Any serious Iranian attempt to shut down both passages simultaneously could be a nightmare scenario for international commerce, or worse
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, is reportedly preparing for a major naval exercise involving dozens of small boats to demonstrate its ability to close off the highly strategic Strait of Hormuz, which separates the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman, to international shipping with mines and other hazards. The snap drill follows a new surge in tensions between the United States and Iran and comes amid efforts on the part of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen to block the equally vital Bab Al Mandeb Strait linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. Reports of the impending exercise first began to emerge on Aug. 1, 2018. Though the drill in of itself is not unusual, the timing is, with the annual event typically occurring later in the year. There are also indications from various outlets, including Fox and CNN, citing unnamed sources, that this year’s iteration will be larger than normal, featuring over 100 watercraft of various descriptions. “We will make the enemy understand that either everyone can use the Strait of Hormuz or no one,” the IRGC’s commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said on July 5, 2018. The powerful quasi-military organization has hundreds of small boats and semi-submersibles and often works with the regular Iranian Navy’s midget submarines. Any of these boats could lay mines and otherwise harass both civilian maritime activities and foreign military operations in and around the Strait. “The Americans have claimed they want to completely stop Iran’s oil exports,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said in July 2018 before making what could be considered to be his own veiled threat. “They don’t understand the meaning of this statement because it has no meaning for Iranian oil not to be exported while the region’s oil is exported.”
Rouhani made those comments while in Switzerland trying to maintain support for the international deal over his country’s controversial nuclear program. In May 2018, the U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration withdrew the United States from the agreement and pledged to re-enact various sanctions against Iran, including efforts to block its oil exports. Subsequent comments from Rouhani prompted a fiery tirade from Trump on Twitter. The U.S. military has made it clear that it, along with its regional partners, will take steps necessary to keep the Strait open in the event Iran decides to follow through on its threats.
To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018
“We are aware of the increase in Iranian naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Gulf of Oman,” Captain William Urban, the chief spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees all American operations in the region, told CNN on Aug. 1, 2018. “We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways.”
Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz repeatedly in the past and the threat is well understood at this point. In January 2018, the IRGC held another exercise in the region that also coincided with heightened rhetoric between Iranian officials and their U.S. counterparts. Over the years, the U.S. military has positioned various mine hunting and sweeping assets in the region, including one of its new Expeditionary Sea Base the USS Lewis B. Puller, and has been working with its allies to mitigate the impact of any potential incident as a result of these standing threats. But these latest drills continue to demonstrate just how quickly Iran could decide to act upon these threats if it decided to and how hard it might be to respond quickly enough to prevent them from laying hundreds of mines or otherwise making the Strait unnavigable. Even if no further fighting erupted, clearing the mines could take weeks or months.
With approximately 20 percent of the world’s oil exports heading to their destinations via the Strait of Hormuz, if it were to end up closed for any appreciable amount of time it could have serious global economic repercussions. The waterway also serves as a pathway for nearly 90 percent of the region’s overall energy exports, including natural gas, which could make it particularly devastating for Iran’s regional opponents such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And this is exactly the point from Iran’s perspective. More worrisome, Iran may be in the process of something of a “dry run” in the Bab Al Mandeb Strait on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula or is otherwise using that zone to explore just what it can do directly and indirectly to impede international maritime traffic. On July 26, 2018, Saudi Arabia announced it had halted oil shipments through that equally constrained waterway after a pair of attacks on its oil tankers, which Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for afterward.
The raiders damaged one ship, the Arsan, but caused no casualties. This is not the first time the Houthis have targeted commercial shipping, either. Still, these latest attacks do represent a significant escalation in the Iranian-backed fighters push to attack Saudi economic interests, as well as naval vessels belonging to that country and its allies. It can be hard to verify the exact nature of Houthi attacks in the area and it is possible there have been other, unreported attacks, as well.
Laden Saudi-flagged VLCC MT ARSAN attacked by Houthi forces at 2115 UTC (0115 LT) on 24/25 Jul in position 14:47N – 041:44E, around 70nm west of Hodeidah, southern Red Sea. Nature of the attack unconfirmed. The tanker sustained ‘slight damage’ from a likely WBIED or projectile pic.twitter.com/89kC2NToV9
— EOS Risk Group (@EosRisk) July 26, 2018
Subsequent reports suggested an Iranian-flagged cargo ship might also be actively supporting the Houthi naval activities, but it is also possible that this ship, the M/V Saviz, has been helping smuggle weapons to the group or otherwise gathering intelligence on their behalf. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition has been engrossed in a grueling and controversial fight with the Yemeni faction since 2015. The United States has been supporting these operations and has found itself drawn into the conflict on multiple occasions. Iran has supplied the insurgents with a variety of weapons and provided additional support to aid their own local production. The United States and other countries have provided evidence that the two parties are actively cooperating on suicide drones, remote-control explosive-laden boats, improvised naval mines, surface-to-air missiles, and ballistic missiles.
🇮🇷 Iranian-flagged MV Saviz (IMO:9167253|MMSI:422026600|CS:EPBL6) has been in the same place for months, beaconing its location over AIS-S.
They turned off that transponder at ~14:55Z 2018-07-28, right after being accused of being an Iranian SIGINT vessel by @debka_english. pic.twitter.com/49loeNwL1B
— Steffan Watkins 🇨🇦 (@steffanwatkins) July 29, 2018
Photo from Saudi coalition dossier shows Iranian cargo ship Saviz with alleged weapons smuggling boats on deck. The ship has been in a holding pattern in the Red Sea for weeks. pic.twitter.com/vMRX5H6SPw
— Jeremy Binnie (@JeremyBinnie) November 17, 2017
An asymmetric Iranian or Iranian-backed “blockade” of both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab Al Mandeb Strait simultaneously would represent something of a nightmare scenario for the United States and its partners in the region. It’s a situation we at The War Zone have been warning about for years, too. Naval countermine operations are complicated and dangerous to begin with and its easy to see how this kind of hostile action could quickly escalate into a larger skirmish. Even if the parties manage to avoid an immediate, larger conflict over the issue, American and other forces sweeping the hazards away would face the ever-present threat of Iranian small boat swarms, shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles that could be carrying weapons of mass destruction, among other dangers. This would be something U.S. commanders would have to take into account and could slow down operations.
The video below shows scenes from the IRGC’s “Great Prophet IX” exercise in 2015, which involved simulated swarming boat attacks and