Middle East

Is a US-Iran maritime clash inevitable?

Iranian naval exercise
Image caption Iran has been conducting exercises in the Strait of Hormuz

In 1988, US warships clashed with Iranian forces in the Gulf. As a war of words now escalates, is there a danger that history will repeat itself?

Operation Praying Mantis is today little more than a footnote in US naval history.

But the clash between US warships and aircraft and Iranian forces in the Gulf in April 1988 could be a foretaste of the potentially larger naval clash that may be threatening as tensions in the region grow.

Back in the late 1980s, Iran and Iraq were at war. The conflict spilled over into the Gulf with the Iranians targeting shipping from countries that they believed were supporting Iraq.

In March 1987, President Ronald Reagan agreed to the re-flagging of a number of Kuwaiti tankers. Operating under US colours they would be able to be protected by US warships.

A few weeks later, one of the reflagged tankers hit an Iranian mine. A series of sporadic skirmishes ensued, culminating in April 1988 when a US warship - the USS Samuel B Roberts - was also struck by an Iranian mine and was badly damaged.

It was this incident that prompted Operation Praying Mantis. This involved US special forces, aircraft and warships. The aim was to teach the Iranians a lesson.

Two offshore oil platforms used to coordinate Iranian operations were destroyed while two of its warships sunk and another was badly damaged.

The conclusion was clear - Iran's conventional naval forces were no match for US sea power in a straight fight.

Simon Henderson, an expert on the Gulf based at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that if there is to be another naval clash, "I suspect that Iran will make sure that its larger naval vessels are safe in port.

"Of course", he added, "the question then arises whether the vessels would really be safe there."

Much has changed in naval terms since the 1980s. Michael Connell, an Iran analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, does not think the clashes of the 1980s are necessarily an indication of how any current conflict might play out.

"I don't think they are an accurate predictor for two reasons," he said.

"First, Iranian capabilities, especially asymmetric capabilities, have improved considerably since the 1980s. Second, the conflict during the tanker wars was limited in scope. It is unlikely that a naval conflict today between Iran and the US/coalition would remain limited."

"Asymmetric" warfare is a term we use a lot today. It essentially refers to the way a weaker adversary can attempt to counter a much stronger military player by adopting a variety of tactics and weapons systems to create an alternative to a simple ship-for-ship or plane-for-plane contest.

Iran - and especially the naval elements of its Revolutionary Guard Corps - has sought to build a new style of naval force based largely upon swarms of fast, small patrol boats and speed boats, backed up by a variety of craft capable of laying mines. These are supported by shore-based anti-shipping missiles, rockets and artillery.

So how threatening is this new kind of Iranian asymmetric force?

Mr Connell said: "It is difficult to say, because their capabilities have never been tested. That being said, they have acquired all of the right 'ingredients' for an asymmetric force and they practise and drill on a regular basis.

"To make a long story short, I don't think we can be entirely dismissive of their capabilities.

"The US Navy should be concerned. On their own, any one of the Iranian tactics (swarms, mines, etc) is not likely to be that effective."

However, Mr Connell added, it is important to bear in mind that the Iranians will probably be employing all of these tactics concurrently in a layered defence.

Image caption Iran has briefed the media about its recent exercises

"US or coalition vessels will be dealing with swarms of small craft, incoming, mines, and mini-subs, all at once in a confined operating space.

"In order to remove the mines, the US would first have to remove the other threats, a laborious process of attrition that could result in casualties on the US side."

"In a toe-to-toe conflict, the US Navy and its coalition allies will ultimately prevail. But it will take some time. The price of oil will skyrocket and the Iranians might score a lucky hit or two."

Simon Henderson is more sceptical about Iran's naval capabilities.

"These tactics are probably over-rated," he said. "The US Navy has been preparing for the next confrontation with Iran for years - and has no intention of losing it."

He is also sceptical that this would be a long drawn-out conflict.

"If there is a clash, the US will likely go in for over-kill so the chances of sporadic further clashes are very small."

Overall though, most experts I spoke to were uncertain that Iran, despite all the rhetoric, would seek to try to close the Strait of Hormuz in the current circumstances.

This, said Michael Connell, "would be to commit economic suicide". The most likely outcome, he said, is "more bluster".

Nevertheless, as the war of words escalates, the danger of a maritime clash remains all too real.

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