Monday, January 07, 2008


The Iranian Navy conducted "aggressive" action against a USN surface action group transiting the Strait of Hormuz. According to the NYT, "the incident, which lasted about 20 minutes and ended uneventfully, took place in international waters, according to the spokesman, Bryan Whitman. The American vessels were a destroyer, a frigate and a cruiser." Commenters at an NYT related blog are calling it "Gulf of Tonkin II". The obvious differences between the two incidents, apart from the fact that the USN warships did not fire upon the Iranians or allege taking fire from them, is that the Gulf of Tonkin was a backwater in Southeast Asia and the Strait of Hormuz is the world's most important oil chokepoint. The Street reports that despite the absence of actual hostilities, the incident has pushed up oil prices. That increase probably more than paid for Iran's naval expenses right there.

The Gulf of Hormuz is one of the major outlets for Persian Gulf oil and the incident probably caused blood pressures to shoot up in Beijing as much as in Washington. Westhawk points out that in physical terms, the US is far less dependent on Persian Gulf oil than popularly believed. "According to the U.S. Energy Department, as of July 2007 the U.S. relied on imports for 59.9% of its net crude oil and petroleum product consumption. Yet just 17% of those imports came from the Persian Gulf." The same can't be said of China. The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security notes:

But despite its efforts to diversify its sources, China has become increasingly dependent on Middle East oil. Today, 58% of China's oil imports come from the region. By 2015, the share of Middle East oil will stand on 70%. Though historically China has had no long-standing strategic interests in the Middle East, its relationship with the region from where most of its oil comes is becoming increasingly important.

Not only does Iran stand to gain from the rise in the market price of oil associated with any threat it may itself make to the Gulf of Hormuz, it also gains leverage by making a credible threat to the energy lifeline of one country in the world that knows the value of cash diplomacy: China. Ironically, it is China itself which has provided the weapons with which to threaten its own lifeline. Had the US warships fired on the Iranians, or if the missile boats had fired accidentally, traffic through the Straits would now be temporarily disrupted. Although the NYT does not specify the type or Iranian missle boat which made the run against the USN surface action group, the Strategy Page allows us to deduce what they probably were.

Twenty missile boats are currently in service with Iran. Ten are serving with the Iranian navy. These are older Combattante III missile boats. These vessels were purchased in the 1970s, and as a result, they once carried the American-built Harpoon missile. They displace 249 tons, have a 76mm gun, and a 40mm gun. Recently, they were equipped with four C802 missiles. The C802 has a range of 120 kilometers, flies as low as five meters above the surface of the sea in its terminal phase, and has a speed of 1,013 kilometers per hour.

Iran also acquired ten Houdong-class patrol boats from China for the Pasdaran Revolutionary Guard Corps. These ships displace 118 tons, carry four C802 missiles, a twin 30mm gun, and a twin 23mm gun. This is a parallel force to the Iranian Navy (much as the Republican Guard operated in a parallel structure with the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein?s regime).

The Iranian Navy would probably have used their most modern units for this operation. Those would consequently have been Chinese-built Houdong-class missile boats carrying the C802 missile. Readers may recall that the C802 struck and seriously damaged a modern Israeli corvette, the INS Hanit, during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. The INS Hanit was armed with 2 Barak point-defense missile launchers and a Mk 15 20 mm Phalanx Close in Weapons System. And although the 3 USN surface combatants carried considerably more defensive firepower than the Hanit, the five Iranian missile boats may have been collectively armed with up to 20 C802, which is many times more than the threat faced by the INS Hanit. The C802 has a range of up to 120 km and an undisturbed hit probability of 98%. In the close confines of the Gulf of Hormuz, where engagement distances may be short, the threat posed by missile boats darting out of the Iranian coast is far from trivial.

The NYT's Lede blog is probably correct in arguing that the Iranian actions are connected to the forthcoming trip by President George Bush to the region. "President Bush is arriving in the region on Tuesday, and The Washington Post reported today that he plans to rally support against Iran “even as a recent U.S. intelligence report playing down Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has left Israeli and Arab leaders rethinking their own approach toward Iran and questioning Washington’s resolve." The Iranians are not the only ones making threats. Adam Gadahn, who is now a spokesman for al-Qaeda issued "an urgent call to our mujahideen brothers in Muslim Palestine, and in the Arabian Peninsula in particular, and all the region in general. They should be in full readiness to receive the crusader arch-killer Bush in his visit to Muslim Palestine and to the occupied Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of January. They should receive him not with roses and applause, but with bombs and booby-traps." Gadahn then tore up his US passport before the camera; maybe he plans on getting a new one at some propitious time in the future.

