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How Iran Could Close Straits and Damage U.S. Navy

The NY Times today departs from its usual cheerleading of U.S. hawkish foreign policy goals by acknowledging that Iran could close the Straits of Hormuz in the event of a military conflict.  It might do so at great cost to itself, but it could be done.  Even if it couldn’t, the article estimates that even a minimal dustup there could raise the price of oil by $50 a barrel, thereby raising gas prices in the U.S. easily over $4 a gallon.

Of course, this would cripple Iran’s oil production and shipping capacity, thereby sending its economy into a nosedive.  So it would be a game of chicken as to which side could inflict the most damage militarily and economically and which side would say “Uncle” first.  Just think about the terribly tender world economy teetering currently on the brink of recession. Those who predict it will be the Iranians might want to think again.

If we cut off Iranian oil shipments, it will imperil the Chinese economy.  They aren’t going to take this lightly.  Since the Chinese military appears to be itching to teach the U.S. a lesson or two about its own international ambitions, it might offer them an opportunity to attempt to give us a bloody nose.  This might involve a military confrontation on Iran’s behalf or it might involve making our lives miserable in the UN Security Council as it deliberates on the foolhardy adventure into which we’ve gotten ourselves.

Sunburn anti ship missile

One way in which Iranians could launch Sunburn anti-ship missiles

I’ve just been reading up on the Russian-made anti-ship missile, the Sunburn, supplied to Iran in the hundreds.  Despite the fact that Russian military might is generally a paper tiger, this weapon is fearsomely effective.  It flies at supersonic speeds (2,100 mph) hugging the ground (as low as 45 feet) and is barely perceptible on radar.  It is so fast that ship-board defenses may not even be able to pinpoint its location before impact.  It collides with its target at such force that a single well-placed missile might sink an entire aircraft carrier.  The missile can be fired by ship, submarine, aircraft or from a truck.

Think of the hundreds of miles of mountainous Iranian coastline that lines the Straits.  Think too, of the Iranian supplied missile that nearly sank an Israeli frigate off the coast of Lebanon during the 2006 War.  Think three, of the difficulties faced by the Israeli air force during the 2006 Lebanon war in eradicating the Hezbollah missile inventory.  It simply could not keep up with the well-hidden missile sites and the sheer number the group had at its disposal.  Now think of a far more formidable adversary with more advanced missiles, more resources to deploy and hide them, and more territory in which to conceal them.

No one is saying Iran is a match for U.S. might.  But I think there’s a very good chance the Iranians might make us pay for our adventure.  Possibly even pay dearly.  Imagine the impact that the sinking of even a single U.S. aircraft carrier or ship might have on U.S. morale in the event of conflict.  Not that I’m wishing for such an outcome.  Not at all.  But rather I’m seeking to warn that if we toy with Iran, it might sink a claw into us.

The missile is a short to medium range missile, meaning that the U.S. fleet might have to remain 100-250 miles offshore to avoid them.  That would still offer plenty of range for our forces to attack Iran.  But it might prevent us from entering the straits directly in order to escort shipping and keep the lanes open.  That in turn would decrease the likelihood we could keep them completely open.

The Russians developed such missiles because they knew they could not compete ship for ship or plane for plane with the U.S. military.  Instead, they devised a much more cost-effective method of defending itself.  A single missile costs less than an entire jet bomber, yet it can take out an aircraft carrier.  Iran too knows it cannot compete soldier for soldier with us.  So for it, the anti-ship missile is a perfect defensive weapon.  The Sunburn is but one type in Iran’s arsenal, possibly the most advanced, but there are many others.  It was one of these Cruise missiles (though not the Sunburn) it tested during the recent naval maneuvers it held.

We’ve now passed into far more dangerous stage of conflict.  We’re now no longer killing Iranians and exploding their missile bases through covert acts of sabotage.  We’ve actually sent an entire fleet right up the enemies you-know-what.  We’ve dared them to respond.  They’ve retorted angrily that they won’t let us intimidate them and that we’re unwelcome anywhere near their borders.  This is a major standoff that can only end badly.

