Navigating the Post-Iran Deal Waters in the Gulf

January 21, 2016

It has been a remarkable week for diplomacy — and for the United States and Iran. On January 16, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran’s nuclear breakout time has been extended to at least one year in accordance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Subsequently, sanctions tied to the JCPOA implementation were lifted, providing Iran with economic relief. On January 18, following months of trenchant U.S. diplomacy, Iran released five Americans incarcerated for several years in exchange for U.S. clemency for seven Iranians, six of whom are U.S.-dual citizens, charged with sanctions violations. But only a few days before, a U.S. Navy run-in with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), resulting in the capture of 10 U.S. sailors, threatened to scuttle both the nuclear deal and the prisoner release. A flurry of phone calls between Washington and Tehran brokered the sailors’ release in less than a day, to “make it a good news story for both sides,” as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The reality is this was not the first altercation at sea between the United States and Iran — nor will it be the last. In the post-JCPOA era of engagement with Iran, where significant concerns remain about Iran’s regional activities and military development, the risks of U.S–Iranian maritime incidents now may be even higher, putting broader U.S. policy objectives at risk. The time is ripe for a new approach.

The U.S. Navy continues to investigate last week’s incident, but here is what we know so far: On January 14, two U.S. Navy riverine command boats (RCBs) transiting the Gulf from Kuwait to Bahrain navigated off course while en route to refuel and came within a few miles of Farsi Island, where the IRGC maintains a naval base. One of the boats experienced mechanical difficulties with its diesel engine and the other stopped to help. It is unclear whether the sailors knew they were in Iran’s territorial waters when they stopped. At some point, the RCBs lost all communications with their U.S. superiors. The U.S. Navy launched search and rescue operations in the area, including reportedly over Iranian airspace, which could have been read by some in Iran as provocative. IRGC-Navy patrol boats approached the RCBs, boarded them, and then escorted them at gunpoint to Farsi Island, where the sailors and RCBs were detained for 15 hours. About four hours after their capture, Iranian operators responded to U.S. Navy search and rescue radio calls to report that the U.S. sailors were safe and being held on Farsi Island. Although the sailors were unharmed, the IRGC posted propaganda videos trumpeting their capture. The IRGC released the sailors the next morning, and the U.S. Navy brought in other sailors to take the RCBs on to Bahrain. After the sailors and RCBs were recovered, a U.S. inventory of the boats found that the Iranians had not taken any weapons, ammunition or communications gear, but two SIM cards from hand-held satellite phones were missing.

U.S. diplomacy and personal lines of communication between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif prevailed in this instance, but the incident could have easily escalated. When Secretary Kerry leaves office in January 2017, will this communication channel be broken? Will moderates in Tehran be able to sustain links to Washington when formidable powers, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, deeply distrust U.S. intentions? Even Foreign Minister Zarif denounced new U.S. sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as an example of an American “addiction to coercion.” What if the next administration is less interested in maintaining a rapport with Iran?

Iran could have easily read — and responded to — the January 14 incident as a deliberate sneak attack or reconnaissance mission by the United States. Although some tactical-level communication occurs between the U.S. Navy and the IRGC-Navy in the Gulf, there are no institutional relationships or agreements to de-conflict or defuse altercations. Any change to the U.S. Navy’s rules of engagement vis-à-vis Iran in the Gulf would require an authorization from the president — even in the case of search and rescue contingencies. While the time between an incident and a U.S. presidential decision — particularly when U.S. service members are at stake — would not necessarily be long, the Iranian chain of command is far more opaque and uncertain. Stronger and direct operational- and tactical-level mechanisms between the United States and Iran in the Gulf could help spread information and mitigate the potential for escalation.

A History of Provocation

Iran has flexed its asymmetric maritime capabilities through a number of provocative incidents in the Gulf over the last 25 years. Two incidents in particular highlight the challenge and risk of these events. The April 2015 IRGC-Navy seizure of the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris commercial ship demonstrates how Iran may use naval aggression as a signaling tool for regional power projection and political messaging. Iran seized the vessel during the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, in which Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif led a delegation discussing the Iranian nuclear negotiations. Iran signaled the continuing threat that it could pose to global shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, in an attempt to enhance its leverage and negotiating position in the nuclear talks. Iran may have also wanted to retaliate in response to U.S. moves to block Iranian weapons shipments to Yemen or to chasten Saudi Arabia for its intervention against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen (the Maersk liner was leaving Saudi Arabia for the United Arab Emirates). Iran claimed that it had legal grounds for arresting the vessel from a 2005 Iranian court judgment against the Maersk line. The United States responded to the incident by escorting U.S.-flagged ships through the Strait. Iran backed down and released the Maersk ship within a few days, but the incident underscored how maritime brinkmanship in the Gulf can quickly escalate in ways reminiscent of the Tanker War.