Bassam Fattouh of Energy Publisher argues the threat of the "Iranian oil weapon" or threat to the closure of the Gulf of Hormuz is essentially a myth because Iran itself is too dependent upon oil and a closure of the Gulf would turn too many countries against it. If this is the case then the recent Iranian missile boat incident, like Adam Gadahn's threat, is largely symbolic in nature and aimed at getting the attention of the press.


Blogger Jeffrey said...

The mullahs should be very careful...Operating Praying Mantis ring a bell?

1/07/2008 11:16:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

WASHINGTON (AP) - Two U.S. Navy fighter jets plunged into the Persian Gulf Monday, after what initial reports suggest was a mid-air collision, a defense official said.
All three pilots ejected safely from the planes and were headed back to the USS Harry Truman, the aircraft carrier they were operating from, according to the official, who requested anonymity because the information was preliminary and not yet released publicly. No other details or the crash were released.

One of the F-18 jets that crashed held two pilots, the other held just one.

The crash occurred at about 1 p.m. EST.

My comment is that this should be viewed in light of the fact that Russia recently supplied Iran with advanced anti-air capability...

Would the Bush Administration seek to cover up an act of war by Ahmadinajad for fear of oil price spikes?

1/07/2008 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

I don't you could cover up overt acts war against the US for very long. The Iranians have been engaged in a covert campaign against America because they couldn't possibly win an overt conflict. The Iranian missile boat threat is most effective when it doesn't quite fire the missiles. So Teheran is likely to snipe at the margins, just as it did against the British, without resorting to a full-fledged challenge. They have to manage the conflict and keep it at a level that is optimum to them.

1/07/2008 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger LarryD said...

I hope there is a contingency plan for keeping the Strait open if the Iranians get feisty.

Say, sinking the entire Iranian Navy and destroying the rest of the Iranian anti-ship assets, at a minimum. At a maximum, executing the Herman Option.

1/07/2008 11:59:00 AM  
Blogger Zenster said...

That increase probably more than paid for Iran's naval expenses right there.

In what seems to be the most peverse sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, our current war against Islam is consuming the same amount of capital we should be expending upon ending all dependence upon Arab oil. It is almost as if Islamic jihad has the sole aim of keeping us on the oil teat. Look at how self-serving it is for Arab nations to ratchet up tensions. Every click of the pawl increases the price per barrel by another dollar.

We must find a way out of this petroleum death-spiral. Sadly, no one in the West could possibly summon the courage to simply begin an embargo of all food shipments to the MME (Muslim Middle East). Starvation would begin in just a few short weeks while Russia and China—both significant food importers—could do nothing to assist their terrorist pals.

1/07/2008 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger putnam said...

My guess is that they are testing defenses and looking for opportunities like last year with the brits near Basra, where they kidnapped a dozen sailors.

1/07/2008 12:33:00 PM  
Blogger Hell_Is_Like_Newark said...

Is it time to start Operation Praying Mantis Part 2?

1/07/2008 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger LarryD said...

Zenster, most of China's oil is from the ME. Choking off their oil supply, directly or indirectly, is an act of war. And I doubt a food embargo would be sustainable, the EU would soon cave even if you could get them on board at the beginning, and I doubt you could get Congress or the MSM behind the idea, or even neutral.

As for getting off of oil, there is no magic bullet, no crash program that could be implemented in five, ten, or even fifteen years. It is a hard thing to do, and we don't even know what we can replace oil with yet. A lot of people are spending a lot of money on a lot of different things trying to find solutions, given our state of ignorance, that's the way it should be.

Its going to be decades, live with it!

1/07/2008 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

My guess is that they are testing defenses and looking for opportunities like last year with the brits near Basra, where they kidnapped a dozen sailors.

What I was thinking, too. They've had their little coup against the British sailors and now they're ready for some chest-pounding before the REALLY Big Boys.

I just can't see where the Mullahs are sophisticated enough to be sending "messages" about this or that, and especially not about American Presidential politics which I've seen suggested elsewhere.

I'm also questioning how in control either Ahmadinnerjacket or the Mullah's are of their terrorist wannabe troops. We know the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan are frequently hopped up on drugs to give them that extra little bit of ambition and insanity. The sort of cat & mouse game being described with their Navy strikes me more like Palestinians throwing rocks than any kind of planned military maneuver.

1/07/2008 01:35:00 PM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

What if one of the Iranians fires a missile at a US warship? Sinks it even?

Then, there is war. Iran is playing a dangerous game.

And so is Obama and the Democrats. If a US warship is sunk in international waters the only two choices are war or surrender.

Weakness invites aggression and this is what we are seeing.

