Last week, the RAND Corp.’s Alireza Nader wrote that Iran’s continued threats to close the Strait of Hormuz are “a pivotal part of a military strategy based on psychological and asymmetric warfare.” Blocking the strait would cut off 90 percent of the Persian Gulf oil supply to the world and would carry with it implications for regional security and the global economy.
Today, the Iranian government shared that RAND analysis with its population through its state-owned Fars News Agency, perhaps to show how strong the Iranian regime is against the U.S. — and how U.S. experts know it.
The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy may be able to inflict damage on US forces. It operates hundreds of small and relatively fast attack boats, some armed with sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles.
Iran could also fire missiles at US warships from its 1000 mile-long coastline. An even more controversial Iranian move would be scattering mines either near the Strait or in the Persian Gulf, which could slow or stop shipping as the US Navy tried to clear the waterway.
Iran might instead seek to repeat the strategy used by Hezbollah in the 2006 war with Israel – holding ground by bleeding the adversary. It may hope to emerge as the political and psychological victor by hitting a few US warships, perhaps even a carrier, causing high oil prices, and increasing international pressure – all tactics designed to force the United States to stop its strikes.
Just by threatening to close the Strait, Iran increases pressure on the United States to restrain Israel from attacking Iran. Other key players – including major oil importers such as China, Japan and India – would be reluctant to support military action because of heavy dependence on Persian Gulf oil.
However, Fars did leave out the parts of Nader’s analysis in which Iran is also vulnerable, should a military confrontation take place in the Persian Gulf.
But the Islamic Republic would also pay a heavy price for fighting in the Persian Gulf. Its forces could be destroyed without first inflicting substantial damage, which would humiliate the regime. Despite military rhetoric, Iran’s naval forces are poorly matched against the U.S. Fifth fleet.
Iran is also heavily dependent on freedom of navigation through the Persian Gulf to export its own oil, especially important given its increasingly troubled economy. Most Iranian exports and imports flow through the Strait. Iran may be more dependent on the Strait than other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, both of which are building pipelines to bypass the strategic waterway.