The undeclared “Tanker War” naval conflict between the United States and Iran in the 1980s originated in the midst of the Iran–Iraq War. To break the stalemate, Iraq began attacking Iranian oil tankers in the Gulf in the mid-1980s. Iran struck Iraq’s supporters Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at sea in response, and it declared that it had the right to board any ship transiting the Gulf suspected of carrying supplies to Iraq. This inevitably implicated U.S. shipping, prompting U.S. warships to accompany all U.S.-flagged ships transiting the Gulf, and an expansion of U.S. rules of engagement at the time to allow the on-scene naval commander to use lethal force to prevent any Iranian boarding. A year later, the United States agreed to provide naval escort to a number of Kuwaiti tankers, pitting the United States (protecting an Iraqi ally) against Iran in a dangerous and escalatory maritime conflict, including a dramatic U.S. response in Operation Praying Mantis.

A second incident in March 2007 is more akin to last week’s altercation and demonstrated the potential risk of rogue naval commanders. While British forces fought alongside the United States in Iraq, 15 British marines and sailors searched a local ship suspected of smuggling in the Shatt al-Arab boundary waters between Iran and Iraq. A large number of IRGC-Navy boats surrounded the search party and boarded the British boats. Because of British rules of engagement not to fight back, the IRGC took the British personnel and boats back to Iran. This might have provoked war between the United Kingdom and Iran, likely drawing in the United States. However, the British learned that a local IRGC-Navy commander had ordered the operation without consulting with his chain of command, and they sought to negotiate release of the British personnel rather than escalating the situation. The 15 sailors and marines were released 13 days later. Notably, however, Tehran later rewarded the commander for his initiative, as demonstrating Iran’s ability to project power over a conventionally superior navy. Rogue IRGC-Navy commanders may precipitate maritime provocations in the Gulf, and even if their actions are unplanned and unsanctioned by Tehran, Iran may calculate that it can derive some political benefit from them.

Iran’s Disposition and Growing Capabilities

The internal debate in Iran following the JCPOA will inevitably affect Iranian foreign policy actions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has indicated a preference for a centrist and more cooperative Iranian policy, eager to improve the economy by taking actions that will lift sanctions, attract foreign investment, and improve ties with some neighbors and the United States. But Rouhani’s agenda after the JCPOA faces limits due to key conservative power centers, especially Khamenei, the IRGC, and other hardliners. These actors are unlikely to change their views regarding the United States and may seek to ensure that Rouhani does not obtain too much power and popularity from the JCPOA breakthrough by blocking some of his efforts. Barring significant domestic changes, they will maintain control over the economy and security forces for the foreseeable future, enabling them to drive the majority of the state’s decisions and trajectory, and endangering prospects for cooperation with the United States in areas beyond the JCPOA. Because these factions already deeply distrust the United States, maritime escalation would likely quickly harden their resistance to further cooperation with Washington.

Today, Iran’s conventional navy is estimated to be 18,000 men and 200 ships strong, but has historically been inferior to the IRGC-Navy, operating the same naval equipment as it did during the time of the shah in the 1970s. It has enduring readiness challenges, with limited domestic repair and overhaul capabilities. On the other hand, the IRGC-Navy numbers approximately 20,000 men, and estimates of ships and small craft range anywhere from the hundreds to the thousands. The IRGC-Navy also commands a coastal defense, anti-ship brigade. The IRGC-Navy maintains primary responsibility in the Gulf, using its small and nimble unconventional assets to its advantage to operate in those narrow waterways. It possesses at least four midget submarines of North Korean origin, and is producing four more. A number of the IRGC-Navy’s patrol boats are armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes, which augment Iran’s multiple land-based anti-ship missile batteries. Iran can attack ships passing through the Gulf with anti-ship cruise missiles from its shoreline, adjacent islands, and oilrigs using relatively small mobile launchers. Nearly all IRGC patrol vessels and many Iranian commercial vessels can lay undersea mines. Iran may have as many as 5,000 mines in its inventory. Iran’s navy and the IRGC cannot close the Gulf for an extended period, but some estimates contend they could restrict shipping through the Gulf for 5–10 days. The IRGC-Navy is designed to swarm with hit-and-run tactics. It is capable of attacking shipping vessels or raiding shore-based oil, desalination, or power plants quickly and without much advance notice. Even when matched against the United States’ superior capabilities, the IRGC-Navy’s numbers and tactics would make it quite difficult to track and destroy every vessel in the event of a conflict.