As much as China may not like it, their prosperity and the existence of their regime is tied to trade with the US and cheap oil. They may wish a short war to destroy the Iranians and reduce oil prices versus long tensions ratcheting up oil so that trans-Pacific shipment of goods is no longer competitive with local manufacture.

1/07/2008 01:39:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

"Westhawk points out that in physical terms, the US is far less dependent on Persian Gulf oil than popularly believed."

I've about [and unfortunately] decide d that the above is one of those true but useless facts.

So the Chinese struggle with their missing 58%? They just begin bidding up the price from the suppliers *we* use.

So there is a second order "spillover" effect on us as well, beyond the stories those numbers tell.

1/07/2008 01:42:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

The TV and radio reports I heard said that the boats were from the Revolutionary Guard.

The reports also said that the boats dropped a number of boxes in front of the US ships and sent a message saying “Prepare to blow up in five minutes.” I don’t know if the message was sent by radio or blinker (I think we can rule out signal flags) but I am amazed at our captains restraint and forbearance. We should have blown those tubs out of the water, on general principles, if nothing else.

1/07/2008 01:49:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Physical dependence becomes important if the market collapses. In a real wartime situation certain commodities can simply be commandeered or acquired at a negotiated price.

For example, Singapore had no physical access to potable water after the Japanese took its reservoir in 1941/42. The US, on the other hand, has oil shale and other resources in the Western Hemisphere. In a World War situation, sales can momentarily be restricted to the Western Hemisphere. It will cost more to use than buying it on the world market, but the option is there in a situation of extremis. It's not a situation that holds true for Japan. If the world oil market were to collapse from an actual war, there would actually be nothing for them to use to fuel their cars. East Asia doesn't have the resources it can "reserve" for itself. This was a vulnerability the USN exploited by engaging in a submarine blockade in World War 2.

Right now it doesn't matter which "percentage" of the world oil we use; it's all the same price. To that degree Westhawk's argument about the percentage is flawed. But that's true only while the market works. With the market gone, what matters is what you can actually get your hooks on.

1/07/2008 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Aristides said...

My guess is that they are testing defenses and looking for opportunities.

In the days and hours leading up to Fallujah II, we would feint, observe, feint elsewhere, observe, and so on. The goal was not just to test defenses, but also to exhaust the minds behind them and make them insensitive to new activity.

This feels more like it was a message first, and only secondarily a military probe.

1/07/2008 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

{But only if the usual suspects at home let us get down in the dirt with everyone else.}

1/07/2008 02:28:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

whiskey_199: As much as China may not like it, their prosperity and the existence of their regime is tied to trade with the US and cheap oil. They may wish a short war to destroy the Iranians and reduce oil prices versus long tensions ratcheting up oil so that trans-Pacific shipment of goods is no longer competitive with local manufacture.

While China is rather fond of triangulating against American interests in the MME (Muslim Middle East), I doubt they'd be anywhere near as enthusiactic about starting a shooting war with us over our retaliation against Iran's hostilities. It would be the perfect excuse for America to boycott Chinese goods and at the very least—as W_199 notes—prolonging the agony would only drive up bunker oil to the point where trans-Pacific shipment would become too expensive.

Right about now is the perfect time for all of this crap to bust loose. It would give us a golden opportunity to tell China, "Fart sideways just once and we boycott the Olympics". That alone could cost them untold BILLIONS of dollars. Much to Beijing's chagrin, they've finally begun to discover that one cost of maturing as a nation is acquiring assets that make you vulnerable. Three Gorges dam, the Olympics and an uninterrupted oil supply are all part of that equation.

Like it or not, China is going to learn how to suck it up. We need to drive this home several times before they manage to fully upgrade their military. So far, they cannot project power in a meaningful way, ergo, all the proxy crap that we have to put up with. When that changes it's going to be a whole 'nother ball game.

1/07/2008 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

peter grynch: My comment is that this should be viewed in light of the fact that Russia recently supplied Iran with advanced anti-air capability...

A "capability" that Israel—most likely with American assistance—circumvented effortlessly during the strikes against Syria.

If it is true that the Iranians dumped packing cases into our boats' path and portrayed them as being full of explosives, we should have blown them and the Iranian boats out of the water. Packing crates full of TNT make great mines.

1/07/2008 04:32:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

Latest report (Fox News) is that the USN says that the Iranian boats were cigarette boats armed with machine guns and they were dropping boxes in front of the U.S. ships. At least one got within 200 yards of one of our ships.

