In responding to West, Iran stresses its naval abilities in Persian Gulf

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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

TEHRAN -- Inspections of Iranian vessels by the United States and its allies in accordance with a new U.N. sanctions regime could worsen tensions in the Persian Gulf, Iranian leaders and commanders have warned in recent days.

"Anybody who insists on implementing [searches] will regret them very harshly," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said June 28, echoing avowals by other senior Iranian officials that inspections would not go unanswered.

The resolution adopted last month by the U.N. Security Council calls on states to allow inspections of ships on the high seas if there "are reasonable grounds" to believe they are carrying weapons or other banned materials, a request Iran would reject as a violation of its sovereignty, analysts said. A similar U.N. provision that was passed last year to encourage the boarding of North Korean vessels has not led to a single interdiction of banned cargo on the high seas. But it has led to the seizure of North Korean weapons at foreign ports, according to a U.N. monitoring panel.

The prospect of inspections has led several key Iranian officials to emphasize their country's growing clout in the Persian Gulf -- the likeliest theater for countermeasures, Iranian commanders say.

"The Guard's navy has the capacity to respond appropriately and adequately to actions against Iranian ships," Revolutionary Guard Corps Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi said June 26, according to the government newspaper Iran. "The Persian Gulf is the center and most sensitive point of the world. . . . At any time, we can exert as much pressure in this strait as we may wish to."

Iran has threatened for years to choke off the Hormuz Strait, the narrow passage at the entrance to the gulf through which a daily caravan of tankers transports nearly 30 percent of the world's oil and gas. Recently, though, current and retired military officers have been touting what they call an overhaul of military doctrine with respect to the Persian Gulf: preparing the naval arm of the Revolutionary Guard to carry out the kind of unconventional attacks known as asymmetrical warfare.

In 2007, command over the strategic body of water was given to the Guard, and the regular navy was banished to the open seas. At the same time, the country has invested heavily in an ever-growing fleet of small, high-speed vessels armed with missiles and torpedoes and capable of laying mines and even semi-submerging, according to a fall 2009 report by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.

"They're doing things differently than 10 or 15 years ago," said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He noted that, in addition to upgraded speedboats and more aggressive training exercises, Iran has "a cruise missile capability that certainly is a threat to any ship in the gulf."

"They have the ability to do some harm to us or any other ships," the official said. "Would they be able to totally disrupt us? Probably not. They have the ability to do damage. I wouldn't call it sustained. I wouldn't call it overwhelming."

Iranian commanders say they have been studying the only real sea battle between Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf, which took place in April 1988.

"What we learned from that fight was that the American Navy could easily take on our regular navy when they attacked by surprise, but they couldn't get anywhere with the Guards on their fast boats," retired Guard Navy Adm. Hossein Alaei said in an interview.

"In classical warfare, normally the stronger side wins," said Alaei, who teaches strategic sciences at the Guard's Imam Hussein University in Tehran. "Our forces are now much better prepared for any conflict in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy is highly vulnerable to our kind of warfare."


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