Iran in the Gulf: signalling, skirmishing or war?


By John Raine

Iran has been engaged in a steady and escalating series of hostile acts in recent months. As John Raine explains, the principal messages behind them are ones of defiance and capability.

The sequence of operation attributed to Iran over recent months has included attacks on shipping, attacks on Saudi infrastructure and the downing of a US drone. Iran has contested responsibility for the attacks on the shipping and claimed, controversially, the drone was a legitimate target.  If we include, in the same period, a rocket attack by Houthis on a Saudi power station in Jizan, possibly with Iranian-supplied weapons, this represents a steady and escalating series of hostile acts. 

While the trajectory of these actions appears, alarmingly, to be upwards, it is worth reflecting on what kind of conflict might result, or indeed is already under way.

Neither side wants nor can afford all-out war. That may have been what stayed President Donald Trump’s hand when he considered his retaliation for the downed US drone. The Iranians have a long history of carefully calibrating operations to avoid a response they might not survive. Escalation to the point of an attempt by US allies fatally to damage the Iranian regime or by Iran to take the ‘Samson option’ by attacking Israel seems still unlikely.  But there are many scenarios short of that.  

Messaging not fighting

The Iranians have a record of exercising limited military options to send signals as much as to achieve material effect on adversaries. The principal messages they are invariably communicating are defiance and capability.  This was the case in the Iranian missile attacks on Israel in May 2018. In the case of the most recent, limpet-mine attacks on shipping in the Gulf, Iran was sending the same two messages but within a particular strategic context.

First, it wanted to be clear that it had the capability to close the Strait of Hormuz and to demonstrate how it might do so. That matters to the regime, as the threat to close the Strait is integral to Iranian defence diplomacy. It is a ‘bogeyman’ phrase for the region and the world economy. The threat alarms markets, regional and global powers from East to West, and all who support freedom of navigation. It is even more powerful a threat now to close an arterial sea route when freedom of navigation is a hot strategic topic globally, not least in the Asia-Pacific.

But it has not always been clear whether Iran could in fact carry out this threat and how it would go about it. In these latest attacks, Iran has sought to demonstrate it has the resolve and methodology to do so. It also has the capacity to scale up these kinds of operations. The Iranian Navy and the IRGC Navy are weighted towards light vessels capable of proximity operations, such as planting limpet mines or high-speed raids in Gulf waters. Iran would only have to raise the frequency of such small-scale attacks by an incremental amount to deter shipping and insurance companies.

Secondly, the timing of the attacks – during a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Tehran, ostensibly to build bridges between the United States and Iran – looks perverse, not least as one of the vessels was owned by a Japanese company and the refined products were destined for Asian markets. Yet Iran’s approach to negotiations has always been to continue to generate pressure while negotiating. Diplomatic overtures like those offered by Abe are more likely to be greeted with defiance than any reciprocal softening.

A further message embedded in the careful calibration of the second, most recent wave of attacks on shipping was that Iran will retain escalation dominance. The attacks on vessels off Fujairah on 12 May 2019 were against unladen vessels riding at anchor. The attacks on 13 June were against laden vessels not just at sea but in the Gulf of Oman, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. The message here was that Iran is prepared to be the party that escalates.

Shooting down the drone may have been a decision taken at the highest level and mark a premeditated escalation by Iran. It might have been a miscalculation or a mistake made under pressure. But it certainly communicated both defiance and capability, and gave Iran escalation dominance.

One possible future course of the conflict is that Iran continues to use operations to send signals, but by carefully controlling escalation does not allow them to rise above the level of skirmishing. 

‘Maximum pressure’ meets ‘maximum asymmetry’

Another possible feature of the conflict is that as the US applies ‘maximum pressure’ Iran responds with ‘maximum asymmetry’.

The geographic spread and variety of Iran’s assets, in particular the third parties through which Iran can operate across the region, are geared towards sustained, non-peer conflict. Iran has a range of response options that it certainly did not have during the 1980s tanker war, nor even as recently as five years ago. Iranian operations to retain escalation dominance could occur in any geographic theatre or domain.

Iran could, for example, direct further attacks from Yemen on Saudi infrastructure or, via regional third parties, on US interests in the Gulf or further afield. Iran also has options for offensive cyber operations and for further operations at sea through its navy and the IRGC. This variety makes it hard for the US to predict which option Iran will pursue, and each of the regional theatres in which Iran could act will require a specific calculation of the appropriate response. That could significantly complicate US calculations around for example what target to strike and what force is proportionate. 

There is always détente

Whatever the strategy of either side, it is possible that with an increased amount of tension, rhetoric and military personnel in the region a miscalculation trips both sides into uncontrolled escalation. That is a legitimate concern that surfaced with the downing of the drone. But even in the event of miscalculation, the escalation need not be automatic.

Iran has historically shown that it is prepared to work through intermediaries such as the Omanis or other back channels to negotiate, or at least to communicate, if it feels its vital interests are at stake. And from the US side, a sudden decision to engage in high-level talks with a seemingly implacable foe as tensions peak is a tactic with precedent on North Korea.

There is a clear desire among Gulf states to see Iran decisively contained, if not disabled. But they and others who call for this may have to deal with the less precise outcome of prolonged, asymmetric skirmishing.