This not only avoided the possible loss of the Iranian Navy’s more valuable elements, but also no doubt enabled the Iranians to claim that the boats were manned “dissidents” or merely private citizens out for a Sunday cruise who jettisoned their picnic launches when attacked by the USN. If we sank the boats then Iran would have screamed that it was an atrocity and if we did not they can brag quietly about tweaking the paper tiger’s tail. Win – win for them. But we shoulda sank them.

1/07/2008 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

whiskey_199 said...
What if one of the Iranians fires a missile at a US warship? Sinks it even?

The answer to that can be seen in our actions when Saddam routinely fired missiles at US aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone. We didn't go to war, we didn't do anything except occasionally shoot back.

The Democrats motto is "Give Appeasement a Chance". If a Democrat gets elected president, expect the mad mullahs to immediately test his (or her) resolve. If Hillary or Obama reacts to the provocation with a Strongly Worded Memo, expect the Iranians to ratchet up the provocation by an order of magnitude.

Malignant narcisists always push the envelope and always blame their victims for provoking them.

1/07/2008 04:37:00 PM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

I don't think that dynamic is sustainable.

Democrats now push appeasement on Iran. But that is not sustainable politically IMHO if we lose a ship or three. Not even the media can cover that.

It's a guarantee for a Republican victory.

If that happens AFTER a Democratic victory, the political cost of appeasement is ... loss of Congress like in 1994 after the health care fiasco. And possible impeachment. Being weak in America carries different costs than in Europe.

I think Wretchard hit it right -- Dems are now finding the issue of reality vs. their rhetoric.

1/07/2008 05:13:00 PM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

I'll add that the perceived threat environment post Gulf War 1 resounding victory and end of the Cold War is vastly different now.

We've had visible proof that at any time, at any place, planes can crash into buildings killing thousands.

1/07/2008 07:16:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Wheels within wheels...

Maybe we need to look at this from the Iranian point of view, specifically from Ahmadinajad's twisted perspective.

The International Herald Tribune reports a rift is emerging between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggesting that the president no longer enjoys the full backing of Khamenei.

There are numerous possible reasons for Ahmadinejad's loss of support, but analysts here all point to one overriding factor: the U.S. National Intelligence Report last month, which said that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to international pressure. The report sharply decreased the threat of a military strike against Iran, allowing the authorities to focus on domestic issues, with important parliamentary elections looming in March.

"Now that Iran is not under the threat of a military attack, all contradictions within the establishment are surfacing," said Saeed Leylaz, an economic and political analyst. "The biggest mistake that Americans have constantly made toward Iran was adopting radical approaches, which provided the ground for radicals in the country to take control."

So if peace and reason prevail, Ahmadinajad could be given the boot, but if some sort of military confrontation with the US occurs, Ahmadinajad's position once again becomes secure.

1/07/2008 08:31:00 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Based on the new NIE and other recent developments, I have been predicting that Bush is going to Tehran during his upcoming visit to the Middle East. If true, news must have leaked within the differing elite factions in Iran and for example the faction tied to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad perhaps wants to scupper the visit by creating an incident that would ruin Bush's attempt to immitate Nixon's visit to China.

I could be wrong about all this though.

1/07/2008 10:22:00 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

"Westhawk points out that in physical terms, the US is far less dependent on Persian Gulf oil than popularly believed."

Because oil is fungible, if one large region is dependent on it, we're all dependent on it.

1/08/2008 03:52:00 AM  
Blogger 3Case said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/08/2008 03:58:00 AM  
Blogger 3Case said...

Anybody calculated how long it would take the USN assets assembled in the Gulf to locate (if necessary) and destroy 20 Iranian missile boats if given the order? Their docks would probably be taken out at the same time for good measure.

1/08/2008 04:00:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Sadly, in the Straits of Hormuz, Iran has the home field advantage.

Newsmax published an article on Iran's contingency battle plan.

Iran plans to begin offensive operations by launching successive waves of explosives-packed boats against U.S. warships in the Gulf, piloted by "Ashura" or suicide bombers.

The first wave can draw on more than 1,000 small fast-attack boats operated by the Revolutionary Guards navy, equipped with rocket launchers, heavy machine-guns and possibly Sagger anti-tank missiles.

In recent years, the Iranians have used these small boats to practice "swarming" raids on commercial vessels and U.S. warships patrolling the Persian Gulf.

The White House listed two such attacks in the list of 10 foiled al-Qaida terrorist attacks it released on Feb. 10. The attacks were identified as a "plot by al-Qaida operatives to attack ships in the [Persian] Gulf" in early 2003, and a separate plot to "attack ships in the Strait of Hormuz."

A second wave of suicide attacks would be carried out by "suicide submarines" and semi-submersible boats, before Iran deploys its Russian-built Kilo-class submarines and Chinese-built Huodong missile boats to attack U.S. warships, the source said.

