No one can ignore the risk that the confrontation between Iran and the United States, the Arab Gulf states, and Israel can lead to a major conflict. Far too much of the history of war is the history of miscalculation. At the same time, there are serious risks in focusing on the possibility of a major conflict and ignoring the extent to which Iran may already be pursuing other options and much lower levels of conflict. The best strategy for Iran might well be launching much lower level actions and attacks that take on the form of what has increasingly come to be known as hybrid warfare.
Indeed, Iran face critical problems in any serious conflict. It is a major military power by regional standards in terms of sheer numbers of men and weapons. However, the bulk of its forces are poorly equipped with major weapons systems that date back to the 1970s or are largely just mediocre. Its air forces are a bit of a military museum. It is just beginning to modernize its surface to air defenses with the S400, and its long range ballistic and cruise missile forces are just beginning to develop the levels of precision that can make them accurate enough to be lethal against high value targets. Iran faces far superior United States and Arab Gulf capabilities to carry out precision strikes. Its land forces are defensive and have limited ability to support long range maneuver, while its major ships and submarines cannot survive a major clash with the United States Navy.
Iran is also highly vulnerable. Its threat to close the Gulf has a major impact because the Gulf states export oil flows of more than 18 million barrels of petroleum a day, plus refined products and liquid natural gas. The Gulf is the source of some 30 percent of all seaborne traded crude oil and other liquids and more than 30 percent of liquefied natural gas in the world. However, Iran is already experiencing a major economic crisis because of its failed economic policies and United States sanctions.
Iran cannot launch major attacks on the petroleum exports of its Arab neighbors without ending its own. Its neighbors may have vulnerable civil and military targets, but so does Iran. Its own military forces, critical economic facilities, electricity grid, water supply, oil refineries, industrial facilities, and key food distribution systems are highly vulnerable. Iran will find it far harder to ride out any serious conflict than its neighbors, and the end result might well be major upheavals against its regime.
At the same time, Iran can put pressure on its neighbors and the United States in other ways. It can step up support to Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, elements in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. Weapons transfers and volunteers are relatively cheap, and Iran has shown it can use them to put pressure on Israel, the United States, and Arab Gulf states. Its mix of regular military, Islamic Revolutionary Guards, intelligence services, and paramilitary forces is also tailored to provide a wide range of different low level attacks where Iran can deny responsibility with some degree of plausibility, or act so sporadically and slowly that there is a cumulative political impact without clearly justifying any major military reprisals.
This could explain why Iran already seems to have attacked six tankers over the past month alone. It is taking advantage of the fact virtually all Gulf shipping and trade is vulnerable to relatively small missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles, and to attacks by submersibles and small craft filled with high explosives controlled by radio. Iran can plant “smart mines” in the bottom of tanker routes that detect large tankers then home in on them, and be ready to arm at widely spaced intervals.
Moreover, Iran has also shown it can use bombs and improvised explosive devices to attack even United States military facilities without suffering serious reprisals, and several Arab Gulf states are deeply concerned about its ability to covertly attack or sabotage land facilities. For all its talk about closing the Gulf at the Strait of Hormuz, Iran can now use such forces anywhere inside the Gulf, in the Gulf of Oman, in the Gulf of Aden, and in wide parts of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Iran has also shown great skill in exploiting the tensions and divisions between Arab Gulf states, and between the United States and Europe Union regarding the Iran deal.
Yet, Iranian deniability becomes progressively less credible with time. The United States and Arab Gulf states can retaliate at low levels of conflict and choose higher value targets. The risk of escalation on both sides grows with each new incident, and the patience the Iranian people will show as their lives grow steadily worse is problematic. If Iran has chosen the path to hybrid warfare, it is far from clear that it can win. The good news is that the cumulative impact may well be less damaging to both Iran and its neighbors than any major conflict. The bad news is that the end result may simply turn the Gulf into even more of an unstable mess.
Anthony Cordesman holds the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He has served as a policy adviser to the Department of Defense and the Department of State.