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The Gate of Tears: Interests, Options, and Strategy in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait

By Jimmy Drennan

Introduction

Some were surprised by the news that four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger and may have even wondered “why do we have troops in Africa?” Some also agree with the recent bipartisan call from Congress to end U.S. military support to the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. In this context, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, the narrow waterway between the Arabian Peninsula and northeast Africa, might sound inconsequential, but is in fact critical to U.S. national security interests.

Arabic for “the Gate of Tears,” the strait could not be more appropriately named. Situated at the center of the some of the world’s most critical humanitarian disasters and economic issues, it is a decisive point for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the global economy more broadly. To the north lies Yemen, a failed state where 17 million people face starvation, over a million people are stricken with cholera while thousands have died from the disease, a diphtheria outbreak has emerged, and multiple regional actors and terrorist networks vie for power in a bloody conflict that has claimed over 5,000 civilian lives in three years.

To the south lies Africa where fragile states like Somalia battle famine and Islamic militant groups. Atrocities abound at sea as well. Refugees cross the Bab-el-Mandeb to the north and south because both sides seem to be the better alternative. In March 2017, 42 refugees fleeing from Yemen to Sudan were shot and killed by an attack helicopter, which apparently mistook them for militants.1 In August 2017, smugglers threw over 300 Somali refugees into the water near the Yemeni coast, drowning up to 70, in the span of 24 hours after reportedly sighting authority figures on shore.Just last week, 30 African refugees drowned en route from Aden to Djibouti, after their boat capsized amid gunfire from smugglers.

Meanwhile, the Bab-el-Mandeb serves as a critical artery for the global economy. 52 vessels and 4 million barrels of oil transit the strait per day, making it the fourth busiest waterway in the world, and the only one surrounded by chaos. In the last year, two merchant vessels and five naval ships have been attacked with cruise missiles, explosive boats, and small arms in the southern Red Sea, while the very real threat of mines exists lurking in the water.

Yemeni and Somali civil wars, humanitarian disaster, and the economic importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb form a complex dynamic in which to develop U.S. foreign policy. The key for policymakers is to determine what U.S. national interests are at stake and what actions must be taken to protect them. After careful consideration of the issues surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb, it becomes clear that the U.S. can ill afford to do nothing. On the other hand, it may also be unaffordable to secure U.S. interests by leading multilateral stabilization efforts via intervention within Yemen and Somalia. Fortunately, a third alternative is available via American seapower. Applying maritime influence to enable other elements of national power can contain threats to national security and the global economy, while providing a path to mitigate human suffering in the long term.

U.S. National Interests and the Strategic Calculus

The debate over U.S. national interests will not be settled here, but for simplicity’s sake and the purpose of meaningful analysis, the following definitions from the July 2000 Commission on America’s National Interests will be used:3

  • Vital – Vital national interests are conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance Americans’ survival and well-being in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment).”
  • Extremely Important – Extremely important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would severely prejudice but not strictly imperil the ability of the U.S. government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “Prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in important regions, especially the Persian Gulf.”
  • Important – Important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would have major negative consequences for the ability of the U.S. government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “discourage massive human rights violations in foreign countries.”

Due to the importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to the global and, consequently, U.S. economies, the U.S. has a vital national interest in maintaining the free flow of commerce through the Strait. Even if the U.S. did not depend on the 1.5 billion barrels of oil (currently $98B) annually that flow through the Strait, allies in Europe would certainly feel the economic impact if shipping companies re-routed their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope in the event of crisis or conflict. Inflated maritime insurance rates and an additional 10 days transit time from the Middle East to the U.S. would have considerable worldwide ripple effects to which the U.S. economy would not be immune. Moreover, as one of two primary sea lines of communication to the CENTCOM AOR, the U.S. also has a military interest in maintaining freedom of navigation through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. In October 2016, the U.S. was forced to respond with Tomahawk missile strikes into western Yemen when the USS Mason came under anti-ship missile fire from the Yemeni coast. Further attacks would increase risk and necessitate additional escorts for Bab-el-Mandeb Strait transits.

Conversely, the U.S. has no vital national interest in broader involvement in the armed conflicts in Yemen and Somalia; however, its interests are clearly impacted by the growing threat emanating from Yemen. In western Yemen, Saudi Arabia along with eight other regional allies, are fighting a brutal war against separatist Houthi rebels who aim to establish an anti-Western Shia government in Yemen. In December 2017, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley provided material evidence to the international community that Iran provides missiles and advanced weaponry to the Houthis, enabling them to target vessels transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and strategic locations inside Saudi Arabia, threatening the U.S. national interest in free flow of commerce and advancing its own interest in promoting its regional hegemony.4,5 In January 2018, the Houthis threatened to close the Red Sea to international shipping if the Saudi-led Coalition continued its advance toward Hudaydah, a strategically important Houthi-held port critical to the flow of humanitarian aid. If the Houthi threat is credible, Iranian-aligned forces could now threaten another vital maritime chokepoint, in addition to the Strait of Hormuz which Iran has often threatened to close. Growing Houthi influence and capabilities in Yemen also impose costs and shift the balance of power in relation to Iran’s regional opponents, primarily Saudi Arabia, and allows Tehran to expand its influence elsewhere. Saudi Arabia may have felt compelled to intervene in Yemen’s civil war as the tide shifted in favor of the Houthis because the prospect of bordering an Iranian-aligned state would prove strategically disadvantageous.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley briefs the media in front of remains of Iranian “Qiam” ballistic missile provided by Pentagon at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2017. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

In eastern Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS-Yemen maintain presence, despite UAE-led counterterrorism operations, due to lack of effective governance and internal security. Despite pressure from the West, AQAP remains a threat to the U.S. homeland, and the prominence of ISIS-Yemen continues to grow as the extremist caliphate is gradually eliminated in Iraq and Syria. Without a doubt, the U.S. has a vital national interest in supporting its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners in their counterterrorism efforts and in defense of their borders, but it does not benefit from becoming directly entangled in the fight.

