Iran’s seaborne forces have got western governments worried. In the past fortnight the US and the UK have been fervidly trying to form a naval coalition to protect commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf against this relatively weak country, but it has yet to materialise. How on earth does Iran manage to make life so difficult for countries with powerful armed forces that they simply cannot get their act together?
One reason is that the western powers do not agree on how to deal with Iran. For another, though, you have to go back over thirty years and recall an incident that may be long forgotten in the West but remains fresh in the minds of the Iranian military, especially the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In the closing years of the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War, both sides attacked merchant ships in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Iraq was responsible for most of them, 283 in all, with 173 due to Iran. Despite this – and although it was Iraq that had started the war by invading Iran immediately after the 1979 revolution – by the closing stages of the conflict the US had sided with Saddam Hussein. By early 1988 US support was so secure that Iraq even felt able to make considerable use of chemical warfare, most notoriously against the Kurdish town of Halabja when around 5,000 civilians died. Washington made little criticism of the attack.
Shortly after this the US blamed Iran for the mining of a US Navy warship in the Gulf and responded forcefully, as recalled in a recent Oxford Research Group briefing:
Just over thirty years ago, on 14 April 1988, the US Navy frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine reportedly laid by Iran, injuring ten crew and seriously damaging the ship. The United States responded with an intensive one-day attack on Iranian naval vessels, Operation Praying Mantis, which sank the Iranian frigate Sahand, killing 45 of its crew of 125, [and] the fast attack craft Joshan, killing 11 of its crew of 40, and [damaged] a second frigate, the Sabalan.
At the time the frigates Sahand and Sabalan were two of just three modern warships in the Iranian navy, all, incidentally, built in the UK by Vosper. The sinking of one and the damage to the other was a severe loss. For Iran it was a powerful lesson that a strong modern force such as the US Navy could act with near impunity if it wanted.
David and Goliath
Over the following 25 years, the Revolutionary Guards devised ways to partly negate the power of western navies by exploiting advantages that the confined and mostly shallow waters of the Persian Gulf offer.
They developed and built numerous fast attack craft, some of them very small, that could operate from small bases along the extensive Iranian coastline on the north-east of the Gulf. Other tactics included the development of mini-submarines that were quiet and difficult to detect, as well as shore-based anti-ship missiles mounted on mobile launchers.
Many of the smaller attack craft are little more than powerful speedboats, often based on the Swedish Boghammar design of the mid-1980s. Ironically the design owes its origins to the work of an award-winning American ship designer, Don Aronow, back in the 1960s.
Other acquisitions include speedboats bought on the open market, including the award-winning Bradstone Challenger from the UK, which in 2005 broke the world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the British Isles in just over 27 hours, at an average speed of 55 knots (63mph).
The Revolutionary Guards have built up a force of some hundreds of such attack craft, many with a crew of just three yet armed with machine guns and grenade launchers. Operating in large swarms these boats can present a difficult problem for any merchant ship. Even well-armed warships can find them difficult to counter.
These tactics can be effective without a formal declaration of war. It may not be necessary to even stage an attack: just a substantial series of harrying manoeuvres can deter ships’ crews and owners from operating in the region.
Crews, owners and naval commanders also know, however, that at any time a manoeuvre could become an actual attack, even a suicide mission against a warship. Here again, historical experience counts. Back in 2000, the US destroyer USS Cole was at anchor in Aden harbour, Yemen, when it was attacked by two suicide bombers in a speedboat. Seventeen crew were killed, 39 injured and the ship severely damaged.
Nevertheless, the US still has much more powerful conventional naval forces and hopes to supplement them with international allies to protect merchant shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. On 25 July US Central Command hosted a fifty-nation meeting in Tampa, Florida, trying to develop its Operation Sentinel coalition. This is a major plan to guard not just the Strait of Hormuz at the south-east entrance to the Gulf, but also the Bab al-Manab Strait between Yemen and the Horn of Africa at the southern end of the Red Sea.
That still seems a work in progress. The US has one firm friend, however: the UK, although its Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence are still jittery following a comment by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, last week that it was up to individual states to look after their shipping interests. British officials are reported to have been in their own discussions with Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Oman. They also invited US, French and other European military to a meeting in Bahrain this week.
While all this is going on Royal Navy does its best to coordinate the movement of UK-registered ships through the Strait of Hormuz through the UK Maritime Trade Operations office in Dubai. Such ships now go through in convoy accompanied by a British warship.
Why are other countries reluctant to get involved in protecting merchant ships? The basic reason is straightforward. Whatever the popular press in Europe says, foreign ministries and political leaders know full well that this whole crisis erupted over a year ago when President Trump ditched the eight-state nuclear deal to limit Iran’s nuclear industry and started imposing harsh financial and trade sanctions on Iran. There is no disguising that and for some leaders it presents a problem. In Germany, for example, Angela Merkel’s Social Democrat coalition partners represent a powerful public mood that is very wary of any involvement in a Trump policy.
The transatlantic division is therefore one explanation of the West’s inability to secure Gulf shipping routes, with Brexit-fixated Britain stuck in the middle. But Just as the Iranians remember Operation Praying Mantis 31 years ago, so the US Navy is all too aware of the USS Cole’s fate over a decade later. Whatever President Trump and his hawkish advisors think, their decision to ditch the Iran nuclear deal has opened up a can of worms that will now be very difficult to close again.