Iran Strikes First

Iran Strikes First with a Methodical Attack

Tehran has a healthy respect for the U.S. military, particularly its air and naval capabilities. This respect stems from the decisive U.S. victory in Operation Praying Mantis during the Tanker War. In 1988, Tehran drastically underestimated the U.S. Navy and lost half of its naval assets in a matter of hours.[i] Since then, Iran has tended to back down from direct military confrontation with U.S. forces. In spite of this prudence, it is not unreasonable to imagine a scenario where Iran might initiate a methodical first strike on commercial shipping, especially using asymmetric warfare techniques.[ii] This kind of scenario might be more likely if shifts in Iranian internal politics united Iran behind more fundamentalist leaders, replacing the current balance of power between pragmatists and revolutionaries and between the religious and political power centers.

New, more radical Iranian leadership could implement a methodically planned attack. For example, Iranian forces could lay a large, well-designed mine field in the Strait using submarines to quietly lay a few mines at a time with time-delayed activation. Such a carefully prepared attack, especially if followed up with well-practiced attacks using anti-ship cruise missiles and small boat suicide attacks, would probably create the biggest disruption. On the other hand, once Iran put the first mine in the water set for activation on a timer, Iran would have committed itself to a conflict, regardless of later diplomatic or political developments. Leaders rarely tie their hands in such a dramatic way, at least for the extended period of time that Iranian submarines would need to lay a very large minefield.

Iran Strikes First with a Rushed Attack

In Response to Sanctions

Since the Bush administration took office, Iran has faced increased international scrutiny concerning the objectives of its nuclear programs. The United Nations Security Council has imposed a series of economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran, demanding greater transparency and more rigorous inspections of its nuclear installations. Iran could try to use military leverage over the Strait of Hormuz as part of its strategy to respond to tightening sanctions.

Analysts often consider tit-for-tat retaliation against sanctions: the U.S. (or UN) is hurting Iran's economy, and at some point, the Iranians may decide they want to try to relieve that pressure by hurting the U.S. (or global) economy. But Iran earns most of its income from its oil exports, so instead of sanctioning the U.S. (and the world) with an oil embargo, Iran might prefer to try to keep selling its own oil but to take a few shots at other oil exporters' tankers as they pass through the Strait of Hormuz " perhaps with an isolated missile attack on one ship in the Gulf or a quick deployment of a few mines to cause alarm in the shipping community. Alternatively, Iran could use military activity in the Strait to create a quick crisis to pressure the international community to negotiate an end to the sanctions. But it is difficult to modulate the intensity of military attacks, and this military "signaling" might easily escalate to uncontrolled warfare in the Strait of Hormuz.

IRCG Entrepreneurship

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) functions as an independent source of power within the Iranian government structure. IRGC members are recruited based on their religious and nationalist ideology and then trained in Islamic and Iranian ideological thought.[iii] The IRGC military forces are a sometimes-uneasy combination of elite, "special forces" units with highly ideological cadres. Some IRGC members might come to believe that aggression against U.S. or Western targets in the Gulf region would be rewarded, either by promotion within the IRGC's ideological leadership or by the Iranian political or religious regime leadership.

If an IRGC leader or some group of IRGC members took an opportunity to demonstrate their ideological fervor by harassing or attacking commercial traffic or a U.S. military vessel in the Gulf, it's plausible that the regime would take responsibility for the incident. Tehran might fear that denying responsibility for such an attack could be perceived as a signal of regime weakness or lack of command and control. Even soft-line regime elements might be forced to "rally around the flag" in such a crisis.

It is hard to Americans to know exactly why Iranian forces do what they do, but this sort of IRGC entrepreneurship is one plausible explanation for several recent incidents. On March 23, 2007, after IRGC craft seized 15 members of the British Royal Navy and Marine Corps, Tehran took responsibility for the incident. The Iranian government claimed that the sailors were arrested for entering Iranian territorial waters, but the sailors were soon released unharmed without further explanation from Tehran.[iv] Similarly, IRGC speedboats swarmed a U.S. naval ship in the Persian Gulf in January, 2008.[v] While these events received a good deal of media attention, this type of confrontation is not unusual in the Persian Gulf. It is reasonable to imagine that Tehran does not direct or oversee all interaction between Iranian and U.S. forces in the region.

[i] "Nine Hours that sank Iran's Navy: The Gulf," The London Times. April 24, 1988.

[ii] Interview with Kenneth Pollack, Austin, TX, March 20, 2008.

[iii] Mehdi Moslem, Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2002).

[iv] Sarah Lyall, "Iranians, Alleging "╦ťAgression,' Seize 15 Britons on Naval Patrol in the Waters off Iraq," New York Times (March 23, 2007).

[v] Thomas Shanker and Brian Knowlton, "Iranian Boat Confronts U.S. in Persian Gulf," New York Times (January 8, 2008).

This page last modified in August 2008