Similarly, Somalia provides a safe haven for terrorists who would do harm to U.S. interests at home and abroad. Fighting rages on between the Federal Government of Somalia, which was only recently established after two decades of near-anarchy, and the Al-Qaeda aligned militant group Al Shabaab, while the civilian population suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, criminals continue to recruit disenfranchised young men, desperate and angry with perceived (and sometimes real) illegal fishing in Somali territorial waters, to become pirates. Still, even though Somalia is a hallmark of instability in the region and a safe haven for terrorist organizations, the U.S. has no vital national interest in establishing security and governance in the African country. From Vietnam, to Somalia itself in the 1990s, America has learned through experience the high cost of entering into regional and internal armed conflicts in proxy pursuit of national interests. Becoming directly entangled in the conflicts surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb is counter to U.S. national interests, but so is ignoring them. U.S. vital national interests in Somalia and in Yemen are limited to ensuring instability is contained within territorial borders so that the free flow of commerce is maintained, attacks against the homeland and assets abroad are prevented, and American influence in the region is sustained.

In Pursuit of National Interests

Considering U.S. vital national interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb and surrounding territories – maintaining the free flow of commerce, preventing attacks against the homeland and assets abroad, and sustaining American and allied influence in the region – the challenge arises when deciding how to apply the instruments of national power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) to secure those interests. The U.S. could secure its interests by:

1) Leading a large-scale multilateral stabilization effort for Yemen and Somalia

2) Containing threats to national interests via maritime influence; or

3) Taking no action (Isolationism)

Option 1: U.S.-led Stabilization Effort

Bringing all instruments of national power to bear on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by leading multilateral stabilization efforts in Yemen and Somalia is a thorough, long-term approach to securing U.S. national interests; however, it would come at significant cost. Securing national interests via stabilization could involve, in varying degrees: state building, military intervention, occupation, and inevitably comparisons to “neo-imperialism” and “adventurism.” In theory, these activities could give rise to effective governance, which would serve to eliminate the threats to U.S. national interests spilling out of Yemeni and Somali borders. The governments, in this case the Federal Government of Somalia and Republic of Yemen Government, ideally would be able to aid in securing the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, stamp out terrorist safe havens, and provide adequate food and medical care to their populations, all while acting in alignment with U.S. foreign policy objectives.            

The trouble is that stabilization has rarely turned out the way the U.S. intended. The most striking examples are Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. remains after intervening to eliminate threats to the homeland and the region. Supporting Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s or the present-day Syrian Opposition are two examples where the U.S. applied pressure indirectly with less than desirable results. Meanwhile, it’s been 25 years since the U.S. first led a UN coalition into Somalia, tasked with stabilizing the war-torn country whose central government had collapsed. Clearly, stabilization efforts are no sure thing. Even when stabilization is successful, the cost is immense. Following World War II, in addition to the over $14B ($140B in today’s dollars) given in aid to Germany and Japan for economic recovery, the U.S. maintained a significant military presence to help stabilize those countries.6,7 It is reasonable to assume that a concerted effort to stabilize Yemen and Somalia would lead to indefinite military presence in those countries as well. Fortunately, there is an alternative to stabilization for securing U.S. national interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb region: maritime influence.              

Option 2: Containing Threats to Yemen and Somalia – Maritime Influence

Rather than directly stabilizing Yemen and Somalia, the U.S. can ensure the free flow of commerce and secure its foreign policy objectives in the region by exerting maritime influence and projecting its power landward. Through a combination of naval operations, international cooperation, and engagement with industry, the U.S. can mitigate the risk to commercial and friendly naval vessels transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, albeit not without the presence of forces as a credible deterrent to would-be attackers. Securing the critical waterway can help secure U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region by eliminating maritime attacks as an option for belligerents in internal conflicts and forcing their attention inward, but airstrikes or other direct action may be required to drive home the point that the Bab-el-Mandeb is “out of bounds” and the consequences for attacking neutral parties are severe. Ultimately U.S. maritime influence could contribute to international pressure to peacefully end the Yemeni Civil War, and fortify the fragile Somali government. Meanwhile, maritime assets could act as seabases for forces providing humanitarian aid or conducting raids on terrorist networks. The agility the Navy provides – in the form of hospital ships, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, various surface combatants and patrol craft, sealift and logistics ships, landing craft, helicopters, and other aircraft – has been on display in disaster relief efforts such as the Indonesia tsunami in 2004 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010. These same assets can be used to support counterterrorism efforts as expeditionary mobile bases, allowing special forces to conduct short-duration operations with minimal footprint on land. Lastly, interdiction of lethal aid flowing into Yemen, enabled by UN Security Council Resolutions, would be a key element of maritime influence.

A handout photo from the Australian Defence Force shows what they say are weapons seized from a fishing vessel which was boarded off the coast of Oman, March 2, 2016. An Australian Navy ship seized a huge cache of weapons near Oman’s coast from the fishing vessel bound for Somalia, the navy said on March 8, 2016, exposing a possible violation of a U.N. Security Council arms embargo. Picture taken March 2, 2016. (Reuters/ABIS Sarah Ebsworth/Australian Defence Force/Handout via Reuters)

International maritime operations are already underway in the region that the U.S. could leverage to build a maritime influence strategy. U.S., allied, and other international navies, such as China, Russia, and Iran, maintain presence in the Gulf of Aden. These navies already work with organizations such as the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and U.K. Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) to advise industry of potential threats to shipping. The key to success of a maritime influence strategy will be cooperation of these international navies, especially since the U.S. cannot afford to take on this security burden alone. The U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) offers a viable model for bringing to together naval forces of 32 countries, some of whom would not normally form military partnerships with each other, to provide maritime security in the Middle East. Mutual participation of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, although seemingly unlikely, should be a goal for U.S. policymakers, as this could set the stage for dialogue to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Additionally, contrary to conventional U.S. foreign policy, U.S. leaders should consider recognizing Iran for their contribution to international counter-piracy efforts off Somalia, while holding Saudi Arabia accountable for their role in contributing to the devastating humanitarian conditions in Yemen. 

