At Large

Blocking the Strait of Hormuz

The U.S. is positioned to un-block it, much as our president would rather focus on something else.

By 7.27.12

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The Iranian political and military high command may have convinced itself that closing down the Strait of Hormuz -- or even the threat to do so -- will keep the United States and its allies from increasing pressure on them to cease nuclear weapon development. Recent deployments in the region indicate otherwise. It is apparent that the Obama Administration finally has come to the realization that the Iranian threats are real. In consequence there has been a quiet, if major, escalation of American military presence within striking distance of the Persian Gulf.

Closing the Strait of Hormuz would be an international act of aggression and threats to do so carry dangers in themselves. Iran's leaders may have an inflated perception of their country's importance, but they are not stupid enough to think the blocking of the strait would not result in a combined U.S and allied counter-strike. One of the more radical scenarios of non-nuclear responses could be quite devastating to Iran.

Mines that the Iranians have already announced they would plan to use in their blockade would be swept by the eight mine sweepers already in place along with dozens of underwater drones capable of locating and destroying, if necessary, submerged Iranian explosive devices. This would be the first phase of counteraction, but mines distributed in the strait would not be the sole target in this particular scenario.

The ports from which the small mine distribution boats set forth will be blasted by air and sea; in the most radical forecast the entire eastern portion of the Persian Gulf would be soon on fire. The next step of a full scale counteroffensive against the Iranian blockade would be the total destruction of the ships of the Iranian Navy easily located steaming out of Bandar Abbas, Bandar Beheshti, and the other naval home ports modernized since the "tanker war" of the 1980s.

Now comes the really advanced weaponry: As the Russian and Chinese propaganda machines get into full screech, conventional EMP strikes would be launched against Iranian targets of highest value. This action of course will include the disruption/destruction of all known nuclear development facilities. Naturally these advanced technological strikes will be coordinated with cyber-attacks on a massive scale invading and destroying Iran's entire communication system.

Cruise missiles will negate the utility of Iranian airfields and air defense assets while American and allied land and carrier-based aircraft destroy that portion of the Persian air force still able to get airborne. U.S. missile strikes from the one nuclear-powered submarine already in-theater would hit selected operational centers along with other key facilities.

In the interim until the American and allied forces gain full control of the Strait of Hormuz and the entire Gulf, the petroleum shipments that normally pass through this area would be reduced severely. Nonetheless it would be a relatively short-term blockage for, among other reasons, Iran cannot exist economically without a relatively swift return of its oil export capability. Theoretically at this point no allied ground forces -- other than specific target-designated special operations units -- will have placed boots on the ground of Iran.

The flaw in this aggressive scenario is that it depends not only on the results of the forthcoming presidential election in the U.S. but on the timing of the initial Iranian maneuver -- to say nothing of the independent actions of the Israelis. All the American force buildup is already in or on the way to the area because the White House definitely wants to avoid any serious conflict before the elections. As Chet Nagle, the author and former Defense Department official who was an advisor to the Sultan of Oman, has put it, "Obama is desirous only of waving the stick, not using it. If the Iranians move to block the waterway prior to November, Obama will limit the American military response to counter mining operations."

Initially all effort by the U.S. would be placed on "proportionate" response. Unfortunately, by definition this limited counteraction presents Tehran with the tactical advantage. The current major buildup aimed at scaring the Iranians into inaction only works if the Persians actually view it as having serious potential. So far the 3-4 aircraft carrier battle groups in or steaming toward the Gulf have not brought a serious Persian response -- even diplomatically. Neither has the radar ring being built around Iran, including the X-band radar at Al-Udeid in Qatar. Tehran knows about the long-range air assets readied on Diego Garcia and the squadron of F-22s already assuming their in-theater combat responsibility.

In spite of all this and more, the Iranian political and military command has not judged the Obama Administration as seriously dangerous. It is an old military tactic to mass troops and have them bang on their shields in hopes of placing fear in the hearts of the enemy. The Persians are well acquainted with this tactic. The Israelis who will strike without warning present a more likely threat.

While President Obama doesn't wish to discuss any of this with the American electorate, the reality is that the United States, already beset with economic woes unsolved during his presidency, is on the brink of another major conflict. U.S. military might is up to the task, but it's obvious that Washington's officialdom remains willfully oblivious. No wonder Moscow and Beijing find no advantage in responding positively to American logic. Too much shield banging just makes a lot of noise!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.