The Persian Gulf isn't the main venue in the US-Iran struggle

The Persian Gulf isn't the main venue in the US-Iran struggle
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The week began with the White House announcement of the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a U.S. Air Force bomber task force to the Middle East in response to "clear indications” Iranian forces planned to attack U.S. or allied troops.

Is highlighting the deployment of the carrier group likely to increase the chance of conflict between the U.S. and Iran? Maybe…

The U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” has seen the U.S. withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the “Iran nuclear deal”), designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization, and cancel the waivers that allowed China, India, and Turkey (among others) to import Iranian crude oil. On the heels of these actions, the White House reminded Iran it was sending strike forces to Iran’s neighborhood.

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Iran will want to push back after the U.S. designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization and the end of the oil waivers, so the American forces will see a lot of the IRGC Navy (IRGCN), which is all too willing to engage in provocative behavior in close quarters with the U.S. Navy. As the display is likely for consumption by the Iranian public and Iran’s proxies, the U.S. commanders will spend most of their time avoiding close calls and warning off IRGC vessels when they get too aggressive.

The Persian Gulf is crowded, narrow, and shallow — a confined fighting space.

Ship traffic in and out of the Gulf must transit the Strait of Hormuz which is 21 miles wide, but the two shipping lanes are each only 2 miles wide, and those lanes are full of large, slow moving crude oil tankers. There are over 150 offshore rigs and numerous offshore marine loading terminals that further constrain navigation, and near the strait is Jebel Ali Port, the 9th busiest container port in the world.

Gulf airspace is likewise congested as it is on major aviation routes, hosts ten large airports, and is the home of the aviation hub at Dubai International Airport, the world’s third busiest passenger airport and the sixth busiest cargo airport. The air blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt has further crowded the airspace as Qatari-owned aircraft can no longer fly over those countries.

Over the years there have been tense encounters in the Gulf, but the last time there was any  serious gunplay was the Iran-Iraq Tanker War in the 1980s, and Operation Praying Mantis, the 1988 operation launched in retaliation for the IRGCN attack on the USS Samuel B. Roberts. The intervening three decades have seen growth in Gulf transport infrastructure so, absent shooting in self-defense, any American military operations against Iran will be coordinated with the Gulf littoral states because of the ship and air traffic that would have to be diverted.

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In the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, air carriers are more aware than ever of the hazard of operating near military operations. Flight restrictions are in place for airspace over Iran, Iraq, and Yemen so similar restrictions would probably be put in place if the U.S. planned serious action against Iran and wanted the political support of the Gulf states — and continued use of those Gulf airfields.

There’s a new commander of the IRGC and he’s more of a hardliner than the last guy, so the USS Lincoln deployment is his chance to make his mark early in his tenure. The Americans will oblige him by sailing by, but the real action will take place off-stage in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen — where the U.S. and its allies are up against Iran and its proxies.

And off-stage is where both sides want to fight, away from the glare of a conflict in the Gulf waters. Iran needs the Strait to stay open for its own merchant ships, but won’t mind doing what it can to goose the price of oil while its guys get operational experience. The U.S. will help Israel and the Syrian Democratic Forces send dead IRGC troops home in boxes, but most Iranians are more concerned about the deteriorating economy and their government’s lackluster response to the recent flooding than to rally ‘round the flag’ over the trickle of war dead. And President TrumpDonald John TrumpDC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' DC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' Mexico's immigration chief resigns amid US pressure over migrants MORE can act against Iran while minding the noninterventionist impulses of his base.

The conflict has transitioned from naval engagements in the Gulf to the realm of economic sanctions and cyber warfare, so it’s not all theatre. The U.S. will work with its Gulf partners to ensure freedom of navigation, and to pressure Iran’s illicit shipments of oil and weapons, but the struggle between the U.S. and its allies and Iran is evolving not ending.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).