WASHINGTON – Iran is reacting badly to the announcement that Europe is planning to send a multinational naval force to protect shipping passing through the Strait of Hormuz. “We heard that they intend to send a European fleet to the Persian Gulf which naturally carries a hostile message, is provocative and will increase tensions,” said a Tehran spokesman.
In combination, the Europeans’ welcome decision to increase the warship count and the Iranian response are likely to increase the chances of a military miscalculation that provokes a shooting war.
The strategic backdrop, of course, is the U.S.-Iranian conflict that is being played out in the aftermath of the U.S. pullout from the 2015 nuclear agreement and its levying of harsh economic sanctions on Iran. In response, the Iranians are trying to show the world that they control the Strait of Hormuz and can close it if they choose, thus causing significant disruption to the global economy.
This disruption strategy is somewhat akin to a protection racket: “That’s a nice naval strait you’ve got there, and it would be a shame if something were to happen to it.” The Iranians are striking Saudi oil assets, shooting down U.S. drones, affixing mines to ships and, most recently, seizing a British tanker. So far, the Western response has been strong — Washington is tightening sanctions and now the Europeans (not including, alas, Germany) are literally getting on board with the United States. So what happens next? What are the Western allies’ options to defuse the crisis but still keep up the pressure to modify Iran’s bad behavior?
It seems clear the Iranians have little inclination or motivation to back down. They will probably increase the aggression toward merchant shipping, either putting mines in the Strait of Hormuz (which they did as part of the so-called “tanker wars” in the 1980s) or actually sinking a ship, probably surreptitiously using a diesel submarine. They could also widen the conflict “horizontally” by unleashing their surrogate terrorist organization in Lebanon, Hezbollah, against Israel, or having its Afghan spinoff, Liwa Fatemiyoun, carry out attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
If Iran takes such a reckless course, the West will likely respond militarily. Certainly the international escort mission will be ramped up in size and intensity. The U.S. part of it — which will be called Operational Sentinel — will include significant intelligence, logistics, and command and control support. Based on my own decades of experience in the Gulf, including commanding the Enterprise carrier strike group during the Iraq invasion in 2003, I am certain that the U.S. Central Command’s operational plans will give the president plenty of options.
These likely include sweeping mines; sinking Iranian warships, which the U.S. did as part of the “Praying Mantis” operation in the late 1980s; striking Iranian land-based air defenses; and conducting an offensive cyberoperation against Iranian military assets, and possibly even the nation’s civilian electric grid at the point where it supports the military infrastructure.
Can the U.S. and its allies avoid a shooting war? Maybe. The incentives ultimately drive each party toward the bargaining table. The U.S. will demand real modifications in Iranian behavior: Stopping their proxy wars in Yemen and Syria; ending support for Hezbollah’s aggression toward Israel; paring down its ballistic missile program; and, above all, a longer-term nuclear agreement. The Iranians will want the sanctions lifted, access to international capital and guarantees against any attempt at regime change by the U.S. The sides are far apart, to say the least.
Tactically speaking, look for things in the Gulf to get worse before they gets better. But over time, it’s not in anyone’s interest to stumble into a war — certainly not for Trump with the 2020 election looming. There is room for a deal, but the odds of miscalculation continue to rise.
James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.