The international campaign to combat the Somalia piracy epidemic in the early 2000s provides an ideal example of how maritime influence has been proven to effectively eliminate threats at sea. From 2005 to 2012, pirates attacked nearly 700 ships in the Somali basin, and collected $400M in ransom payments. Over that time, the international community gradually came together to address the problem. The U.S. established a multinational maritime coalition to counter piracy threats, and participated in EU and NATO task forces as well. As many as 20 international warships patrolled the waters around the Horn of Africa at any given time. Simultaneously, the U.S. coordinated with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to establish a set of industry best practices, the latest of which, Best Management Practices, Rev. 4 (BMP4), officially endorsed unarmed embarked security teams.[8] Other maritime influence efforts included establishing an internationally recognized transit corridor, real-time vessel tracking and communication with maritime agencies, and development of mechanisms for transfer of detained pirates to cooperative local governments. This international effort to push piracy back to land was effective – pirates did not successfully hijack a single vessel in the Somali Basin from 2013 to 2016. It is important to note, however, that piracy will remain a threat until it becomes cost prohibitive. Criminals still take advantage of poverty and conflict in Somalia to recruit disenfranchised young men. In 2017, a series of six attacks raised concerns that the piracy epidemic had returned. Instead, it turned out that industry had become lax in applying best practices and about half as many warships patrol the area as in 2012. Not coincidentally, NATO concluded its counter-piracy operation in December 2016. Pirates seemingly sensed an opportunity. Fortunately, no ransoms were paid and the international community once again applied maritime influence to beat back the piracy threat.

Maritime influence was effective in pushing piracy back to shore, and it essentially removed piracy as an option for financial gain in Somalia. In fact, judging from the improvements in Somalia over the last decade, from growing GDP and livestock exports and a democratic presidential election in 2017, one could argue that maritime influence contributed to better conditions on land. Still, the root conditions in Somalia that led to the problem in the first place persist. Maritime influence is not a foreign policy panacea. In the Bab-el-Mandeb region, the U.S. would need to apply maritime influence while supporting international stabilization efforts to make meaningful progress toward resolving the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Somalia, eliminating terrorist safe havens, and effectively securing its national interests. Thus, the U.S. still risks becoming entangled in foreign wars. The U.S. needs to consider whether investing in the security of Yemen, Somalia, and the Bab-el-Mandeb is worth the cost. Of course, the third option is to invest nothing and accept the potential consequences.

Option 3: Isolationism

It can be tempting to assume the U.S. should do nothing at all to stabilize the region around the Bab-el-Mandeb, especially amid the rising tide of nationalism and isolationism in America. After all, many argue that the U.S. should withdraw from the Middle East completely. The danger is that the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Somalia may reach the point of catastrophe, at which the U.S. could be compelled to act purely on the basis of respect for humanity. On a grand enough scale, the alleviation of human suffering, much like the prevention of genocide, can in fact be a vital national interest. There are already 20 million people starving and over one million people suffering from cholera and diphtheria in the two countries surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb, an unparalleled concentration of human suffering. A particularly heavy rainy season, or even a single cyclone, could rapidly exacerbate shortages of food and medical care. At some point, the loss of life could become so immense that the U.S. has no choice but to intervene, regardless of its security or economic interests. Such an intervention would inevitably come at great cost in terms of dollars and foreign policy objectives, not to mention the risk to American armed forces and civilians on the ground.

Another consequence of doing nothing to stabilize the region is the power vacuum that will likely continue to grow. In Yemen, AQAP and ISIS will unquestionably continue to plot and orchestrate attacks against U.S. interests, barring a concerted U.S. or international effort. In Somalia, the U.S. and other allies provide military support to the government’s fight against Al Shabaab and other militant groups. Without American involvement, both countries would be safe havens for those who would do Americans harm. Further, wherever the U.S. has withdrawn presence and influence throughout the Middle East, states such as Iran, Russia, and China predictably increased their operations in those areas. In August 2017, China opened its very first overseas naval base just south of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in Djibouti, signifying the strategic importance China places in the region. With American withdrawal, the U.S. and global economies would be dependent on foreign efforts to secure the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, whatever those may be. In any case, increasing maritime threats may inevitably force the U.S. foreign policy hand, only the response would be reactive instead of proactive, dictated by the enemy’s actions.

Conclusion

The U.S. can afford neither to ignore the threats emerging from the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and surrounding territory, nor can it afford to aggressively intervene in Yemen and Somalia wholesale to fully stabilize the region. The most affordable approach to securing U.S. interests in the region is through maritime influence to enable regional and international partner efforts. By leading an international naval, diplomatic, and economic campaign, augmented with key activities internal to Yemen and Somalia, the U.S. can ensure the free flow of commerce, prevent attacks on American citizens, and preserve its influence in the region, while setting the stage for resolution of internal conflicts and humanitarian crises. It may seem heartless to take such a calculated approach to secure one’s own interests in the face of so many others’ suffering. It is helpful, however, to consider that the best way to mitigate that suffering and secure U.S. national interests may be one and the same. Under the wholesale intervention and stabilization approach, humanitarian conditions will not improve at all unless the U.S. is willing and able to adequately resource an international effort, which seems unlikely. Stabilization of Yemen and Somalia through U.S. intervention is simply not a feasible option. The U.S. may not be able to keep the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from living up to its Arabic name, “the Gate of Tears,” but the best approach to securing its national interests, by exercising maritime influence, also happens to represent the best opportunity to positively impact humanitarian and security conditions in the long run without risking excessive entanglement.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of the CIMSEC Florida Chapter. These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.

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References

[1] Beaumont, Peter (17 March 2017). “More than 40 Somali refugees killed in helicopter attack off Yemen coast.” The Guardian. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017.

[2] UN News Centre (10 August 2017). “Smugglers throw hundreds of African migrants off boats headed to Yemen – UN.” United Nations. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017.

[3] Ellsworth, Robert, Andrew Goodpaster, and Rita Hauser, Co-Chairs (July 2000). “America’s National Interests: A Report from The Commission on America’s National Interests, 2000.” Commission on America’s National Interests.

[4] Tillerson, Rex (19 April 2017). “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Press Availability.” U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017.

[5] AFP (25 August 2016). “Iran arms shipments to Yemen ‘cannot continue’: Kerry.” AL-MONITOR. Retrieved 24 August 2017.

[6] U.S. Department of State Historian. “Milestones: 1945–1952 – Office of the Historian”. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 6 June 2016.

[7] U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1954 (1955),” table 1075 pp 899-902.

[8] The U.S. officially recommends armed security teams.

Featured Image: Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (via Eosnap.com)

Waters of Black Gold: The Strait of Hormuz, Pt. 2

By Imran Shamsunahar

The first part of this two-part series on the Strait of Hormuz analyzed the strategic importance of the Strait for global energy shipping and political stability in the Arabian Gulf, and provided an overview of Iran’s overall strategy of using its asymmetric doctrine to disrupt commercial shipping within the vital waterways to both deter enemies and fight a protracted war if necessary. This second part will focus on Iran’s actual maritime capabilities and discusses whether their threats to close down oil shipment in the Strait of Hormuz are credible or not.