Navigating Post-JCPOA

In the wake of JCPOA, the United States must determine how best to deter Iran’s regional aggression and prevent escalation in the Gulf as sanctions are lifted and Iran’s economy improves. Even if the United States and Iran manage to find common ground in countering the self-proclaimed Islamic State and stabilizing Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, with international sanctions lifted, Iran may be emboldened and financially free to pursue an even more aggressive agenda in the region, including in the waters of the Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz is an economic vulnerability for the international community, giving Iran leverage over the United States and its allies and partners that rely upon the free flow of resources transiting the Gulf. Even with U.S. naval superiority, Iran’s asymmetric capabilities and tactics give it more options for projecting power against conventional navies than it would otherwise have. They enable Iran to maximize its advantages in evading and maneuvering around large U.S. naval vessels and gain greater freedom of action in the Gulf. However, the command decentralization of the IRGC to a “mosaic defense” could increase risks of miscalculation and escalation in the Gulf, with individual commanders having largely free rein to make judgments about the use of force and rules of engagement. The lack of common rules of engagement, Iran’s repeated ignoring of warnings from U.S. naval ships in the Gulf, and the absence of crisis management mechanisms heighten the risks of inadvertent escalation and miscalculation for both the United States and Iran, as well as for increasingly assertive Gulf countries.

Following the JCPOA, tactical maritime de-confliction holds some promise for testing U.S.–Iranian cooperation. Experimenting with this de-confliction may help minimize the escalation risks of incidents at sea or Iran’s maritime provocations and serve as a confidence building measure to test Iran’s willingness to be a constructive player in the region. However, the United States must proceed carefully, because Iran has a strategic incentive to maintain its asymmetric maritime advantage and it derives political benefit from flexing its capabilities. In addition, the decentralization of the IRGC-Navy command structure raises the risks of rogue commanders acting on their own — even if moderates in Tehran want to cooperate more with Washington.

The United States must pursue specific, calibrated steps to minimize risks of maritime escalation that may disrupt broader U.S. policy objectives in the Middle East. It should message multiple nodes of Iran’s decision-making apparatus, both at the tactical and at the political-military level, to convey risks and possible consequences of provocations. It should take steps to establish tactical communication between U.S. and Iranian navies in the Gulf and durable, high-level political contacts. These steps could include developing crisis management mechanisms for de-escalation, first through Track 1.5 and 2 dialogue and scenario-based exercises and then by formalizing these mechanisms between governments through the establishment of a hotline between U.S and Iranian military commands. These exercises should include Gulf partners to build their confidence and trust in the system and deter them from taking independent action against Iran. The United States and Iran should also work to identify and enforce rules of engagement for the Gulf; the United States must make clear that there are consequences for provocations to deter Iran and to assure regional partners. The United States should also leverage an extensive network of its own and its allies’ and partners’ indicators and warnings in the region to track Iranian movements and enhance manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities of regional Arab and Israeli partners. It should also diversify U.S. and regional partner naval investments in a range of platforms, including littoral combat ships and fast missile craft, to counter fast attack IRGC-Navy assets in the Gulf. It should keep regular, periodic deployments of carriers, cruisers and destroyers as a conventional deterrence measure and synchronize naval deployments with the French, and, over the long term, the British (as their carriers come on line). The United States should continue to conduct regular multilateral exercises to demonstrate U.S., allies’, and partners’ countermining and patrolling capabilities and provide immediate U.S. Navy escorts to regional partners’ commercial shipping if harassed by the IRGC-Navy.

This multi-pronged approach will enable the United States to deter Iranian aggression in the Gulf and minimize the risks of escalation and miscalculation. Furthermore, it will enable the United States to test Iran’s willingness to be a constructive player in the region post-JCPOA.


Melissa G. Dalton is a fellow and the chief of staff of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, she served for nearly 10 years as a senior policy advisor and intelligence officer at the U.S. Department of Defense.


Photo credit: sayyed shahab-o- din vajedi