Can America’s Naval Reinforcement in the Persian Gulf Avert Another Tanker War with Iran?
Straits of Hormuz as seen from the International Space Station
The Iranians fired on Tuesday, July 3rd missiles capable of hitting Israel; the Shahab 3 with a 1,200 mile range. An AFP report from Iran noted this latest show of force and the coincidences:
Although the Islamic republic has test-fired its Shahab missiles before, and frequently holds military maneuvers, it says these war games are aimed at sending a message to Israel and the United States to think twice on their threats of possibly attacking Iran.
"The message of these Grand Prophet 7 maneuvers is to show the determination, the will and the power of the Iranian people in defending their national interests and core values," the number two of the Revolutionary Guards, General Hossein Salami, said, according to the official IRNA news agency.
"It's a reaction to those who are politically discourteous to the Iranian people by saying 'all options are on the table'," he said.
He added that the launches were "100 percent successful".
The exercise targeted a replica military base set up in the desert and made to look like a foreign facility, similar to those the United States has in neighboring countries such as Afghanistan.
The launch of the Shahab-3 missile coincided with the day experts from Iran and world powers were to hold talks in Istanbul to discuss the West's push to have Tehran scale back its sensitive nuclear program.
The AFP report noted another historic incident:
Iran's test-firing of its missiles also occurred on the anniversary of the July 3, 1988 shooting down of an Iranian commercial airliner by a US warship towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war.
All 290 passengers and crew on the plane died in the attack, which Washington said was the result of erroneously identifying the civilian aircraft as an Iranian fighter jet.
The July 3, 1988 incident climaxed the Tanker War of 1987-1988 and the eight year bloody war between Iran and Iraq, the latter led by the late Saddam Hussein.
The Tanker War of the 1980’s scenario probably loomed large behind recent augmentation of the US Fifth Fleet as reported by the New York Times:
But at a moment that the United States and its allies are beginning to enforce a much broader embargo on Iran’s oil exports, meant to force the country to take seriously the negotiations over sharply limiting its nuclear program, the buildup carries significant risks, including that Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps could decide to lash out against the increased presence.
The most visible elements of this buildup are Navy ships designed to vastly enhance the ability to patrol the Strait of Hormuz — and to reopen the narrow waterway should Iran attempt to mine it to prevent Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters from sending their tankers through the vital passage.
The Navy has doubled the number of minesweepers assigned to the region, to eight vessels, in what military officers describe as a purely defensive move.
“The message to Iran is, ‘Don’t even think about it,’ ” one senior Defense Department official said. “Don’t even think about closing the strait. We’ll clear the mines. Don’t even think about sending your fast boats out to harass our vessels or commercial shipping. We’ll put them on the bottom of the gulf.” Like others interviewed, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the diplomatic and military situation.
Since late spring, stealthy F-22 and older F-15C warplanes have moved into two separate bases in the Persian Gulf to bolster the combat jets already in the region and the carrier strike groups that are on constant tours of the area. Those additional attack aircraft give the United States military greater capability against coastal missile batteries that could threaten shipping, as well as the reach to strike other targets deeper inside Iran.
The possible disruption of the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz, one of the world’s shipping choke points, may have been lessened with the announcement that the UAE completed a 290 kilometer pipeline on the Southern littoral of Persian Gulf with a terminal at Fujairah on the Arabian Sea. A report in The National, an Emirate publication noted that upwards of 1.8 million barrels per day will begin to flow through the $3.3 Billion Abu Dubai Oil Pipeline in August.
During another Iranian naval missile exercise on the cusp of the New Year in late December 2011, we discussed in an Iconoclast blog post, the history of Tanker War of the 1980’s and the prescient assessment about current US naval augmentation of the Fifth Fleet.
Does this read like a possible repeat of the tanker wars of 1987-1988 that took place in the final throes of the Iran-Iraq War? In December 1986, the Kuwait government petitioned the Reagan Administration about protection of its tankers against Iranian threats; the vessels were re-flagged and granted American protection. Thus began Operation Earnest Will, the largest convoy operations since WWII. US Navy forces were successful in keeping the oil flowing through the Straits of Hormus. US Navy Seal teams were dispatched to destroy Iranian oil platforms in retribution for attacks on US flagged vessels. During the campaign, the Islamic Republic Navy used small boats to harass US flagged vessels and fired Chinese anti-ship Silk Worm missiles against US flagged tankers, injuring crews.
Could that happen again? Assuming the Obama Administration wanted to avoid a casus belli by the Islamic Republic against the Arab oil producers from Iraq, Kuwait, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. . . the US Navy could “line the straits’ with combat vessels. Further the US could conduct intensive aerial patrols from the Carrier Task Force positioned there. The Fifth fleet also has missile boats, presumably equipped with both conventional and nuclear missiles. Not unlike the Tanker War of the late 1980’s, there would be Seal and Small Boat Teams and night stalker helicopters available for special operations. However, given the Islamic Republic’s nuclear and missile programs, there could be other types of missions launched.
Could there be a repetition of the unfortunate event that brought down the Iran Air Flight 655 with 290 passengers 24 years ago in 1988? Note this comment from The National:
In March this year, the US Navy announced it was bolstering the presence of the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf amid rising tensions with Iran. Analysts said improved communications systems made it unlikely that another "fog of war" mishap would occur.
"With improved detection systems, it's unlikely to happen again," said Theodore Karasik, the research director at the Institute for Near Eastern and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
"But in a hyper-charged environment, you never know. Mistakes can be made."