Asymmetric Weapons and Tactics

Although Tehran has frequently made clear their intentions to close the Strait of Hormuz in times of war or heightened tensions, do they actually have the military capability to do so? Both the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy (IRGCN) have invested in a multitude of asymmetrical weaponry which would be used to harass and disrupt shipping coming through the Strait.

One potent tool in the Iranian naval inventory is its extensive range of ASCMs, a capability the Iranians have sought to invest in since the Iran-Iraq War, either through direct purchase or by depending heavily on Chinese designs for indigenous production. During the Tanker War, the Iranians would employ coastal-defense variants of the Chinese HY-1 and HY-2 ASCMs (also known as the CSSC-2 Silkworm and CSSC-3 Seersuckers) in a series of missile sites ringing the Strait of Hormuz, Qeshm Island, and nearby Kishk, thereby forcing any ship entering the Strait to sail through their missile envelope (it is believed Iran’s coastal missile defenses are still arranged in this manner). Fears of escalation meant the missiles were never used within the Strait of Hormuz (although two missiles were fired at Kuwait on October 15 and 16, 1987, each hitting a tanker). Iran’s inventory of shore-based missiles are maintained by both navies.1,2, 25 

Starting in the 1990s, the Iranians imported the C-801 and C802 missiles. The land-based variants had an advantage over the HY-1/HY-2s insofar that they could be mounted on vehicles and guided by mobile radar stations, instead of being pegged to fixed launch sites. This means the missiles can be used in a ‘shoot and scoot’ fashion, making it harder for the enemy to locate and destroy their batteries after having released their payloads. As well, the Iranians armed most of their fast small boats, referred to as Fast Attack Crafts (FACs), with the C-802, including the Thondor-class or Kaman-class boats, as well as all their frigates and corvettes. The Iranians also developed the Qadir missile, based on the C-802A missile. It has a longer range than the C-802 and is less vulnerable to radar countermeasures.3

Iran also possess three short-range missile systems, again influenced by Chinese designs. This includes the Kosar missiles, based on the Chinese C-701, while the Nasr 1 and Nasr 2 correspond to the C-704. All three systems can be deployed on both land vehicles for coastal defense, as well as FACs including the IRGCN’s North Korean based Peykaap-II class craft and Chinese-made Cat-class catamaran missile boats.4

The official Seal of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (Wikimedia Commons)

The use of small fast boats plays a big part in Iran’s apparent ‘swarming tactics,’ in which they hope to counteract the enemy’s superior surface vessels through overwhelming numbers attacking from different directions. Unlike other navies, which seek to gradually acquire larger vessels as traditional navies would, the IRGCN has consciously sought to acquire smaller and faster boats based on their doctrine of asymmetric warfare. Alongside the FACs, the IRGCN also possess far more numerous Fast Inshore Attack Crafts (FIACs), which are smaller in tonnage and more lightly armed (usually with machine guns and rockets).

Since they are travelling in dispersed rather than large formations, they become harder to detect. Owing to their size, they could operate from any available jetty, with Iran’s numerous oil platforms and islands within the Strait providing forward operating platforms for these small fast boats (as well as forward observation posts to detect enemy shipping).5 Indeed, it is feared the Iran would exploit the broken littoral character of the Strait to wage a sort of maritime guerrilla war, exploiting its numerous small islands to hide small boats in ambush to await larger naval vessels and tankers to sail through. These small boats would utilize a variety of weapons to either damage or sink enemy shipping, including rockets, RPGs, heavy machine guns, torpedoes, and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. However, it is believed the main weapon of choice would be guided anti-ship missiles. Coupled with shore-based mobile ASCMs, Iran could turn the Strait into perilous waters for any shipping to traverse.6,7

Mining the Strait

Most analysts agree that the most effective means by which the Iranians could hope to disrupt traffic through the Strait would be through mining. Mines represent a defensive, cost-effective, low-technology weapon in which to hinder and manipulate enemy movement. It should be noted that during the Tanker War in 1988, an Iranian mine costing $1,500 dollars was able to inflict $96 million worth of damage to the frigate USS Samuel Roberts in the Arabian Sea (mines have accounted for over 77 percent of total U.S. ship casualties since the end of the Second World War). They are relatively easy to produce and maintain, useful for a developing country like Iran. Mines would grant the Iranians the ability to channel hostile shipping through specific channels, where they would then be more vulnerable to other attacks such as small fast boats and shore-based anti-ship missiles, as well as delay enemy war plans as they are forced to instead focus attention and resources on mine clearing operations. Even then, the simple threat of the presence of mines would grant the Iranians a great psychological advantage, as shipping companies become more hesitant to risk their shipping being mined as it transits the Strait (potentially causing global energy prices to skyrocket), as well as affecting the morale of personnel aboard U.S. and allied warships.8,9

Iran is one of two dozen countries in the world which manufactures mines domestically, although its more advanced mines come from Russia, China, and North Korea (even its domestically-produced mines are based on Chinese designs). The total inventory of Iranian mines is believed to range from two to five thousand. Iran now boasts a variety of mines in its inventory. These mines can differ based on their positioning in the water, from drifting mines which float on the surface, moored mines which float at a pre-programmable depth beneath the surface, and bottom mines, which are placed on the seabed (particularly useful in the shallow waters of the Strait). They also differ on how they are triggered, from simple contact mines to more sophisticated influence mines, which can be triggered by detecting a change in the acoustic environment, water pressure, or magnetic field. Iran also claims to possess nonmagnetic mines, which are more difficult to detect by enemy mine-sweeping. Analysts differ on how many mines the Iranians would need to successful blockade the Strait, with numbers ranging from just three hundred to having to gamble their entire stockpile.10,11 

Iran could feasibly utilize almost any platform within its naval inventory in a mine laying role. Its most potent platform would be its submarine fleet, with its three Kilo-class submarines, able to lay 24 mines per sortie. Its midget submarines, the Ghadir and Nahang class, could also be utilized in a mine-laying role (the Ghadir is believed to be able to lay between 8-16 mines per sortie). The Iranians could also use non-conventional mine-laying platforms, including its array of small boats, open-decked boats (such as naval amphibious and logistic vessels) and civilian shipping (such as fishing dhows). Since small boats can lay between 2-6 mines per sortie, they would probably be used in a mass mining effort by the Iranians. Their small size would make them difficult to detect and intercept, and in some cases the enemy would be unable to distinguish civilian shipping involved in innocent commercial activity and those involved in mine laying work.12,13

