By Taylor Marvin
A version of this article was first published at PROSPECT Blog.
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 f-cked 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.”
While open war between US and Iranian forces is certainly possible, it’s unlikely that 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 Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals. It’s possible that the Iranian leadership sees threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and shut off 20% of the world’s oil supply as a tool to coerce the rest of the world into moderating sanctions. The Iranian Navy almost certainly lacks the capability to completely close the strait for an extended period of time. The US Navy demonstrated its ability to forcibly protect tankers in the Persian Gulf from Iranian interference during the Iran-Iraq War, and the US Fifth Fleet’s capabilities have increased since the ‘Tanker War’ of the late 1980s. However, while Iran lacks the capability to completely close the Strait Iranian threats remain credible — asymmetric attacks by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy against tankers and US naval vessels would significantly raise oil prices and massively disrupt the recovering global economy.
However, it’s an even bet whether Iranian aggression would successfully coerce the international community into dropping sanctions in exchange for a 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 diplomacy. Iranian defiance could easily backfire and provoke heightened global appetite for sanctions. This scenario is the more likely of the two. Weakening Iran’s bargaining position is that fact that an Iranian threat to close the strait would be a one-time deal: even relatively successful asymmetric 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 to replaceable.
This doesn’t mean that a war with Iran would not be immensely costly. Defeating Iran militarily even in a limited conflict geographically confined to the Persian Gulf would be difficult. A wider conflict 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. Asymmetric coercion can only get you so far diplomatically: unlike Hezbollah’s tactical defeat but strategic victory in its 2006 war with Israel, 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 Israel’s regional dominance when the Israelis have 300 nuclear warheads pointed at them on resilient delivery systems. 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” — isn’t indicative that the Iranian leadership’s stupid, but results 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 rational 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 a potential war — building up its SAM and asymmetric naval capabilities, and insisting that it could close the Strait of Hormuz — moves these Western 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 Iran passed this milestone in 2006. The Bush Administration rationally concluded that previous rhetoric aside, a costly and uncertain war to prevent Iranian uranium enrichment wasn’t worth it. 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 even a limited-scope conflict in the Gulf that would decimate its military capabilities and weaken its long-term strategy. This incentive is strengthened by the recent US withdrawal from Iraq. After the December 2010 US withdrawal, Iran can no longer deter a threatened US military response by threatening to step up covert operations against US troops next door — the US can still strike Iran, but the Revolutionary Guard doesn’t have a credible way to exact revenge. 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 repeatedly insisted 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 ultimate Israeli trip wire — Israeli governments have 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: Iran will probably not act on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz or move against the US Fifth Fleet. In the long-term the status quo is less stable. It’s then that observers should become truly worried.