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The Persian Gulf Cul-de-Sac

Commander Sarabjeet Singh Parmar is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 12, 2012

    The waters abounding the Persian Gulf have been witness to sabre rattling and military rhetoric, which have resulted in heightened tensions and an increase in oil prices. Both these issues could result in a stalemate that does not augur well for regional and international security.

    The acknowledgement that earlier sanctions were not having the desired result should be an indication not to take Iran lightly or follow the same strategies adopted in earlier US interventions. The recent talk of sanctions on the export of Iranian oil is having a telling effect on the Iranian economy and this could result in a tougher reaction by Iran.

    There are two issues that could influence maritime affairs and dictate US maritime actions: the seriousness of the Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, and secondly the threat to US maritime forces, specifically its aircraft carriers.

    Articles 44 and 45 of UNCLOS clearly state that there will be no suspension of transit or innocent passage through straits used for international navigation. However, this may not be considered inviolable by both Iran and the US; though they are both signatories to the Convention, neither has ratified it. Although the US recognises UNCLOS as customary international law and accepts it as such, it would find itself on weak ground defending the right to ensure that the straits remain open for shipping, although any effort by Iran to enforce a total closure or selected closure would further alienate it from the international community. The moot point here is that the Iranian threat to close the strait and the US counter violate the sanctity of UNCLOS and set a precedent for nations to act against the principles of accepted customary law as well as provide a basis for future actions by nations in abrogating such treaties. Therefore, it is time to review such treaties, specifically the UNCLOS, as nations are now no longer showing restraint in flexing their muscles under the guise of “national interests”. Two cases being the South China Sea dispute and the ongoing jurisdictional issues in the Arctic. The unfolding actions in the waters of the Persian Gulf could be taken as an example to be emulated in future maritime clashes of interest.

    The recent exercise conducted by Iran, which included missile firings, is a clear indication that Iran would most likely not hesitate in using military force to enforce its threat of closing the Straits of Hormuz and target US warships entering the area. The Iranian Navy is a potent force in the Gulf and although it is no match for the US Navy, the asymmetric threat especially against high value targets like aircraft carriers is a point to be considered. The US Navy could target Iran using the abundant air power at its disposal but would have to contend with the Iranian Air Defence System, which is more potent than what the US has faced hitherto.

    The main threat envisaged is not from the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) but from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN). The IRIN operates larger warships and therefore would be best utilised in open waters and engage targets further away from the Iranian mainland; here, it would be no match for the US Navy. The IRCGN is the maritime component of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and due to political patronage has been favoured over the IRIN especially with respect to defence expenditure. The IRCGN operates smaller vessels, some of which are armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, and would be best utilised in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. The experience of the tanker wars from 1984 to 1988 resulted in the asymmetric approach wherein attacks by small fast attack boats were more successful than the conventional missile and gunfire attacks from larger naval ships. In addition, ships transiting the strait could also be targeted by land based anti-ship cruise missiles. One of the missiles in both seaborne and land based systems is the C-802 and its effectiveness was proven during the 2006 Lebanon conflict when an Israeli naval ship was hit by a C-802.

    To ensure that the Strait of Hormuz remains open, the US would have to deploy assets in the area, thereby bringing its ships within close proximity of the Iranian mainland and assets deployed on land and at sea. The Strait of Hormuz is around 90 nautical miles long, around 22 to 35 nautical miles wide and has two deep water channels, one each for inbound and outbound traffic. The width of each channel is around one nautical mile. This restrictive geographical access is an advantage for Iran. Deep draught ships like carriers would have to navigate within the contours of safe depths thereby reducing their manoeuvrability and at times speed. This would make them an easy target for a determined swarm attack by small fast attack craft in a hit and run tactic. At the same time, suicide attacks cannot also be ruled out and the shallow draught, manoeuvrability and speed of smaller vessels would be their main advantage against a much larger vessel. Any attack on the Iranian command and control structure may not accrue a major advantage as the “mosaic defence” strategy of Iran is based on a decentralised command and control structure.

    Therefore, the US would have to tread cautiously since an asymmetric attack on a carrier, leading to damage or even sinking, let alone any other high value asset, would generate not only a reaction at home but also undermine the US strategy of deploying a carrier strike group in an area of heightened tension. The importance of not losing a carrier was omnipresent post the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. But on the other hand, this could be a testing ground for the US “Air Sea Battle Concept”. Either way, a conflict is not desirable and a new approach involving greater diplomatic engagement and direct talks could resolve this growing imbroglio. Such an approach would also prevent an upsurge in oil prices and avoid pushing the world economy into a prolonged recession.