Closing the Strait: A Realist Assessment

But exactly how much of a threat would Iran’s swarming tactics and anti-ship missiles pose? It should be noted that in 2002, a joint wargame exercise conducted by the U.S. military called Millennium Challenge 2002 depicted an invasion of a fictional Middle Eastern country. Said fictional country fought using tactics and strategies closely resembling that of Iran, utilizing shore-based missiles and swarm tactics with fast boats. By the end of the game, the U.S. had lost 16 ships and the lives of thousands of servicemen.14 However, other commentators remain skeptical. J. Peter Pham, writing for The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, noted that the sheer size of modern tankers makes it difficult for small boats to make contact with the ship, with ‘the flow of surface water along the hull of such a large, moving ship creates strong currents toward the ships stern.’ As well, the piece noted that since crude oil does not ignite easily, the tanker would most probably absorb any explosion if contact was made, meaning modern tankers can take a lot of punishment before sinking. An estimated ‘eight to ten’ missiles would be needed to actually sink a tanker, which would exhaust Iran’s finite stockpiles (save perhaps in specific cases where the missile would penetrate the hull and subsequently explode, causing secondary explosions).15 The U.S. Fifth Fleet could also respond with the traditional strategy when it comes to protecting one’s merchant shipping from harm, that of providing convoy duties. This is a strategy the U.S. adopted during the Tanker War. The U.S. Navy would escort 252 ships between July 1987 and December 1988, with only one commercial ship damaged by an enemy mine.16 An article in Strategic Comments noted:

“The value of a convoy system would not just be in the missile defence offered by the layered missile-defence systems on board the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers currently deployed with the Fifth Fleet. Standard SM-2 and Evolved Sea Sparrow air-defence missiles along with the Phalanx gun-based close-in-weapon system would provide the main tools to counter the air and missile threats.”17

Besides the extensive defenses offered by U.S. warships, air dominance over the Strait would offer another added protection against nimble small boats threatening merchant shipping. American helicopters and fighters proved particularly useful in destroying IRGCN vessels during the Tanker War, and the apparent weakness of the Iranian air assets and air defenses today would arguably allow U.S. and Gulf air assets to achieve a similar goal. It should be noted that in February of this year, the U.S. Air Force’s venerable A-10 Warthogs took part in mock attacks on small boats as part of routine exercises, possibly demonstrating how air attacks against Iran’s fast small boats would play out in a real conflict.18

Firing Noor Missile from a truck launcher in Velayat-90 Naval Exercise. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mining also has its limitations. Like anti-ship missiles, some doubt that mines would be powerful enough to outright sink a ship the size of a modern tanker. As well, the U.S. Fifth Fleet has stationed in Bahrain four Avenger-class mine countermeasure vessels, and could theoretically call upon the help of the British, French, Saudi and Emirati navies, all of whom possess anti-mine vessels.19 It should be noted however, that minesweeping and clearance work is still a time-consuming endeavor. Gulf military analyst Sabahat Khan noted that clearing mines can take ‘two hundred times as long’ as it took to lay them. Creating safe passageways could take weeks, while clearing the Strait entirely would cost months. As well, more sophisticated mines would require more time consuming strategies such as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and human divers.20

Mines are not a discriminating weapon, and could potentially damage Iranian vessels as well as the vessels of neutral states. This could cause political complications with friendly nations such as China, with whom the Iranians depend heavily on for both arms sales and investment in the Iranian energy sector. The biggest loser from any attempt to completely close off shipping through the Strait would be Iran itself. An article from 2010 noted that Iran exported 2.4 million barrels of petroleum a day through the Strait of Hormuz (providing two-thirds of its total budget), and is also heavily dependent on the Strait for its gasoline imports, being the largest gasoline consumer in the region. As such, most scholars argue that the Iranians would only seek to close the Strait if they felt the survival of the regime itself was at stake, either in an outright war, in retaliation for a particularly crippling sanction imposed, or a foreign attempt to neutralize critical national capabilities (e.g. its nuclear facilities).21, 22

Ultimately, a successful closing of the Straits through mining is dependent on the Iranian mine laying effort not being detected and intercepted by its enemies early on, thereby hindering further mine laying efforts by the enemy’s overwhelming force. The first few hours would thus be critical, with the Iranians seeking to lay as many mines as possible. For the U.S. and its Gulf allies, preventing a mining of the Strait would thus depend heavily on effective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, to ensure adequate maritime domain awareness to intercept Iranian intentions early on.23,24

Conclusion

Ultimately, it remains unlikely that Iran could actually close down the Strait to maritime shipping, with esteemed scholar Anthony Cordesman noting that Iran couldn’t close the Strait for ‘more than a few days to two weeks.’ Instead of a naval blockade, the most the Iranians could hope for would be a strategy of guerre de course on individual shipping, causing only minor inconveniences for global energy markets. Scholars suggests that Iran’s often highly embellished rhetoric about closing down the Strait to shipping has more to do with burnishing nationalist credentials to a domestic audience, as well as introducing volatility to the energy market to help raise energy prices and pump the regime’s coffers.25

However, this shouldn’t mean that those concerned with the protection of freedom of navigation in the Strait can rest easily. Constant vigilance should be kept, and vital capabilities such as ISR, anti-submarine warfare, minesweeping, and air dominance should be both maintained and improved upon. As Clausewitz reminds us, war is composed of passion and chance. What could start as sporadic attacks against individual tankers could rapidly escalate beyond everyone’s imaginations. U.S. and allied forces in the region should ensure adequate strategic and operation responses to Iran’s threats which are both militarily effective and carefully calibrated to the situation.

Imran Shamsunahar is a recent graduate of the University of Hull, where he earned a Master’s in Strategy and International Security. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Toronto. He developed an interest in maritime security and naval warfare during his graduate studies, and wrote his dissertation on the South China Sea dispute and contemporary maritime strategy. He is currently based in his home city of Kuala Lumpur where he is interning for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based security risk monitoring company catering to travelers. In the meantime, he enjoys writing articles on naval matters as a hobby. He is hoping to continue his studies in the near future, hopefully once again in maritime security.

