The Strategic Threat from Iranian Hybrid Warfare in the Gulf
(Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies; issued June 13, 2019)
The threat of war with Iran may seem distant to many in United States and Europe, but its strategic implications became all too clear only hours after two freshly loaded tankers – the Frontline and the Kokuka Courageous – were attacked in the Gulf of Oman on June 12, 2019 – just outside the "Persian" or "Arab" Gulf. These attacks came less than a month after four previous attacks on tankers near a port in the UAE, and after months of rising tensions over Iran's nuclear programs, the war in Yemen, and the growing arms race in the region.

The fear of further attacks, and interruption in the continued export of petroleum sudden raised the global price of crude oil by 4% – a global price rise that everyone in the world must pay – including Americans – regardless of the fact the U.S. is no longer a major petroleum importer.

The reasons why such incidents can lead to immediate price rises, as well as growing concerns over far more serious patterns of conflict are simple. First, the military confrontation between Iran, the U.S., and the Arab Gulf states over everything from the JCPOA to Yemen can easily escalate to hybrid warfare that has far more serious forms of attack. And second, such attacks can impact critical aspects of the flow of energy to key industrial states and exporters that shape the success of the global economy as well as the economy of the U.S.

The Threat of Hybrid Warfare

Iran can use its naval, air, and/or missile forces and proxies to attack ships anywhere in the Gulf, around the Strait of Hormuz, in the Gulf of Oman outside the Gulf, and in Indian Ocean waters near the Strait of Hormuz. It has long threatened to "close the Gulf" at the Strait of Hormuz, but its military exercises involve dispersing its naval of Revolutionary Guard forces broadly in the Gulf and near it.

Iran also does not have to launch a major war. It can conduct sporadic, low-level attacks that do not necessarily provoke a major U.S. or Arab reaction, but create sudden risk premiums in petroleum prices and the equivalent of a war of attrition. Tankers are inherently vulnerable to relatively small anti-ship missiles and UCAVs, and attacks by submersibles and radio-controlled small craft filled with high explosives. Iran can plant "smart" mines in the bottom of tanker routes that can detect large tankers and home in on them, and be set to arm at widely space intervals.

These methods of "hybrid" attack can be carried by individual ships and dhows that are not part of Iran's armed forces, that do not have Iranian flags or operators wearing Iranian uniforms, and that cannot be directly tied to actions by the Iranian government. They can be operated by proxies like the Houthis or "false flag" groups made up for the occasion, and the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) have established a growing presence in the Gulf of Oman based at Chabahar – to "prevent smuggling" – and in the Gulf of Aden and near Yemen to "deal with Somali pirates."

Its growing role in the Gulf of Oman includes basing for its Kilo submarines to reduce U.S. ability to track and cover their movements, and IHS Janes reports that Iran plans to establish three new bases on its Makran Coast on in the Gulf of Oman – one of which at near Pasabandar (close to the Pakistani border) was completed in February 2017.

At the same time, outside extremist groups like ISIS can also carry out such attacks – potentially dragging Iran, the U.S., and Arab states into some form of clash or war. No one cans safely assume that Iran is the cause in the absence of reliable intelligence or evidence. Even "implausible" Iranian denial can limit the military response of other states, particularly since virtually any such response risks triggering a far more serious conflict and an even more serious reduction in the flow of Gulf oil. (end of excerpt)

Click here for the full analysis (4 PDF pages),on the CSIS website.


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