Image: Ships participate in naval parade on last day of Velayat-90 war game on Sea of Oman near Strait of Hormuz
Iranian ships take part in a naval parade on the last day of the Velayat-90 war game in the Sea of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran on January 3, 2012.
By Scott Peterson Staff writer
Christian Science Monitor
updated 1/26/2012 4:54:27 PM ET 2012-01-26T21:54:27

Tehran has stepped up its bellicose warnings of conflict in the Persian Gulf as potentially crippling new European Union and American sanctions have been approved on Iran's oil exports and central bank.

The US defied the warning of a top Iranian general this week and sent the USS Abraham Lincoln – flanked by British and French warships – through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf. A senior Iranian lawmaker scoffed that the US "did not dare" to send its ship alone, because of the danger posed by the Islamic Republic. If Iran were to close the strategic waterway, as it has threatened to do, the American aircraft carriers "will become the war booty of Iran," he declared.

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Such bluster is not all talk. The US may outspend the Islamic Republic nearly 90-to-1 on defense. But Iran, heir to ancient Persia's naval innovation, has a well-honed asymmetric strategy designed to reverse that advantage.

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A 2002 US military exercise simulating such a conflict proved devastating to American warships.

Indeed, Iran can cause immense harm, analysts say, without ever directly facing off against far superior conventional US forces. Even a few incidents – like mines laid in the Gulf, or Iran's small-boat swarming tactics against oil tankers or a US Navy ship – could raise fears of insecurity to unacceptably high levels.

It could also have far-reaching economic consequences, including a spike in oil prices, since roughly a third of all seaborne oil shipments pass through the Strait of Hormuz – making it the single most important choke point for oil tankers in the world.

Slideshow: Everyday life in Iran (on this page)

"[Iran's] final aim is not to physically close [the strait] for too long, but to drive up shipping insurance and other costs to astronomical heights – which is just as good, in terms of economic damage, as the physical closing of the strait," says a former senior European diplomat who recently finished a six-year tour in Tehran.

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"If you are not sure whether you will get hit, or if you get hit not by conventional force but some wild boat that might float around in the sea – or a mine or two – that will create far more insecurity than a battle line where the strait is closed," he says.

And Iranian harassing tactics are just the start, he adds. Other layers include artillery and rockets stationed at the Strait of Hormuz, Kilo submarines, and mini-submarines from which divers can be sent out to damage ships.

Many options short of full-blown war
Iran's conventional military forces are often aging and of limited capability. Iran spent just $7 billion on defense compared to America's $619 billion defense budget in 2008, the latest year for which Iran's data was available, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's database.

Iran's strategy of asymmetric warfare recognizes that, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has little chance of winning any face-to-face military contest with powerful enemies like the United States.

Instead, Iran aims to "exploit enemy vulnerabilities through the used of 'swarming' tactics by well-armed small boats and fast-attack craft, to mount surprise attacks at unexpected times and places" which will "ultimately destroy technologically superior enemy forces," writes Iranian military expert Fariborz Haghshenass in a 2008 study based on published doctrines of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

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In any future fight, Iran would likely "avoid escalating the conflict in a way that would play to US strengths in waging mid- to high-intensity warfare – by employing discreet tactics such as covert mine-laying, limited submarine options, and occasional mobile shore-based attacks," writes Mr. Haghshenass, in the study for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In fact, Iran has many options short of a direct challenge in the Persian Gulf.

"Iran could seek to create perpetual, low-grade instability in the strait, mostly through asymmetric means, with the objective of making it an aquatic 'no-man's land,' " says Reza Sanati, in an analysis published by the Tehran Bureau/PBS Frontline website. "For Iran, the choice is not 'to close' or 'not to close,' but rather to clog. A major global choke point, once considered safe, would no longer be so."

The US "would be drawn into providing the manpower and bearing the exorbitant cost for removing the impediments," adds Mr. Sanati, while the risk of inadvertently sparking a war would "vastly multiply."

Devastating result for US in war game
Iran's asymmetric focus is no secret. It has sought to enhance deterrence by claiming repeated triumphs during large military exercises, and by fielding new hardware, from super-fast torpedoes and to kamikaze drones.

During the "Great Prophet V" exercise in April 2010, for example, the IRGC Navy trumpeted the launch of a new "ultra-fast" watercraft that it claimed was less detectable by radar. Across the shimmering Gulf waters, Iran fielded 300 boats in a swarming attack, with commandos landing on one of the target warships.

IN PICTURES: Iran's military might 

"The Strait of Hormuz belongs to the region and foreigners must not intervene in it," military spokesman Ali Reza Tangsiri said at the time.

That warning echoed the words of a ranking Iranian cleric in 2008 that the "first shot" fired against Iran would turn the Israeli capital Tel Aviv and the US fleet in the Persian Gulf into "the targets that would be set on fire in Iran's crushing response."