The fact that we’re about to send a few thousand of our own troops to Israel for major war games, where they will be deployed for an unspecified period of time is another warning to Iran that should they consider attacking Israel (even after an Israeli pre-emptive attack) that the U.S. would defend its ally.  When you come to think of it, this is an astonishing statement.  It means that if Israel attacks Iran first and Iran counter-strikes, we will very likely attack Iran.

I don’t know about you but I’ve been through at least one war too many in the past ten years.  We need another one like we need a hole in the head.  I’m afraid that Barack Obama is taking us there.

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{ 40 comments… add one }

  • AA January 5, 2012, 3:47 AM

    Spot on. As incompetent as he is, I doubt that Obama is dumb enough to attack Iran. In a little-reported event, he even chickened out and withdrew his aircraft carrier from the straits when Iran notified him they wanted to conduct missile tests there. I happen to think that was quite significant a move.

    But.

    Israel is quite capable of attacking Iran, only because the government is so amateurish and cowboy. Bibi has pulled many very stupid adolescent tricks that went awry, like the flotilla attack and the Dubai stupidity. Then having started the conflagration Bibi would start screaming fire fire like he did when the Carmiel went up in flames and pull the US into war with Iran. You know, standard Israeli crisis creation. But this time I do not really know what would happen.

    Anyway I live here and I am not leaving even if bombs start falling. Or the childish government pulls other weird tricks.

  • Newbie January 5, 2012, 3:58 AM

    Richard-do you think there really is an alternative to Obama? That is what you seem to suggest at the end…

    • Richard Silverstein January 5, 2012, 10:33 AM

      He may the best we can hope for, which is truly discouraging.

      • Bob Mann January 5, 2012, 2:01 PM

        What about Ron Paul?

        • Andy January 6, 2012, 11:09 PM

          Back in 2008, a columnist in my local newspaper, James Gill in New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, cogently explained why Ron Paul would not be president: “There are too many people partying on tomorrow’s dime.” Gill was correct then and his words are no less relevant today.

  • Daniel January 5, 2012, 4:54 AM

    “We need another one like we need a hole in the head”

    Richard, I believe no one wishes to enter war. not president Obama and not the islamic republic of Iran. On the other hand, Iran’s contempt and disregard for the non-proliferation treaty might create even larger chaos in a couple of years. A nuclear Iran would generate a general attempt to acheive nuclear arms by all middle east states – Saudi arabia, Egypt, Turkey.

    I honestly believe you object to iran’s attempts towards achieving nuclear military capabilities. how do you suggest United stated will block those attempts?

    • Denis January 7, 2012, 5:38 AM

      I don’t disagree with your opinion, I was just struck with how one could change the countries and it would still be true.

      Israel is the one whose nuclear arms has generated the nuclear arms race. With the threat Israel poses, every country in the Middle East has a valid justification for pursuing nukes.

      It is laughable that people accuse Iran of violating the NPT and then argue — hey, Israel didn’t sign the treat so it is not in violation.

      The sanctions that are being applied against Iran ought to be applied against Israel and any other nuclear-armed country that refuses to sign the NPT. Pakistan, India, N. Korea.

      If deterrence was sufficient justification for the US to build up its arsenal, and for Israel to build up its arsenal, then it’s sufficient justification for Iran to do the same.

      Good for goose = good for gander.

      As long as Israel insists on being a nuke-country then Iran having nukes is a stabilizing force.

    • Jaws7 January 13, 2012, 2:40 PM

      Daniel, the question I ask you is what makes you believe that Iran and Saudia Arabia do not already have nuclear military capabilities?

      I find it hard to believe Saudia Arabia has not bought some already and harder to believe Iran has not produced them already. Iran has had far too much help from other countries that have nuclear weapons not to have built some already.

  • pabelmont January 5, 2012, 7:00 AM

    I don’t see that a few thousand USA troops in Israel is much of a threat (much of an INCREASE) in threat to Iran. But it is a horrible signal of the tight. firm hold the AIPAC (BIG-ZION) holds on the USA. The USA’s whole quasi-war on Iran is more of the same, because even a nuclear-armed Iran is no threat to the USA (and certainly not the threat that Pakistan already is, and we hear nothing about that). BUT ALL THE REST, this USA attitude of “I never saw a proposal to go to war against dark-skinned people that I didn’t like, especially where control of oil is involved” (leave international law for the vultures) is sickening. I hope Iran finds a way to get the USA to back down from all of this including the Stuxnet stuff.

