May 05, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: How Far Will Obama Go in the Strait of Hormuz?

In a flashback to US operations against Iran from 1987-1988 during the Tanker War, the Navy has begun accompanying US-flagged commercial ships as they pass the through the Strait of Hormuz. The administration has realized the encirclement of the Maersk Kensington on April 24 and the detention of the Maersk Tigris on April 28 were not anomalies. Instead we are seeing a heightened pattern of harassment from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Navy that demands a response.

Given how close we are to a nuclear agreement, it is doubtful the IRGC is trying to blow up the talks. Iran’s military leadership, from IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari on down, hasexpressed their support for a deal. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would also shut down any sustained effort by the Guard that could undermine his objective of full nuclear sanctions relief. These are not rogue actors. Rather the IRGC is likely pushing a larger agenda in the current regional conflicts while testing US and Gulf Arab states’ redlines.

previously discussed the rationale behind Tehran’s ill-fated and embarrassing arms-convoy last month to al Houthi fighters in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the US are frustrating Iran’s operational efforts to get supplies into Yemen. The IRGC is just returning the favor. By pulling US assets into the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has forced the United States to maintain men and materiel at three points: operations against ISIS from the Persian Gulf, support for the Saudi campaign from the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and now convoy duty near the Strait of Hormuz.

But stretching US commitments is not Iran’s only objective. Tehran has long proclaimed itself the guarantor of security in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz and likes to assert that presumed authority from time to time. Tehran may indeed have a beef with Danish shipping conglomerate Maersk over old bills, but Iran’s legal reasoning for holding the Tigris is suspectat best. The Maersk Tigris, flagged under the US-protected Marshall Islands and carrying cargo from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was a juicy target for the IRGC. It was an easy way to simultaneously pressure Riyadh, Washington, and even Copenhagen.

During the approximately 16-month American involvement in the Tanker War, the IRGC Navy repeatedly pushed the envelope by intercepting or attacking ships in the Gulf. Iranian attacks varied in timing and seriousness, but they were a way to test US commitment, to pressure US allies, and to inure US forces to Iran’s military presence. The incremental escalations continued until the US Navy finally sunk an Iranian frigate as part of Operation Praying Mantisin April 1988.

In 2015, Iran presumes to know Washington’s redlines. Iran’s IRGC Navy may engage in low-level annoyance, but they will not want to sharply escalate the confrontation any more than the United States does. The danger lies in tit-for-tat responses that risk entrapping the United States and Iran in a destructive cycle of action and re-action.

Committing the Navy to accompany US flagged ships shows leadership at a time when the region is desperately looking for it from Washington. President Obama needs to send a clearer message upfront about how far we are willing to go to protect freedom of navigation in the Strait, though, if we want to prevent another cycle of escalation in the Persian Gulf almost 30 years later.