international analysis and commentary

The huge dangers of a military escalation with Iran

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The international community has been looking with some concern at Iran’s recent military exercises in the area of the Strait of Hormuz. Many naval exercises and ground maneuvers have been conducted in the past, some dating back to 2006.

At the beginning of this year, for example, the Velayat naval exercise was conducted in parallel with a ground maneuver (Shoaday-e Validat) near Afghanistan.

Iran, facing international sanctions while continuing to enrich uranium for its nuclear program, badly needs to show strength.

One of the areas where this becomes essential for the regime is exactly in the Strait of Hormuz. The presence of a US fleet in the Persian Gulf, as well as the strategic position of the Strait for the entire world’s energy security (including for the US) explains why Iran attaches so much importance to strengthening the credibility of its deterrence capacity. Indeed, the United States Energy Information Administration estimates that approximately 35% of all seaborne traded oil (or 17 million barrels of oil per day) passed through the Strait in 2011.

The capabilities of Iran’s surface fleet are modest; they could only hope to prove effective in attacking ships that are poorly defended or not at all. Anti-ship missiles could represent a dangerous option, however, given the Chinese Sardine, Saccade, Kosar and Nasr short and mid-range missiles in Iran’s arsenal.

Iran also possesses submarines, and these could employ torpedoes, but the US and Arab states have substantial anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the area. Mining the Strait – another possibility – would present serious risks for Iran itself, as mines, unlike missiles, are not discriminatory.

Despite some relevant Iranian capabilities and shows of force, I am convinced that Iranian strategy is politically motivated. The country is using military means in an attempt to show the international community the potentially devastating impact any aggressive or military action against Tehran might have.

By putting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in charge of the most significant military exercises in the Strait, Iran highlights this political motivation even more, as the IRGC emphasizes its independence in carrying out operations that can lead to hostilities.

Iran has constantly and carefully hidden any weaknesses in terms of its military capabilities; the country has encouraged a perception of strength in the face of close monitoring from the main global players (first and foremost the United States). However, by doing so, it has also created a real risk of hostilities degenerating into war.

The escalation of a crisis, determined by some unforeseen incident or caused by a misunderstanding, could well lead to consequences that spin out of control.