four to seven North Korean/Iranian-made Yono and Nahand-class midget submarines, and is producing four more. It also has small, semi-submersible craft. The navy also has an aviation branch with three aging P-3F maritime patrol and airborne command and control aircraft, three Falcon aircraft modified for electronic warfare and intelligence, and anti-submarine and mine warfare helicopters.
The IRGC has a wide range of mine warfare and smaller, more modern missile patrol boats armed with Chinese and Iranian-made anti-ship missiles. It also has land-based anti-ship missile batteries, including HY-2s with ranges of approximately 100 kilometers, which can be directed to a target by an aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicle. (China has anti-ship missiles with 200-280 kilometer ranges, but it is not believed these have been sold to Iran.) U.S. experts note that Iran can attack targeted ships with C-701, C-801, C-802 and Iranian-made anti-ship cruise missiles from its own shores, islands, and oil platforms using relatively small mobile launchers.
The navy and IRGC cannot close the Gulf for an extended period, but they could severely restrict shipping through the Gulf for five to 10 days. IRGC naval forces can operate from bases along the Gulf coast, bases near Strait of Hormuz shipping channels, Gulf islands and in the Gulf of Oman. Its anti-ship missile vessels include 13 Kaman-class and 38-meter Thondor (Hudong)-class vessels with C-802 anti-ship missiles, and 9 C-14 and 10 Mk-13 smaller patrol boats with short range Chinese anti-ship missiles. Iran has made and deployed at least 25 Peykapp II-class missile boats and 15 of its own Peykaap I-class coastal patrol craft. The IRGC also has some 100 other, smaller patrol boats, many of which are small enough to be difficult to detect reliably by radar. A number of Iran’s patrol boats are armed with torpedoes and short-range or man-portable anti-air missiles.
The Iranian Navy and IRGC regularly exercise laying mines. The navy can use submarines and five aging mine warfare ships. But all IRGC patrol vessels and many Iranian commercial vessels can lay mines. U.S. Navy intelligence estimates that Iran has the Chinese EM52, a rocket-propelled anti-ship mine, and that the Iranian purchase of three Russian KILO-class submarines probably included modern magnetic, acoustic and pressure-sensitive mines. Iran also produces its own mines, although these may still be limited to less advanced designs. U.S. experts estimate that Iran had at least 2,000 mines by 2004. This is a key threat. The United States normally deploys limited mine warfare capabilities in the Gulf. And Gulf naval capabilities include only five Saudi mine layers and some helicopters with uncertain readiness and training. The Marines and IRGC could use patrol boats, small craft and commercial vessels to raid key offshore facilities in the Gulf, attack key petroleum facilities on the cost, strike at shipping vessels, or raid shore facilities such as desalination or power plants. Iran could also use marines and specially trained IRGC forces to seize ships and infiltrate land targets. It has amphibious ships, but some exercises include activities that train small craft with teams of IRGC fighters in ways suitable for raids on offshore or coastal targets.
Finding and destroying all of the active elements of the naval branch of the IRGC and Iran’s smaller surface craft would be difficult. While Iran’s smaller craft have limited ability to stay at sea, they can be remotely located and used in a war of attrition to launch sudden raids with anti-ship missiles, using direct fire weapons, or drop mines. The IRGC and some elements of the Iranian Navy regularly practice the use of small craft, commercial vessels and amphibious vessels in moving forces that can defend and seize targets in the Gulf and on its coast, and support the deployment of medium to long-range, land-based anti-ship missiles and operations of small craft and missile patrol boats outside regular peacetime bases.
Possibly the most effective tool that the Iranians have is their mine warfare capability. The Iranians have an extensive (and underrated) naval mining capability, which can be launched from boats, planes, mini-submarines and even from the shore. Mines are the poor man's most lethal naval weapon. Since the end of the Second World War, mines have seriously damaged or sunk four times more US navy ships than all other means of attack combined.
Iran's naval mining capability looks like the wild card in such a conflict. There is no command and control structure in mine warfare that the US type of "shock and awe" strategy could effectively attack and destroy.
According to Christian Koch, Director of the International Studies Research Program at the Gulf Research Center, Iran’s objective was to increase the sense of insecurity. He says the most serious threat posed by Iran is in the form of asymmetrical warfare that employs irregulars or proxies to engage in acts of terror and sabotage. He further adds that Iran doesn’t need to close the Strait of Hormuz to wreak havoc; it could target oil fields, power plants and other critical and vulnerable installations located in the Gulf.
The Iranian Navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may not be able to close the Strait for an extended period of time; these forces by the use of unconventional means of warfare may be in a position to hamper normal shipping for a period of a week or two. This period however, would be critical as it could result in sky-rocketing of crude prices, thereby impacting the global economy. However, considering the fact that the US would be able to augment its force levels in the region in a short time-span and the continued vigil maintained by the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, Iranian attempts at hampering shipping could very well be thwarted.