    All Obama need do is make speeches FOR (rather than against) the actual concerns (and opinions) of the 99%, lay out the whole system of corporate control of government in a series of fireside chats, ask for internet donations, and get the BIGs (including BIG-ZION, BIG-ARMs, BIG-OIL) off the USA’s back.

    • Denis January 5, 2012, 10:11 AM

      Agreed. US troops in Israel are NO offensive threat to Iran. What are they going to do, march 1000 miles across Saudi Arabia and Iraq?

      US troops in Israel offer no defense from an Iranian attack, either. M-16′s — even on full automatic — are notoriously ineffective against Shahab-3′s, and Iran will never — NEVER — enter Israel on foot.

      The US troops and Aegis missiles are for one purpose: Syria. More specifically: Hezbollah.

      Prediction: US/Israel will light this fire not by throwing the match on Iran but by going into Syria and waiting for Iran to come to Hezbollah’s defense. Two birds, one stone.

      The wild card is the MB in Egypt. And China. If the Chinese South Sea Fleet sails west of Sri Lanka and into the Arabian Sea, Katie bar the door.

      • lysias January 5, 2012, 11:27 AM

        U.S. troops in Israel offer as much defense to Israel today as U.S. troops in Europe during the Cold War offered defense to Europe then.

        They’re there as a tripwire. If any of them are killed or wounded during an attack, that could serve as a casus belli.

        • Denis January 6, 2012, 5:50 AM

          You could say the same for the troops in S. Korea.

          But in both of these cases the “trip-wire” is there because of a face-off across a physical line and the US is (was) ostensibly defending against an incursion across that line.

          There is no such line with the Iranians. That’s my point. There is no reason with respect to Iran to put US doggies and Marines in Israel. If they are needed to intimidate Mahmoud, put them in Oman or UAE.

          These US troops/missiles going into Israel are to intimidate or take out Hezbollah. They are for attacking Syria once it begins to crumble.

      • Zhu Bajie January 7, 2012, 3:16 AM

        If China stops buying US debt, they won’t need to send their tiny fleet into the Arabian Sea.

  • Fred Plester January 5, 2012, 7:14 AM

    Not very long ago, some leaders in the UAE were contemplating a canal, supposedly as a form of climatic control.

    A canal of a scale to allow supertankers to by-pass the straits of Hormuz would be a major undertaking, but nothing like as difficult as the Suez Canal, let alone the Panama canal.

    However, surely all that’s needed is an adequate pipeline on the Southern side of the Arabian Gulf, leading from Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE to a suitable port and terminal in Oman, or even on the red Sea side of Saudi Arabia. Iraq could also work with a pipeline through Turkey.

    Civil Engineering might be expensive, but it’s cheap compared to war. There would be environmental benefits, too, if the big ships could be kept out of the Gulf itself.

    If done in conjunction with the construction of the railways which the UAE and Oman intend to build anyway, a pipeline might not even be expensive by Gulf Arab standards.

    • Denis January 6, 2012, 6:07 AM

      Yeah, as I recall, that’s what got Saddam labeled a bogey-man and ultimately hung. Bush I and his oil buddies were demanding a pipe line across Iraq for just this very reason and Saddam told them to stick it.

      A shorter route would be through Syria and Israel and access the Med. Of course US/Israel would have to control Syria to do that. So of course, you’d need US troops to go into Syria, which means you’d want US troops in Israel for when Assad crumbles. And there’s no way Obama is going to put US troops in Israel . . . . it would be too obvious.

      As for Iraq, once al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army gain control of Iraq, we’ll be back to a “stick-it” position and any pipeline talk will go down the gurgler. Then, no doubt, Powell will go back to the UN and tell them the WMD are back.

      But I agree with you, technically it would only be about 600 mi. pipeline to get from the oil w of Baghdad to the Red Sea. Piece of cake.

  • Fred Plester January 5, 2012, 11:45 AM

    We are still years away from China being able to project naval forces to the Arabian Gulf, and even further away from China wanting to.

