Over the past fifty years, Iran has moved from one provocation to another, rarely missing an opportunity to try and impose greater control over strategic Persian Gulf seabed and critical international sea-lanes. In the latest incident, five Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats attempted to seize the “British Heritage”, a British-flagged oil tanker, only backing down when confronted by British warships.
Iran’s ongoing effort to impose ever greater control upon the narrow and highly trafficked Strait of Hormuz is the result of decades of successful tactical experimentation and ad-hoc risk-taking. But Iran’s success in using the Persian Gulf as a laboratory for aggressive maritime expansionism has been, in a sense, too productive for Iran’s good.
As other countries study and adopt Iranian tactics, more and more countries are also increasingly eager to test strategies to roll back the Iranian model of aggressive maritime expansion.
If Iran continues down their tired old path of near-war confrontations and pinprick insults, the Persian Gulf may well become a laboratory of a very different sort—a testbed for pushing back against Iran’s mix of bluster, opportunism and illicit maritime “land-grabs”. Iranian-occupied islands and militarized sea features are at risk.
Iran’s Strategic Approach:
While Iran’s geographical advantage in the Strait of Hormuz is readily recognized, Iran has been very savvy in employing a rag-tag mix of irregular forces, transient political opportunities and occasional provocations to consolidate maritime control and extend Iran’s influence throughout the Persian Gulf.
Iran was quick to leverage political openings to annex unprotected strategic territories. In late 1971, as the British formally dissolved their longstanding protectorate in the Persian Gulf, Iranian forces snatched three strategic islands from a fledgling United Arab Emirates, invading just before UAE even managed to formally declare itself as an independent state. The small Iranian-occupied islands, known as Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, straddle the channels approaching the Strait of Hormuz, and, as such, are some of the most strategically interesting pieces of real estate in the Persian Gulf. The islands have been militarized, and each sport small-boat harbors, airstrips and, presumably, a full suite of missiles, radars and other surveillance gear.
Iran was a pioneer in fortifying island holdings. On the western end of the Persian Gulf, an isolated bit of Iranian-claimed rock and sand, Farsi Island, was converted into a military base back in the early eighties. Some sixty miles from the Iranian mainland, Farsi Island has offered Iranian forces an ideal perch to monitor and influence maritime activity.
Beyond Farsi and the Straits of Hormuz, Iran was one of the first countries to demonstrate the value of converted temporary maritime structures as militarily useful extensions of national power. For Iran, oil and gas platforms have long been dual-use assets, pressed into military service as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps observation posts, small-boat stations and military communications relays.
Iran’s network of forward maritime outposts offered Iran an opportunity to advance a strategy of bravura and bluster, extending national control while also enabling the national government to shift blame for provocations to rogue local commanders. That pattern continues today. Free from close oversight by the mainland, independently-minded Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy units can do what they want; smuggle contraband, interfere with maritime commerce or launch attacks upon neighbors. A constant stream of propaganda also makes Iran’s Persian Gulf forces seem far more substantive a threat than they actually are.
A Push-Back Is Overdue:
As a pioneer in provocation, Iran knows that belligerence has limits. After repeated provocations in the late eighties, an exasperated United States finally seized and destroyed militarized temporary sea features in the Rasahadat, Sassan and Sirri oil fields. America’s relatively genteel approach, where punishment for Iran’s repeated maritime transgressions were engineered to be temporary setbacks and carefully meted out with “proportionality” is interpreted today as little more than evidence of weakness.
With no push-back, Iran is revisiting their old provocation-heavy strategic playbook. Farsi Island, a presumptive anti-ship missile site and surveillance post, is still serving as a strategic irritant, with Iran sending forces from the Island in 2016 to seize American naval vessels that had broken down and strayed into Iranian waters. Radars and observers on various sea features or other Iranian-occupied Islands likely supported Iranian tracking of routine U.S. surveillance flights that led up to the recent shoot-down of a U.S. reconnaissance drone.
Ultimately, Iran has been too successful in demonstrating that small maritime holdings, when combined with continuous bellicose provocation, are force multipliers. China, in particular, has let Iran do the hard work of testing this strategic approach. China grabbed the Paracel Islands in 1974, three years after Iran demonstrated that the international community would not respond to squabbles over island territories. After Iran demonstrated the value of militarized sea features during the Tanker Wars of the eighties, China left it to Iran to test international reaction to the deployment of Chinese anti-ship missile systems upon occupied islands and temporary sea features. Only after observing the panicked international response to initial Iranian Silkworm missile deployments between 1986-87 did China began planning in earnest to begin occupying sea features in the South China Sea in early 1988. But China’s thinly-veiled incremental aggression in the maritime has sparked a lot of thinking about ways to rebuff such tactics, leaving a variety of maritime players eager to test roll-back strategies on a comparative paper tiger like Iran.
While few want war, tolerance for Iran’s constant provocation is at a low point. And as advocates for restraint grapple with advocates of wholesale regime change, a seizure of Iran’s disputed or chronically provocative island holdings may well emerge as a compromise—a limited, albeit painful, response.
Use Them And Lose Them:
Articulating a firm “use them and lose them” doctrine for Iran’s island bases and militarized sea features offers the international community a framework to respond in a limited but consequential fashion to chronic Iranian adventurism. Blockading and taking Farsi Island, a piece of fortified sand eighty times smaller than Iwo Jima, can be done. Re-establishing UAE sovereignty over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and expelling Iran from dual-use military and maritime petrochemical production sites are achievable options as well.
Conflict is not fun and should never be considered lightly. But it is time to start testing ways to roll back the aggressive appropriation of global maritime commons. Iran’s success in converting isolated island holdings and temporary sea structures into strategic outposts has been under-appreciated, and the somnolent—almost timorous—international response to Iran’s continuous provocations has only inspired China and other bad actors to follow Iran’s lead into a fractious future for the global maritime commons.
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