References

1. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Military Options’, Strategic Comments, 18, no. 1 (2012), p. 2

2. David B. Crist, David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S. – Iranian Conflict at Sea’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009. Available online: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus95.pdf, p. 10

3. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Military Options’, p. 2

4. Ibid

5. David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict’, p. 22 – 23

6. Dave Majumbar, ‘Could Iran Sink a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier?’, The National Interest, December 30th, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/could-iran-sink-us-navy-aircraft-carrier-14767

7. Robert Czulda, ‘The Defensive Dimensions of Iran’s Military Doctrine: How Would They Fight?’ Middle East Policy, 23 , no. 1 (2016): p. 92-109. Available online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mepo.12176/full

8. David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict’, p. 24 – 25

9. Sabahat Khan, Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz – Plausibility and Key Considerations’, Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, January 2010. Available online: http://www.inegma.com/Admin/Content/File-29122013113155.pdf, p. 2

10. J. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 68

11. Ibid, p. 3

12. Joseph Travithick, ‘A-10 Warthogs Practice Blasting Swarms of Small Boats’, The Drive, March 2nd 2017, http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/8052/a-10-warthogs-practice-blasting-swarms-of-smallboats?xid=twittershare

14. Brett Davis, “Learning Curve: Iranian Asymmetrical Warfare and Millennium Challenge 2002”, CIMSEC, August 14th, 2014, http://cimsec.org/learning-curve-iranian-asymmetrical-warfare-millennium-challenge-2002-2/11640

15. P. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz: A Realist Assessment’ The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy’, 32, no. 2 (2010): p. 66 – 69

16. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Options’, p. 3

17. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 3

18. Ibid

13. David B. Christ, ‘Gulf of Conflict’, p. 23

19. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Options’, Strategic Comments, 18, no. 1 (2012).

20. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 7

21. Ibid

22. J. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 69 – 71

23. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 9

24. J. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 70

25. Ibid, p. 71 – 72

Featured Image: The Persian Gulf (Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC)

Waters of Black Gold: The Strait of Hormuz Pt. 1

By Imran Shamsunahar

Introduction

What distinguishes navies from that of other branches of the military is that their raison d’etre is often inherently economical in nature. Navies primarily exist to protects one’s sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in trade and natural resources, while threatening those of your enemy’s in times of war. As the classical seapower theorist Mahan would memorably argue, “the necessity of a navy springs from the existence of peaceful shipping and disappears with it.”1 In today’s globalized world, where 90 percent of global trade is still transported through merchant shipping, ensuring that freedom of navigation is protected on the world’s waters has become more vital than ever for ensuring global economic growth and regional stability.

This is especially relevant when discussing the stability of global energy markets. A 2014 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) entitled “World Oil Transit Chokepoints” noted that in 2013 total petroleum and other liquids production was 90.1 million barrels per day (bb/d), with over 63 percent of that amount transported through seaborne trade. Statistics from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development noted that in 2013 oil tankers accounted for 30 percent of total worldwide shipping by deadweight tonnage. Any disruption to those transport routes, even briefly, would lead to “substantial increases in total energy costs and world energy prices.” These dangers of disruption are especially acute in so-called “maritime chokepoints,” described by the EIA as “narrow channels along widely used global sea routes.”2

The Middle East, specifically the Arabian Gulf, continues to remain one of the key players in world energy markets. The Gulf accounted for 32 percent of the world market share in oil production in 2015,3 with total crude oil exports from the region estimated at 17 million barrels per day.4 As well, the Middle East accounted for 17 percent of the market share in world natural gas production in 2015, with total production estimated at 164, 504.9 million cubic meters.5 The global trade in crude oil and natural gas increased by 1.5 percent and 0.3 percent respectively from 2014 to 2015.6

Thus, those interested in ensuring the stability of seaborne energy transportation coming out of the Middle East have turned a wary eye to two of the most important maritime chokepoints in the region. The first is the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The second is the Bab el-Mandeb, a chokepoint 18 miles wide at its narrowest, and which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.7

Both chokepoints are vital for oil and LNG (liquefied natural gas) shipments making their way from the Middle East to the hungry markets of the Asia-Pacific and Europe. Unfortunately, both also suffer from geopolitically tense littorals, driven primarily by the present rivalry between the U.S.-backed Gulf Arab states and the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is this very rivalry that drives present day concerns among security pundits and observers in the energy industry over freedom of navigation in these two vital maritime chokepoints.

Although most strategists have sought to view the GCC-Iranian geopolitical rivalry through the prism of landpower (focusing on Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, etc.), the maritime dimensions of this rivalry are no less important, as global energy prices (and therefore the health of our still fragile world economy) are threatened by the possible disruption of tanker shipping through both chokepoints. This two-part series will analyze maritime security and the threats to energy shipments through the Strait of Hormuz. The first part will discuss the strategic significance of the Strait of Hormuz, the makeup of Iranian forces, and the Strait’s recent history of war at sea. Part 2 will assess the feasibility of Iran’s asymmetric strategy to shut down shipping through the area in times of crisis.

Tense Waters

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world when discussing the security of global energy transportation. At its narrowest, the Strait is only 21 miles wide, with an official two mile shipping lane recognized by the International Maritime Organization to protect shipping coming through. Its northern shores comprise the Islamic Republic of Iran, while Oman and the UAE comprise its southern littorals. In 2013, an estimated 17 million barrels per day were shipped through the Strait, comprising almost 30 percent of total global oil seaborne trade for that year. The EIA noted: “The Strait of Hormuz is deep and wide enough to handle the world’s largest crude oil tankers, with about two-thirds of oil shipments carried by tankers in excess of 150,000 deadweight tons.8 The GCC states, bar Oman, are heavily dependent on the Strait for their energy exports, the bulk of which are shipped to the growing and energy-hungry markets of the Asia-Pacific.9

Understanding the military imbalance between Iran and the Gulf Arab states can shed light on Iran’s asymmetrical maritime doctrine. Collective GCC defense spending and conventional capabilities currently dwarfs that of the Islamic Republic due to international sanctions, which also prevent the regime from modernizing its military through procuring modern armaments.10 According to a CSIS report, the total defense spending for 2015 for the GCC stood at $117.23 billion, while Iran stood at $15.9 billion. This military imbalance can be gleamed most glaringly through comparing their respective naval capabilities. Iran’s conventional blue water navy, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), would stand little chance in a fleet-to-fleet engagement with either the U.S. Navy or the navies of the GCC (the latter certainly possesses modern surface ships), composed as it is of mostly aging frigates and corvettes from the Shah era.11,12