More than a decade earlier, in 1997, then-IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei said "Iran will never start any war," but if the US attacked first "we will turn the region into a slaughterhouse for them. There is no greater place than the Persian Gulf to destroy America's might."

Could Iran do it?

It would seem so, in light of a $250 million classified US war game called Millennium Challenge 2002. The gaming scenario hypothetically pitted the Blue Team (representing US warships) against a Red Team that launched a coordinated assault using swarming boats and missiles – the kind of tactics Iran might employ.

In the game, 16 American ships, including an aircraft carrier and most of its strike group, were sunk before the exercise was suspended and the parameters controversially changed to ensure a US victory.

The Red Team commander, Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, told the New York Times in 2008, "The sheer numbers involved overloaded their ability, both mentally and electronically, to handle the attack.” He said he had been inspired by Marine Corps studies of the natural world, where everything from ant colonies to wolf packs took on larger prey.

"It is not a matter of size or of individual capability, but whether you have the numbers to come from multiple directions in a short period of time," said Van Riper.

Since then, American naval strategists have worked to overcome the vulnerabilities of conventional warships to swarm tactics. One solution has been a US Navy project to build a “littoral combat ship” (LCS), designed to operate at high speeds and close-to-shore, with shallow draft and capable of launching helicopters, assault boats and submarines. Only two have been built, the project plagued by delays and cost overruns.

The LCS fits Iran's coastal waters and its methods, and is designed "to counter growing potential 'asymmetric' threat of coastal mines, quiet diesel submarines, and the potential to carry explosives and terrorists on small, fast, armed boats," according to the website

Iranian units given great independence
Iran also appears to have learned from the 2002 US exercise, just as it learned from a 1988 incident during the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf, when US forces sunk or damaged three Iranian warships in a single day, to retaliate for an American ship hitting a mine.

Part of Iran's strategy includes decentralized decisionmaking.

"The entire [IRGC] structure – if you look at how air defense is organized, the land forces, the combination of the Basij [militia] and the [IRGC] – this is all geared toward what they call the Mosaic Strategy, where you have individual military units who have a great deal of independence to decide what they can do without referring back to the center," says the former European diplomat.

Haghshenass explains one way this could play out in the Gulf.

"In the naval arena, speedboats will be taken out of camouflaged coastal or inland hide sites and bunkers, hauled on trailers to coastal release points, and given mission-type orders that will not require them to remain in contact with their chain of command," he writes.

But Iran's retaliation would not likely be limited to the strait.

"This is only one aspect of their deterrent strategy. Threats about Iraq and Afghanistan ... there is Hezbollah and Hamas they could activate," says the diplomat, referring to the militant groups active on Israel's borders. "There is a whole array of deterrent strategies they have put into place, and the Strait of Hormuz is just one aspect. [T]hey have made it very clear the last few years that they have this whole portfolio, and will use it all in case of a military attack."

Labyrinth of ports and 'spiritual' superiority
Historically, the fleets of ancient Persia sailed far afield, and in the Mediterranean used "spy ships, disguised as foreign merchantmen and small warships for clandestine operations," notes Haghshenass's analysis. Ancient Persians, during the reign of Xerxes, "invented the concept of naval infantry."

The geography of Iran's southern coastline hasn't changed, and with 10 large ports and 60 small ones – and an endless labyrinth of fishing villages, inlets, and coves – it is ideal for staging the kind of hit-and-run and stealth operations envisioned by the Iranian strategy.

With a daily transit rate of 3,000 boats and ships in the strait, US forces could have trouble differentiating friend from foe, providing Iran with an upper hand.

And Iranian commanders believe they have another advantage, if the rhetoric about the Strait of Hormuz ever turns into a real conflict.

"The IRGC places religious belief at the core of the Iranian concept of asymmetric warfare," writes Haghshenass. "In Iran's concept of asymmetric warfare, the ideological or 'spiritual' superiority of the community of believers is considered as important as any other factor."

That means, he adds, that Iran's Revolutionary Guard believes that "its chain of command extends through Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to God, thereby investing military orders with transcendent moral authority..."