    China’s concerns are a lot nearer to home.

  • ginger January 5, 2012, 12:43 PM

    Netanyahu and Israel are in effective control of the US military and Congress at this point.

    Israel has coopted the US to such an extent that the US is effectively merely an ARM of Netanyahu and Israel

    If Israel sends us to attack Iran – we’ll salute and go and do it

    Isn’t this just the most amazing historical anomaly that has ever taken place?

  • rfjk January 5, 2012, 12:58 PM

    Any US operation will require massive, amphibious operations to clear the straights and shores of the Persian Gulf of Iranian forces. The US navy and air-force cannot accomplish this without a ground component.

    Nor can naval assets protect shipping or suppress Iranian anti-ship missiles 200 km over the horizon, and would be absolutely useless in supporting amphibious operations that are the key elements in any operational plan neutralizing Iranian threats to the free flow of oil through the gulf.

    Iran has a robust arms industry and technology base manufacturing Russian, Chinese and indigenous armaments. Though not on a par with the US and western defense establishments, it’s believed sufficiently competent and capable to arm, supply and fight the kind of asymmetrical war it plans on fighting in the gulf.

    The caveat here is that Iran does not have to sink or damage one US naval task force to accomplish its mission. All they have to do is stop the flow of oil through the straits for a few weeks or more and the game is theirs.

    • Aonee January 5, 2012, 8:24 PM

      Holding on to the straits of hormus for few weeks is not going to be an easy task. I guess that will hurt Iran more than its enemies.

      Strategically Iran is sandwiched between Afghanistan in the east and Iraq on the west which is huge advantage to US.Nato member turkey’s location in the north can also play a key role if US plans an all out war while Iran’s troops busy holding on to the Southern straits.

      • editorsteve January 5, 2012, 8:50 PM

        Once shipping stops, it will stop for a lot longer than two weeks. No insurer will insure a ship and cargo for a trip anywhere in the Gulf if there is even a hint of continuing hostilities. The other side of the coin is that the West could then widen a war that Iran starts, taking out suspected and known nuclear facilities, for instance, and not risk much more damage to the world economy than would have already taken place.

        • Denis January 6, 2012, 6:26 AM

          Omama is not worried about Iran’s nuke. Iran is 10x more stable than Pakistan or Afghanistan. Probably even more stable than N Korea. Iran is not going to attack Israel (unless it’s a counterattack) and certainly not the US with a nuke. The only reason Iran wants a nuke is deterrence against an Israeli attack. Fair enough.

          Iran’s nuke is just a bogey-man diversion to draw attention away from the real goal: Syria. Getting control of Syria would have huge benefits.

          When Assad crumbles, will Turkey step in against the US/Israel invasion? Hmm. . . they’ve been part of NATO since ’52.

      • Richard Silverstein January 6, 2012, 12:26 AM

        What a delusional fantasy. Turkey, if anything, will side with Iran. As will Iraq. So how will the U.S. leverage this to its advantage?

      • rfjk January 6, 2012, 6:16 AM

        A major factor weighing against a war in the gulf is cost, which will amount to unknown multiples of trillions of dollars on top of the trillions in ‘sunk costs’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and the planned Pentagon reductions.

        The Pentagon is required to find savings by cutting nearly a half/trillion dollars in spending over the next decade. If Congress can’t get its act together on deficit reduction soon, the Pentagon will be required to cut another half/trillion from its budget.

        So, just from a wealth stand point alone the US does not have the fiscal resources to wage a war of choice, anywhere, not even with rubber ducky’s in our bathtubs.

        The department in the Pentagon facing the lions share of these projected reductions is the Army. Besides the continuing war in Afghanistan and global commitments, that branch of the service has nowhere near the combat brigades necessary to attack, consolidate and secure the littoral environment for safe passage of shipping.

        And that’s a mission that can’t be accomplished next year, next month or next week, its a vital objective that must be achieved within days of the commencement of hostilities. It should be painfully obvious to even the dimmest of minds, if they have been paying attention these past 10 years, that only ground forces can accomplish this task, not air or naval power singularly or jointly.