Instead, Iran has strategically chosen to adopt an asymmetric maritime doctrine to both deter its enemies and, if necessary, fight a protracted war within the Strait. Their doctrine is predicated on the use of submarines (Iran is currently the only Gulf sea power to possess submarines), mines, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and small fast-attack boats. These capabilities are currently shared between the IRIN and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), the naval arm of the powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps (or Sepah), set up by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after the Revolution as a dependable force which would protect the regime from internal and external threats. The IRGCN operates as a brown water, coastal defense force whose area of responsibility (AOR) is the Persian Gulf, while the IRIN operates as a more conventional, blue water fleet whose AOR includes the Gulf of Oman, the Caspian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, and who are employed for a wider range of tasks including anti-piracy operations and naval diplomacy. Responsibility for the Strait of Hormuz is shared between both services.13

Iran’s strategy of fighting a guerilla war at sea is heavily influenced by their experiences during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, particularly the so-called “Tanker War,” in which both belligerents attempted to financially exhaust the other through attacks on their oil tankers. Iran sought to attack the tankers of the Gulf states, who were the primary financial backers of Saddam’s Iraq. By the end of the war, Iran had attacked 190 ships from 31 nations, killing at least 63 sailors, using mainly asymmetric tactics to damage tanker shipping within the Gulf. Iran’s only attempt at a fleet-on-fleet engagement was during the U.S.-launched Operation Praying Mantis in 1988. Launched in retaliation for the damage sustained by the USS Samuel B. Roberts by an Iranian mine, the operation saw Iran lose two oil platforms as well as five ships, including the frigate Sahand. Another frigate, the Sabalan, suffered extensive damage. Iran learnt from its experiences during the war that while directly engaging the U.S. Navy had been disastrous, its asymmetrical strategy had been relatively more successful.14

The Iranian frigate IS Sahand (74) burns after being attacked by aircraft of Carrier Air Wing II from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), in retaliation for the mining of the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). The ship was hit by three Harpoon missiles plus cluster bombs. (Wikimedia Commons)

Iran’s maritime strategy within the Strait is therefore predicated on using asymmetrical warfare to deter its enemies from harming Iran, increase its leverage diplomatically over its rivals, as well as fight a protracted maritime guerilla war if necessary. Their doctrine revolves around using speed, mobility, survivability, surprise, and exploiting the geography of the Strait and Persian Gulf to harass and destroy enemy warships and commercial shipping, the latter of which would have huge ramifications for the global economy, thereby pressuring the international community to intervene.15 It would also have a direct impact on the economies of the GCC, who almost entirely depend on regular access through the Straits to sustain economic growth. Any disruption to this growth would have serious internal stability implications, as the absolute monarchies of the GCC states were only able to cling to power throughout the turbulent Arab Spring of 2010 by exploiting their oil wealth for social development and job creation. 

The ability to bypass the Strait is currently limited, with only Saudi Arabia and the UAE possessing pipelines able to bypass the Persian Gulf entirely. The Saudis possess the 746-mile Petroline, able to carry oil from its western refineries to its Red Sea port of Yanbu. The United Arab Emirates operate the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline, which is able to carry half of the country’s total net oil exports to its port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. The total unused capacity of both countries at the end of 2013 was estimated at 4.3 million bbl/d.16 However, it should be noted that utilizing the land pipelines to bypass the Straits has been referred to as “costly, inconvenient, and a remedy of limited scope.”17 For the time being, the economic and political survival of the Gulf states, and that of the larger energy market, is predicated on ensuring continued access through the Straits of Hormuz.

Conclusion

This first section dealt with the strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz for global energy markets and political stability in the Arab Gulf region, as well as understanding Iran’s maritime strategy of using asymmetrical warfare to disrupt vital energy shipping transiting the Strait. In the second section, I will be analyzing Iran’s present maritime capabilities to ascertain the feasibility of their asymmetric strategy, and whether they could actually shut down shipping within the waterways.

Imran Shamsunahar is a recent graduate of the University of Hull, where he earned a Master’s in Strategy and International Security. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Toronto. He developed an interest in maritime security and naval warfare during his graduate studies, and wrote his dissertation on the South China Sea dispute and contemporary maritime strategy. He is currently based in his home city of Kuala Lumpur where he is interning for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based security risk monitoring company catering to travelers. In the meantime, he enjoys writing articles on naval matters as a hobby. He is hoping to continue his studies in the near future, hopefully once again in maritime security.

1. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783, (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co., 1890), p. 23

2. ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoints’, U.S. Energy Information Administration, last modified November 10th2014, https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis_includes/special_topics/World_Oil_Transit_Chokepoints/wotc.p df

3. ‘Oil: Production in thousands of barrels per day’, BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2016, https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/energy-economics/statistical-review-2016/bp-statistical-review-ofworld- energy-2016-full-report.pdf, p. 84

4. ‘World crude oil exports by country (1000 b/d)’, OPEC: Annual Statistical Bulletin 2016, http://www.opec.org/opec_web/static_files_project/media/downloads/publications/ASB2016.pdf, p. 52

5. ‘World natural gas exports by country (m standard cu m), OPEC: Annual Statistical Review 2016, p. 106

6. OPEC: Annual Statistical Review 2016

7. ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoints’

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Robert Czulda, The Defensive Dimensions of Iran’s Military Doctrine: How Would They Fight?’ Middle East Policy, 23 , no. 1, (2016): 92-109. Available online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mepo.12176/full

11. Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, ‘Iran and the Gulf Military Balance’, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 3rd October, 2016. Available online: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fspublic/ publication/161004_Iran_Gulf_Military_Balance.pdf.

12. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa’, The Military Balance 2017, 117, no. 1 (2017): 376-380: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/04597222.2017.1271213?needAccess=true

13. Robert Czulda, The Defensive Dimensions of Iran’s Military Doctrine’

14. David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S. – Iranian Conflict at Sea’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009. Available online: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus95.pdf

15. ‘Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies’, Office of Naval Intelligence, March 1st 2017, available online: https://news.usni.org/2017/03/01/document-2017-office-naval-intelligence-report-iranian-navy

16. Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, ‘Iran and the Gulf Military Balance.’

17. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz – Plausibility and Key Considerations’, Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, January 2010. Available online: http://www.inegma.com/Admin/Content/File- 9122013113155.pdf, p. 10

Featured image:A starboard bow view of ships of tanker convoy No. 12 underway in the Persian Gulf. Included in the convoy are the guided missile frigate USS HAWES (FFG-53), the reflagged tanker GAS KING, the guided missile cruiser USS WILLIAM H. STANDLEY (CG-32) and the amphibious assault ship USS GUADALCANAL (LPH-7) (U.S. Navy photo by PH2 Elliot)

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Proxy War in Yemen

NAFAC Week

By Rose Cote

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s struggle for power in the Middle East and North Africa has led to many states becoming involved in their proxy wars. Some states have been left open to their intervention due to a power vacuum, and Yemen is no exception. Since the Houthi rebels’ overthrow of the Saudi allied leader Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, both states have become involved (Malsin 2016). Since their revolution in 2011, the country has suffered from famine as well as airstrikes that have led to high casualty counts, particularly of civilians.

The Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict is often characterized as a religious divide between Shia and Sunni sects of Islam. However, when talking about the conflict in Yemen, it is most important to examine its location and strategic value to each of these states. Both states seek to gain ideological dominance and regional hegemony. This is due to many factors including their oil wealth, relative stability in the region as well as both of their religious sects and being seen as the leader of these sects. While religion is a factor for the conflict, particularly for Iran supporting the Shia Houthi rebels, this conflict is primarily centralized around Yemen’s strategic value for both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Yemen is of particular strategic value for both states. For Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s proximity makes it concerned about border security. The Saudi-Yemen border is susceptible to infiltration from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a large terrorist group (Reardon 2015). This is one of the main reasons for their concern over the stability of the Yemeni government. This issue has led to their contribution toward propping up the government using ground support and airstrikes (Reardon 2015). But Yemen also sits along vital shipping lanes for Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea (“The Sunni…” 2016). Given that the Saudi economy relies heavily on oil and the safety of these routes, its interests rely heavily on the security of trade and its borders.

Additionally, they see Yemen as an easy target for Iran to take hold of in the Gulf region (Reardon 2015). Saudi Arabia currently holds hegemonic power in the Gulf region and it is concerned about the loss of this soft power given its intervention in states like Yemen and Bahrain. However, Yemen can be considered more easily controlled given its extreme instability. Iran has an easy path into the role of Yemen through common faith with the Houthi rebels. Iran seeks to find a solid foothold in the Gulf and Yemen is a good candidate because of the rebels’ strength. By propping up the rebels and joining with them based on their common sect of Islam they could potentially hold ground close to Saudi Arabia and use it as a bargaining chip in the future.

Religion certainly does still play a role in this conflict and is fuel for the fire but it is not the only source of tension. The Houthis are a Zaydi Shia militia and while this is not Iran’s brand of Shia Islam, they have chosen to align themselves with this group (“The Sunni…” 2016). Although this link is less strong than the Saudi’s pledge to the Yemeni government, both states have chosen opposing sides. Iran may be less involved in the conflict, financially and militarily, but more importantly, Saudi Arabia believes that Iran is backing the rebels to secure Shia hegemony and so prompts much of their involvement (“The Sunni…” 2016). While both countries are linked to the conflict by religion, they both have more stakes in the country than just these ties. Without other strategic value in Yemen, it is likely that these states would not be involved or less involved. Yemen’s location and strategic significance has likely prompted most of the conflict.

Due to Iran’s tenuous connection to the rebels, many have argued that their involvement is minimal and therefore Yemen’s conflict cannot be classified as a proxy war. Even though their connection is not heavily supported financially there is clear ideological support and since Iran’s involvement there has been more support for Iran in the region, threatening Saudi control and prompting their further involvement (“The Sunni…” 2016). Additionally, many have said that Yemen has primarily been a revolution of people given its beginning in 2011 during the Arab spring. Despite this, it was certainly a revolution against Saudi Arabia because of its support of the previous president and Saudi Arabia is keen on maintaining control over this strategic state. Iran saw this revolution as an opportunity to gain another ally in the Gulf and used their connection to the Shia rebels to gain access.

To the outside viewer religion may seem like the primary motivation for both states involvements. In the landscape next to Iran and Saudi Arabia’s various other conflicts, Yemen could be seen as another proxy war between the two rivals. However, Yemen is unique given its strategic location for trade and its vulnerable border shared with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s involvement clearly lies in its interest in keeping the Yemeni allied government in power for these reasons while Iran saw the weak state as an opportunity to gain advantage over Saudi Arabia in yet another conflict and used its Shia ties to the revolutionaries to gain access. Therefore, while the religious divide has certainly fueled the desire of both states to be involved in the conflict, each has chosen to be a part of the conflict in Yemen because of its strategic geographic significance in the region.

Rose Cote attends Syracuse University, where she majors in International Relations and Economics. She did a semester abroad in Morocco to study Arabic, and will be joining the Peace Corps to work in Namibia after graduation.

Works Cited

Ighani, Helia. “Managing the Saudi-Iran Rivalry.” October 25, 2016. Council of Foreign Relations. Accessed March 31, 2017. file:///Users/rcote/Downloads/Workshop_Report_CPA_Saudi_Iran_Rivalry_OR.pdf

Malsin, Jared. “Yemen Is the Latest Victim of the Increase in Iran-Saudi Arabia Tension.” TIME. January 11, 2016. http://time.com/4174837/yemen-analysis/

Reardon, Martin. “Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen.” Al Jazeera. March 26, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/saudi-arabia-iran-great-game-ye-201492984846324440.html

“The Sunni Shia Divide.” February 2014. Council of Foreign Relations. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.cfr.org/peace-conflict-and-human-rights/sunni-shia-divide/p33176#!/?cid=otr-marketing_url-sunni_shia_infoguide

Yeranian, Edward. “Yemen Proxy War Adds to Tensions Among US, Iran, Saudi Arabia.” February 6, 2017. VOA News. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.voanews.com/a/proxy-war-in-yemen-adds-to-tensions-among-us-iran-saudi-arabia/3707893.html

Featured Image: Shi’ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa Shi’ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2015. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)