The 114-foot Chinese boats are equipped with advanced radar-guided C-802s, a sea-skimming cruise-missile with a 60-mile range against which many U.S. naval analysts believe there is no effective defense.

When Iran first tested the sea-launched C-802s a decade ago, Vice Admiral Scott Redd, then commander of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf, called them "a new dimension ... of the Iranian threat to shipping."

Admiral Redd was appointed to head the National Counterterrorism Center last year.

Iran's naval strategists believe the U.S. will attempt to land ground forces to the east of Bandar Abbas. Their plans call for extensive use of ground-launched tactical missiles, coastal artillery, as swell as strategic missiles aimed at Saudi Arabia and Israel tipped with chemical, biological and possibly nuclear warheads.

1/08/2008 04:44:00 AM  
Blogger John F said...

Re. Chinese reactions:
I suspect this might not play out the way Tehran may figure.
China will be perfectly aware that Iranian moves which hike oil prices hurt China both directly, and via damage to their vital overseas trade.

An Iranian provocation leading to effective state of war in the Gulf inc. possible cessation of oil shipments would be even more of a disaster for China.

If China's export trade &/or oil imports were crippled directly or due to world economic collapse, the Chinese regime would face massive problems. The profitable export and private sector economy is essential to prop up the the state banking and older industrial operations.
The potential for soaring unemployment across the board is plain. And that in turn could threaten the political position of the Party regime.

For these reasons the Chinese response to Iranian adventures could be a call to Washington: "Green light."

1/08/2008 07:02:00 AM  
Blogger Pangloss said...

Peter Grynch summarizes the expected Iranian battle plan to blockade the Strait of Hormuz. One thing he left out is the SS-N-22 anti-shipping missile, which Iran has. Russia designed this missile, which flies <7m above the water at mach 2.7 and takes evasive maneuvers before impact specifically to destroy American ships protected by the Aegis radar system. They are thought to be potent enough that 1-2 of them would sink a cutter, 1-3 a destroyer, and 1-5 a carrier (quantities may be off: they are from memory). And Iran has some, how many is unknown, but probably at least a dozen.

1/08/2008 07:16:00 AM  
Blogger mike said...

I'm sure the Chinese would be very interested to see how their gear performed against the USN.

Although, I am a bit surprised that 1) the missile boats got so close to the US Ships (exposing the rare and effective weapons systems to gun and small arms fire).

2) the USN let them get so close.

I think this will happen a limited number of times before somebody's boat goes boom.

1/08/2008 08:16:00 AM  
Blogger John F said...

Peter Gynch and pangloss indicate the potential of Iranian light forces and missiles in the Gulf.

For this reason a likely sign of impending major action would probably be a movement of main US units OUT of the Gulf, into the Arabian Sea.
There they would have searoom, and still be able, combined with land based air, to rapidly degrade Iranian assets.
Some forces would probably remain (feeling rather lonely) and be reinforced for surface operations once the initial air phase was completed.

1/08/2008 08:35:00 AM  
Blogger LarryD said...

Last I read, we have the forces necessary for the Herman Option in place.

1. Announce that we will not tolerate any nation interfering with the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz;

2. Back that threat up by sending at least a carrier battle group (CBG) to the Persian Gulf, along with anti-submarine ships and planes (the latter are routinely carried on carriers), minesweepers, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System-equipped cruisers and destroyers, UAVs, and our own submarines; last I read we have two CBG in the Gulf

3. Declare a one-country blockade of all of Iran's oil shipments out -- and gasonline shipments in; a complete freeze-out. Everyone else gets to ship freely through the strait... just not Iran;

4. Launch a "comprehensive air campaign" against Iran's air defenses, air bases, communications grid, and missile sites along the PG;

5. Continue the campaign against the nuclear sites and all supporting infrastructure, including roads, bridges, power plants that serve the nuclear development centers at Natanz and Bushehr, and so forth;

6. Finally, and most important, continue the campaign to take out all of Iran's gasoline refineries.

7. American special forces would seize all of Iran's offshore wells and pumping stations, from the strait to Kharg Island (the small, unmarked island just off Iran's coast, due east of Kuwait and about 10 o'clock from Bushehr).

1/08/2008 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Doc99 said...

The best way to respond to Iran's playing the oil card is to - Start Drilling. Increased US production would drop the market price significantly and remove Iran's weapon from their arsenal. Oh yes, it would help our economy tremendously.

1/08/2008 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

I agree with doc99. Greenpeace is the real enemy!

1/09/2008 10:44:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Powered by Blogger