        There are other factors militating against a war of choice in the gulf or anywhere else on the globe. And make no mistake, the global community consensus judges the US as the aggressor and bully, that our sanctions are becoming an embargo, an act of war. We have already defeated ourselves before the first shot fired.

  • editorsteve January 5, 2012, 7:50 PM

    Well, obviously this entire situation was caused by the American side, which has a moral and practical obligation to let the Iranians do what they want! No mention whatsoever in this post of the obvious: Iran has repeatedly and deliberately violated the terms of the NPT agreement it signed.

    And if Iran would risk a clear act of war against the United States or third parties by blocking or attacking ships in international waters using non-nuclear missiles, SURELY they would refrain from using nuclear weapons!

    Somewhere between the idiocy of the Iranians, the Israelis and the US Congress there has to be clear-headed thinking. Sadly, I’m not seeing it here, either.

    I think the Iranians and Obama know what they are doing and know the limits. Neither will cross the line. But they are already too damn close. I think that Israel will do everything it can to push one side or the other over the line, and that the Iranians and the Americans know that, too.

    • StevetheExpert January 6, 2012, 9:49 AM

      One Steve to another,

      Show us a singular piece of proof that Iran has violated the NPT and its black letter.

      • editorsteve January 7, 2012, 7:00 AM

        The news is full of Iran’s NPT treaty violations — not declaring all its facilities, not giving the IAEA timely notice when nuclear material was being moved, and RIGHT NOW FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, not allowing IAEA inspectors into the country!!!

        I emphasize that this does NOT mean Iran is currently developing a bomb. It IS violating the treaty it signed, hence the sanctions.

        But as Denis argues, why bother enforcing international treaties at all? As long as Israel, which never signed the NPT, has nukes, anyone has a bye — they can sign the NPT, get the benefits of civilian nuclear power, and then build a bomb because Israel, or the US, or Russia or whomever also has a bomb! Clearly a great advance for international law, order, and peace.

        • Praxeologist January 7, 2012, 7:52 AM

          Uh , pardon me, but the ” news ” is largely comprised of untruths. Iran is 99.9 % compliant with NPT. You need to do some research that doesn’t involve the ” news”

          • editorsteve January 7, 2012, 9:22 AM

            Justify the “99% compliant” claim. Pardon me if I think it is utter nonsense.

            Also, know that I have (occasionally and not recently) been an IAEA contractor (data work, nothing to do with inspections as such, either). But I know a lot of “normal, technical level” folks there, most not even westerners, and they are uniformly pissed as hell at Iran.

            My complaint about the news stories I see — almost all of them — is that they equate noncompliance with NPT as “must have bomb program.” IAEA has been careful to make no such claim. It is not a claim they could make.

            My complaint about the politics is that the USA and Iranians, left to themselves, know where the line is on things like the strait and know not to cross it. Israel has succeeded in egging on the US Congress and, to less extent, Europeans. Evil, short-sighted, stupid…

        • praxeologist January 7, 2012, 12:43 PM

          You could yourself substantiate my 99 percent in compliance assertion by reading the last six months of “items” in the Race for Iran archive.

          http://www.raceforiran.com/2011/12

          Best regards,

          • editorsteve January 7, 2012, 1:31 PM

            Obviously not an unbiased source (sadly, neither are CNN and the New York Times, I admit), but rather than reading six months, I scanned it in Google for terms like 99, NPT, IAEA, proliferation and found nothing that even remotely would support your claim that 99.9% of press-reported noncompliance is fake.

            I mentioned numerous actual happenings that absolutely support repeated violations of the NPT by Iran. Some are serious (not allowing IAEA inspectors to do their jobs, not declaring facilities) and some are less so (providing less-than-agreed time before moving nuclear material). Nothing you say changes this.

            There is no basis for honest argument when people go out of their way to ignore basic facts. While I regard Iran’s having a current nuclear weapons program as absolutely unproven in the public record, I regard its violations of the treaty it signed as really rather obvious.

        • David January 7, 2012, 3:05 PM

          Israel is now cited as at least part of the basis for the subversion of the NPT. Why should Americans get excited about Iran’s violations when Israel honors no international agreements or understandings? I am reminded that the Israel has repeatedly subverted the very fundamental intent and purpose of the UN in the first place, namely the “unacceptability” of territorial expansion through military means, e.g. 1967.

