There is considerable turmoil and confusion in the Gulf region. Several oil tankers have been damaged and the prime suspect according to some U.S. pundits is sabotage by Iran or its “proxies”. The US has sent bombers, an aircraft carrier battle group, and an amphibious Marine battalion to the Gulf region. The Spanish Navy has withdrawn a Spanish frigate from the battle group because the Spanish government doesn’t agree with the American mission. Yemen resistance have destroyed part of the Saudi oil infrastructure with drones. The US is evacuating employees from the Baghdad embassy and the consulate at Erbil. And, there is talk of the US sending 120,000 troops to the region. But British commanders downplay any threat.
What is going on? And, what should we be focusing on and what should we be ignoring?
The 120,000 US troops going to the Gulf region is one piece of information to downplay. There are undoubtedly contingency plans to send troops to the region if hostilities with Iran occur. However, the US military has contingency plans for a multitude of scenarios, and such plans don’t mean that there is any great chance that they will take place.
The scope of fighting Iran in a conventional war setting is mind boggling. Since Iran is on the northern coast of the Gulf, it would require a major amphibious operation to move 120,000 Americans to the Iranian coast in an invasion. In fact, such a move would be the equivalent of the D-Day landings in Normandy 75 years ago. In that case, it took 5,000 ships to land 155,000 American, British, and Canadian troops on the Normandy beaches. Not only doesn’t the US have 5,000 ships, the D-Day invasion took 3 years to plan.
Trump called the report “Fake News,” and boasted that if a war with Iran started, more than 120,000 troops would be sent.
One solid fact though is that Spain has ordered its naval frigate, the Mendez Nunez, out of a US aircraft carrier battle group in route to the Gulf, citing, “It will not enter into any other type of mission in the Persian Gulf region.”
Spanish Minister of Defense Margarita Robles said, “The United States government has embarked on a mission that wasn’t scheduled when the agreement was signed.” Spain wants to avoid being dragged into any kind of conflict with Iran and has made it clear that it is only bound by EU and NATO commitments.
The decision was made during a meeting of European Union defense ministers this week.
Germany and the Netherlands have joined Spain in pulling out their small contingents of soldiers in Iraq.
“The German army has suspended the training,” defense ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff announced, citing the “general heightened alert awareness.” Flosdorff also noted that there was “no concrete threat at the moment.”
“Germany has no indications of its own of attacks supported by Iran,” Reuters quoted him as saying.
America, however, remains firm about the level of the threat. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Iraqi officials that U.S. intelligence showed Iran-backed militias moved missiles near bases housing American forces.
Pompeo made the disclosure to Iraq’s leaders during his surprise visit earlier this month, Reuters reported. The revelation comes just hours after all non-emergency personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq were ordered to leave the country.
He asked the military officials to keep the “Shi’ite militias” in control as they are expanding their presence in the country and now are part of the country’s security apparatus. Pompeo warned that otherwise, the U.S. would have to use force to tackle the security threats.
However, the British commander in charge of the anti-ISIS coalition disagreed.
“No, there is no increased threat from Iranian backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” British Army Major General Christopher Ghika asserted.
For all the saber rattling in the Middle East, the stock markets are remarkably calm – something unusual when tensions boil over. West Texas Intermediate Crude oil, the American petroleum benchmark, remained relatively stable despite the bombings of the oil tankers in a UAE port.
It seems that the markets consider a major conflict in the Gulf to be a remote possibility and consider a trade war with China a bigger concern.
The reality is that much of what we are hearing is the traditional political “saber rattling.” The US is more powerful but is committed to lowering its military presence in the region – something the American voters want. Short of a “major Iranian provocation”, the US will try to keep a lower military profile than it has in the last 20 years.
On the other hand, Iran is aware that the US is more powerful and has an interest in keeping its action within bounds. “Twisting the American tail” is allowable, but any attempt to threaten American lives could invoke an American response that Iran likely to avoid with the exception it U.S initiate any attack.
However, as seen with the attacks on the oil tankers and the drone attacks on the Saudi oil infrastructure, there is a strong possibility that US intelligence has good information that Iran is a suspect in backing attacks on the US and its allies – attacks that fall short of invoking a major conflict in the area.
Does Iran have something up its sleeve?
A US military expert responded to the Monitor inquiry:” It does appear that either Iran or some of its proxies are trying to attack the Middle East oil supply in order to raise petroleum prices, which would help Iran”.
“Yemen’s Iranian backed Houthi rebels carried out drone attacks on two Aramco pipeline booster stations, which were intended to disrupt world oil supplies” according to Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih.
The Houthi sources said seven drones were used against seven targets.
The most notable attack this week, however, was on four ships near the Strait of Hormuz. The official US assessment suggested that Iran was most likely to be behind the attacks. However, others said it was possibly a false flag event.
Imagery of one of the tankers, the Norwegian Andrea Victory, showed a hole at the waterline in the stern. The hole was too small for a torpedo and appeared to have been caused by a swimmer-carried magnetic mine that was attached to the hull.
If this is so, it raises the question of how the diver got into Fujarian port. Scuba divers only have a short range and can’t swim against any current. It’s possible that they started in the port, which raises questions about port security.
If accusing Iran has any validity, it is very likely possibility that they launched from an Iranian submarine, which raises questions about American and GCC anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities and Iran’s submarine warfare capabilities.
Although the US Navy is recognized as being the master in ASW, their expertise has been in tracking Russian (or Soviet) submarines in the deep waters of the Pacific and Atlantic.
The Gulf is quite different. It is a long, narrow body of water, with high salinity and extremely warm waters. This causes problems for detecting submarines with sonar. The Gulf’s thermoclines can transmit submarine noises long distances; however, the thermal layers also mean that a submarine can hide from surface ships by remaining under one of these layers.
There is also the noise of tanker traffic and oil rigs that can hide and confuse sonar.
A review of Iranian academic papers shows considerable interest in sonar detection in the Gulf. The Iranians are working on advanced ways of detecting targets in the Gulf with advanced algorithms. A paper last year by Iranian Doctors Alaie and Farsi showed that the Iranians can improve sonar detection by 24%.
Such research could also lead to new techniques to hide Iranian submarines.
Iran has also claimed that it has built a sonar evading submarine. If the claims about this small sub are true, it could have been an ideal carrier for scuba divers to enter the UAE port and attach mines to the tankers.
Given Iranian research on sonar and operating submarines in the Gulf, it isn’t hard to imagine that Iran may have a technical superiority in ASW and submarine operations within the Gulf.
This can pose a problem for American and GCC ships in the Gulf if hostilities break out.
Although many American ships tend to stay in the Gulf of Oman in order to lessen the risk of attack by Iranian submarines or IRGC boats, US warships do patrol the Gulf. And, if hostilities do break out, the US Navy may be forced to send additional ships into the Gulf in order to escort tankers.
If Iranian ASW has advanced as a result of their research, these American and GCC ships may face a greater risk from Iranian submarines. There is also the greater possibility that warships and tankers could be attacked in port with mines – as we saw this week in the UAE.
Although the current events in the Middle East are more likely to be the typical saber rattling, we have seen over the decades, the risk of serious hostilities must be taken into account.
While the US remains the major power, we can’t ignore the possibility that Iran has the proverbial “ace up its sleeve.”