The Gathering Storm in the Gulf: What Iran should learn from Japan’s pre-World War II mistakes
A recent 10-day training exercise conducted by Iran’s Navy included a test of an upgraded anti-ship cruise missile, presumably designed to counter the regular presence of U.S. 5th Fleet warships nearby. Before the Iranian exercise began, the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group sailed from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. The carrier received some parting advice from Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the commander of Iran’s armed forces. “We warn this ship, which is considered a threat to us, not to come back, and we do not repeat our words twice,” Salehi said.
It would be difficult to find a credible naval analyst who thought that a clash between the Iranian Navy and the U.S. 5th Fleet would turn out well for Iran. But Tehran has apparently doubled down on Salehi’s warning; the Iranian parliament is now considering a bill that would prohibit foreign warships from entering the Persian Gulf without prior permission from the Iranian government. This would violate long-standing international maritime law.
In contrast to its occasional all-thumbs response to irregular warfare situations, a conventional naval battle around the Strait of Hormuz would play to the U.S. military’s strongest suit. American advantages in sensors, targeting, command and control, precision weapons, electronic warfare, training, and many other dimensions would quickly crush Iran’s air and naval forces. Iran would also be unlikely to derive any political or diplomatic benefit from sparking a clash in the strait. Even competitors like China would expect the United States to fulfill its role as protector of the global commons (at least in the Strait of Hormuz). Iran would be seen as violating international maritime law. And the more the shooting accelerated, the more Iran would suffer. This is the definition of “escalation dominance,” which would favor the United States as fighting intensified (and might therefore give the United States an incentive to escalate an outbreak of combat). Salehi and his officers must surely understand this.