        • praxeologist January 8, 2012, 7:46 PM

          Here’s another “expert” on the side of “Iran substantially in compliance with NPT”

          at 1:17 of this audio, the interview of Mohammed Sahimi by Scott Horton of antiwar.com begins…..Sahimi is an Iranian living in the U.S. Engineering Professor at U.S.C. Lest it be thought he’s a supporter of the Iranian government, two of his family were murdered by the current regime….he doesn’t like them…..but he’s pro-truth, and antiwar.

          archive.kpfk.org/mp3/kpfk_120106_183010antiwar.mp3

          • editorsteve January 8, 2012, 8:54 PM

            I agree with almost everything Sahimi says — that there is no public evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program after 2003. I’ve said the same thing, repeatedly. In fact, I’ve said it in this response string. But the interview spends almost no time on NPT violation issues, of which there have been many.

            Curiously, the interview (on Pacifica Radio two days ago) does not get into the hottest inspection issue right now. There have been no inspectors in Iran for most of 2011. Back in October, Iran said loudly “they can come in again,” but said softly “but we won’t let them go to all the facilities on their list.” IAEA rejected that. On Dec 21, Iran sounded more conciliatory/flexible but still would not allow inspectors in to see all the facilities on the IAEA list.

            I know (from open sources) that IAEA is spending some time/money getting ready for new inspections, so I assume there is some movement on that front, which is part of why I’m optimistic about a backdown on blockades and sanctions by the end of the month.

            Bottom line: Nothing Sahimi (who is a very sharp chemical engineer, BTW) says would support the statement that Iran has been 99.9% compliant with the NPT.

  • Calig January 5, 2012, 9:19 PM

    Geez how lond has this dog and pony show being going on? Is no one else getting tired of it?

    • praxeologist January 5, 2012, 10:09 PM

      I’m getting tired of it…..let’s elect Ron Paul….he will, I”m sure, immediately begin negotiating with the Iranian government to defuse the tensions, and he will do so in a way that makes clear to the Government of Israel to stay out of it or risk the consequences (no more $ or arms).

      OK, so electing Ron Paul is easier said than done, but he’s really the only hope for peace in the short run, so let’s get on with it.

  • David January 5, 2012, 11:08 PM

    It defies imagination: US troops will take the place of IDF troops on the Israeli “front” with Iran? American troops, American cannon fodder, to serve Netanyahu’s regime? Wow! Can the Americans really swallow this? Maybe this is the breaking point for support for Israel?

    Unfortunately, the San Diego Union Tribune did not even report the deployment of American troops and AP simply refers to “missile exercises.” So, Americans just aren’t going to get the story.

    • Richard Silverstein January 6, 2012, 12:24 AM

      It IS a military exercise. But the original story to which I linked called it a “deployment” which is a longer term military assignment. Until we can see exactly what the U.S. has planned we should wait & see before assuming U.S. troops are actually going to be stationed in Israel longer-term.

      • David January 8, 2012, 12:01 PM

        The print I saw, RT Question More, quotes the JP as quoting US Commander Lt.-Gen Gorenc “as saying the drill is not an “exercise” but also a “deployment” that will involve “several thousand American soldiers”…” So it is a deployment and not the exercise that AP reports.

  • StevetheExpert January 6, 2012, 9:51 AM

    I don’t think anyone cares about the consequences. The plan is: start the war – mitigate later – count the cash and steal whatever’s left during the fog of war – grab more land. Israel needs America like a parasite needs a specific human: it doesn’t. There are other cash cows to suck on. They’ve already started. Who did Israel sell Jonathon Pollard’s and other secrets to?

  • k_w January 7, 2012, 5:14 PM

    The Iranians did close the SoH for a few days recently when they announced their missile tests. They simply have to announce over and over again. No one can pay the insurance premium for an oil tanker resulting from these threats while the Iranians can still ship their oil though the Strait. And the US and Israel will have to allow for this shipment. Otherwise there would be no oil from the SoH at all.

    Secondly, a “counter” attack on Iranian towns or nuclear centres is no option. They have upgraded their medium-range missiles with GPS. You hit mine, I’ll hit yours …

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