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Dire Straits

Iran’s navy plays a dangerous game.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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President Barack Obama may have asked Iran to unclench its fist, but Fadavi dismissed the olive branch. “We are not in peacetime,” he declared. He subsequently announced the expansion of operations into the Sea of Oman, once the domain of the more conventional ordinary navy, and the establishment of separate IRGC naval bases in Jask and Chahbahar, both outside the Strait of Hormuz. It was against this backdrop that the Islamic Republic sent two naval vessels through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea last February. More recently, Iran has announced deployments into the Gulf of Aden, and Sayyari has said Iran will send a ship into the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps bluster but nonetheless worth watching as Iran cultivates ties with Venezuela and littoral African states.

Iranian tactics should also be cause for concern. In recent years, the IRGC-N has drilled swarming larger ships with increasing numbers of speedboats, and has probed U.S. vessels with increasing frequency. In the last few months, Iranian boats have retreated only when U.S. vessels have fired warning shots. While the Pentagon does not publicize such incidents, sailors say there are now near daily occurrences. The proximity of the Iranian boats means that, should any be intent on a suicide plot, American sailors would likely lose their lives.

Smugglers add another layer of danger. Prior to entering or exiting the strait, ships—be they warships or tankers—line up and proceed in queue to avoid the risk of collision. Smugglers traversing the strait from the Iranian shore to the rocky outcrops on the Arabian side of the waterway regularly cut across the path of even America’s largest carriers, sometimes disappearing into the 300-meter blind spot beneath the carrier’s bow. 

It would be a fatal mistake for the U.S. Navy to assume these smugglers are harmless. Even if they are not Revolutionary Guards, they depend on the IRGC for access to what Iranians call “invisible jetties,” the network of IRGC-run smuggling ports. Certainly, the IRGC could also use a dhow for surveillance, if not to attack U.S. ships or helicopters, the maritime equivalent of Iranian-backed militiamen dressing in civilian clothes and taking up positions in mosques and schools.

The Iranian leadership regularly seeks plausible deniability for its actions in order to diminish the likelihood of retaliation. The supreme leader may be a dictator, but he is not crafted in the mold of the late Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il. Rather, he operates by veto, eliminating policies of which he disapproves but allowing his subordinates to pursue any plan he does not explicitly reject. In practice, this means the U.S. intelligence community will never find a smoking gun—an intercept in which the supreme leader orders an attack on American forces— allowing dovish diplomats to dismiss most Iranian aggression as rogue activity.

When it comes to the IRGC-N, however, operational proximity to U.S. warships might lead to real rogue action. Robert Rook, a military historian at Towson University who regularly teaches on deploying carrier strike groups and marine expeditionary units, notes that the U.S. intelligence community has apparently never cross-referenced the passenger manifest of Iran Air Flight 655, mistakenly downed by the USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988, with currently serving IRGC-N officers. Should any speedboat pilot have had family members killed in the incident, his motive to go rogue might be high. Fadavi himself was reportedly a junior officer at the time of the Vincennes tragedy.

With tensions running so high, it would be a no-brainer for officials in both Tehran and Washington to establish communication to mitigate the risk of conflict. That assumes, however, that the Iranian leadership wants to avoid a confrontation. Contrary to the statements of advocacy groups like the National Iranian American Council, which seeks both to exculpate the Islamic Republic and to fundraise over false claims of American aggressiveness, both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought consistently to establish communications to avoid any accidental conflict. In both cases, the Iranian government rejected such overtures. In September 2011, for example, Fadavi responded to a White House suggestion to establish a hotline with Tehran by declaring, “The only way to end American concerns is [for the United States] to leave the region.”

Herein lies the danger of Obama’s conciliatory approach: When in 1998 al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden called the United States a “paper tiger,” the Clinton administration ignored him. This emboldened him to strike at America in East Africa, Yemen, and eventually in New York and Washington. 

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