As the U.S. deploys military assets to the Arab Gulf region, and continues to increase the pressure on Iran, will Iran retaliate? Closing the Straits of Hormuz is what first comes to mind, but that step would not really help Iran beyond showing its resistance to the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf. Moreover, it can be overcome by a U.S. military response. Cyber-attacks on its neighbors, especially their oil facilities, would be more subtle and deniable. As Iran’s economy deteriorates, the likelihood of some form of retaliation is growing.
Over the weekend, the United States sent the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region, an area that includes the Middle East. This is the latest sign of the Trump administration’s seriousness about putting maximum pressure on Iran. Last week, the Administration shut down waivers for sanctions on the import of Iranian oil by other countries. This means that the last major foreign customers for Iranian oil could face U.S. sanctions if they do not wind down their purchases to zero in the coming months. Sanctions imposed by the U.S., including secondary sanctions on countries who do not also cut economic ties with Iran, are having a substantial impact on the Iranian economy. The economy is in a deep depression and inflation is forty percent and rising. In addition to economic pressure, the Trump administration declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be a terrorist organization, putting not just political pressure on the regime but adding further to the economic squeeze (the IRGC controls substantial portions of the Iranian economy). Iran has responded so far by declaring U.S. forces in the region to be terrorists and claiming that U.S sanctions are illegal terrorist measures.
The deployment of U.S. military resources to the region has been linked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “escalatory actions” by Iran that threaten U.S. interests. This begs the question: what can Iran do to “escalate” further? Tehran does have options beyond rhetoric should it want to push back at Washington and its regional partners.
The first option is for Iran to use its military capabilities to close the Strait of Hormuz. In fact, General Ali Reza Tangsiri, the head of the IRGC’s navy was quoted two weeks ago as saying: “If we are banned from using it, we will close it.” The U.S., in response, has said that closing the Strait would be unacceptable. Iran has the capability to mine the strategic waterway and to use cruise missiles and other munitions to target oil tankers flagged and owned by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. While such military moves could damage or sink a handful of tankers, in very short order such steps would bring U.S., and probably multilateral, political and military responses. While the U.S. could re-flag tankers as it did in 1987-88, the Trump administration would also likely take advantage of such an Iranian move to decimate much of Iran’s capacity to threaten ships going through the Strait. This would mean large-scale attacks on Iran’s maritime and air capabilities as well as landbased forces that could threaten shipping. If Iran initiated military moves against international shipping, Tehran would risk support from key states on the United Nations Security Council such as Russia and China. While this is the most drastic action Iran could take, it is unlikely to result in what Tehran seeks – sanctions relief or the ignoring of sanctions by key states.
A second, less provocative and more deniable option would be for Tehran to attack the oil production and export facilities of U.S. partners in the region – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. These attacks could be through cyber means (Iran is suspected at having attacked Saudi Aramco and other facilities at least twice in 2017) or through proxies (Hezbollah, Houthis, or even the Quds Force – the unconventional warfare arm of the IRGC). Such attacks could, if successful, reduce non-Iranian oil output or export, putting upward pressure on global prices which could, in turn, pressure Washington to ease up on sanctions or reinstate sanctions waivers. Cyber and non-state actor physical attacks could be more difficult for Washington to use as a justification for responding with conventional military force, where the U.S. has a decided advantage. In the past, Tehran retaliated after some time has passed. In this case, it may need to act sooner for both economic and domestic political reasons.