Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) launched a major naval exercise in the Persian Gulf on August 1, 2018, just days before the US imposes new sanctions on Tehran.
More than 100 vessels of the IRGC, many of them small, fast-moving vessels, Iranian air and ground forces, and coastal defensive missile batteries are involved in the exercise, taking place next to the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The timing of the exercise is unusual, as it appears to be similar in scale and nature to an annual drill that ordinarily happens later in the fall.
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most important waterways worldwide links the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea and is the only maritime route for Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.
Hormuz Strait is the maritime corridor linking Middle East crude oil producers with major markets in Asia, the Pacific, Europe, North America and others. With an oil tanker passing every six minutes during peak hours, the strait is a route through which 40 percent of world's sea-transported oil travels.
On July 3rd, at a press conference in Switzerland, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reacted to US pledges to stop Tehran’s oil exports. “It doesn’t make sense for Iran’s oil not to be exported while the region is exporting its oil. If you could, do so and face the results,” he said.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backed President Hassan Rouhani’s suggestion that Iran may block Gulf oil exports if its own exports are stopped.
IRGC Commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, also praised Rouhani for standing up to the American threat of cutting off Iran's oil supply as part of a new sanctions regime.
The Iranian Naval Forces
Iran has two independent naval forces with parallel chains of command. The conventional navy is called the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN). The second is the naval wing of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGCN). The two navies have overlapping functions and areas of responsibility, but they are distinct in terms of how they are trained and equipped, and more importantly also in how they fight.
Iranian naval doctrine has been geared to asymmetrical warfare against the US or any other advance naval power. Iran will combine swarming attacks of fast boats, mine-laying operations, and shore-launched missiles to try to damage or destroy as many US ships as possible. It seeks to harass and potentially cause enough casualties to compel a withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and northern Indian Ocean, where Iran seeks to be the predominant influence.
The IRGC, responsible for the costal defense of Iran in the Persian Gulf, has developed a variety of small attack craft based on commercial boats. The speedboat has been a central component to Iran’s naval strategy. Iran has reorganized its naval forces to give operational control of the strategic Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz to the IRGCN.
The international response
US Defense Secretary James Mattis said that “Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. Clearly, this would be an attack on international shipping, and it would have, obviously, an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever that took, because of the world's economy depends on that energy, those energy supplies flowing out of there.”
Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations in the US Navy, said that the United States is closely watching Iranian naval exercises in the Persian Gulf and will maintain freedom of navigation through a strategic waterway that Iran has threatened to block. Should Iran try to cut off the free-trade route, Richardson said, the US Navy and its allies operating in the region will “be able to handle that threat.”
Kuwait’s Minister of Oil and Minister of Electricity and Water Bakheet al -Rashidi said that the GCC member states have prepared emergency plans to ensure the flow of its oil in case Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have been rising since May 2018, when US President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing from the nuclear deal signed by Tehran and major world powers to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Iran’s oil exports could fall by as much as two-thirds by the end of the year because of new US sanctions, putting oil markets under huge strain amid supply outages elsewhere in the world. Washington initially planned to totally shut Iran out of global oil markets after Trump abandoned the deal that limited Iran’s nuclear ambitions, demanding all other countries to stop buying its crude by November 2018. But it has since somewhat eased its stance, saying that it may grant sanction waivers to some allies that are particularly reliant on Iranian supplies.
The exercise, which aims to demonstrate Iran's ability to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, comes as rhetoric from the IRGC towards the US has accelerated in recent days.
Any attempt by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz will elicit a military response by the United States. Based on this scenario Iranian politicians and military commanders hope to deter the US from pursuing crushing oil-related sanctions by evoking the possibility of war following from Iran’s closure of the Strait.