This article, "How Iran could beat up on America's superior military," first appeared on

© 2012 Christian Science Monitor

Video: Showdown with Iran

Photos: Slices of life in Iran

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  1. A student learns how to play a musical instrument at Pishtaz School in Tehran on October 15, 2011. Pishtaz, the first computerised pre-school for gifted students in Iran, claims to have pioneered teaching techniques through the means of IT. Parents can watch their children's daily activities from home via CCTV cameras installed throughout the public areas in the school, which includes the classrooms, playgrounds and hallways. (Raheb Homavandi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Local Baluch fishermen push a boat to the shore at a fishing port in Tiss village in the suburb of the port city of Chabahar, 902 miles southeast of Tehran, near the Strait of Hormuz on January 16, 2012. (Raheb Homavandi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Dog lover Neda plays with the strays at the Vafa animal shelter in the town of Hashtgerd, about 45 miles west of the capital Tehran on June 30, 2011. The first animal shelter in Iran, the non-government charity relies on private donations and volunteers to provide shelter to injured and homeless dogs in Iran. Canine lovers in the Islamic Republic are faced with a motion put forth by lawmakers in the conservative-dominated to ban the public appearance of dogs due to their "uncleanness" and to combat "a blind imitation of vulgar Western culture." If the motion becomes law, first-time offenders will be fined five million rials (472 USD or 337 euros) and will be given a 10-day period to get rid of the dog or face the canine's confiscation to an unknown fate. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. University students cross a street during a snow storm in Tehran onNovember 8, 2010. A rare autumn snow blanketed much of northern Iran closing roads and schools in mountainous regions. (Caren Firouz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Iranian women and a man weave carpet in a workshop in Qom, 78 miles south of the capital Tehran. Deep in Tehran's carpet bazaar, the merchants and laborers occupy chambers that have changed little over the centuries. But Iran's carpet industry now faces some modern pressures. The country's more than 1 million weavers _ producing an average of $500 million in exports a year _ are fighting against competitors in major workshops in places such as Pakistan and China. (Vahid Salemi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The hand of a worker at a carpet workshop in Qom. (Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Coffee mugs bearing pictures of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs are displayed for sale as a man works on a MacBook at a shop in Payetakht (Capital) computer centre in northern Tehran on January 19, 2012. (Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Actors take part in a re-enactment of the 7th century battle of Kerbala during the "Taziyeh" religious theatre performance on Tasoua, a day before Ashura, in Noushabad, Isfahan province on December 5, 2011. Ashura, the most important day in the Shi'ite Muslim calendar, commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, in the 7th century battle of Kerbala. (Raheb Homavandi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An Iranian-Christian woman looks at Christmas decorations while shopping in central Tehran on December 13, 2011. (Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Iranian Jewish men pray during Hanukkah celebrations at the Yousefabad Synagogue, in Tehran, Iran on Dec. 27, 2011. (Vahid Salemi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man leaves after shopping at a fruit store in Tehran on January 6, 2012. International sanctions aimed at depriving Iran's nuclear programme of funds and technology are squeezing Tehran's vital oil exports and government finances. In September 2010 the government pushed through cuts in fuel subsidies despite public and parliamentary opposition. Rising utility prices have since forced factories to shut - an estimated 180 in Tehran alone. Prices of basic goods like bread, meat and rice are increasing daily. Meat is too expensive for many, costing $20 a kilo. Iranian opposition websites regularly issue reports of layoffs and strikes by workers who haven't been paid for months, including in government-owned factories. (Raheb Homavandi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A cleric waits for the start of a conference titled "Gaza, a Symbol of Resistance" in Tehran on January 18, 2012. (Caren Firouz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Iranian woman Mahnaz Mollaei, right, teaches rollerblading to a girl at the Pardis club, in the central city of Isfahan, 234 miles south of the capital Tehran, Iran on Jan. 1, 2012. (Vahid Salemi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A woman makes a purchase at a store in Tehran on January 6, 2012. (Raheb Homavandi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A street money exchanger, puts US dollars in a plastic bag, in Ferdowsi St. in downtown Tehran, Iran, Wednesday on Dec. 21, 2011. The rial hit a record low on Wednesday, with the US dollar selling for 16,150 rials in foreign currency exchange offices. The dollar sold for about 10,500 rials last December and in 1979 _ the year an Islamic revolution toppled the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi _ it was 70 rials against the dollar. Iran has restricted cash withdrawals and allows banks to sell only $2,000 per year to each person traveling outside the country. (Vahid Salemi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Shoe repairman, Aziz, 86, works in a street in downtown Tehran in November 2010. The most potent challenge to Iran's ruling system may not be international sanctions or the homegrown political opposition, but something as simple as a shopping list. Islamic leaders are starting to trim an estimated $100 billion a year in government subsidies for fuel and food staples that many low-income Iranians consider a birthright. (Vahid Salemi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A jockey competes during the summer races at the Norouzabad Equestrian center on the outskirts of Tehran on September 16, 2011. (Caren Firouz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Spectators cheer as the horses run during the summer races at the Norouzabad Equestrian center on the outskirts of Tehran on September 16, 2011. Under Islamic sharia law, gambling is generally seen as illegal. But thanks to certain religious rulings, many race-goers are permitted to put money on the horses legally as long as they are "predicting" through official channels. (Caren Firouz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. An unidentified Iranian vendor wait for customer to sell flags of two Iranian giant soccer teams Esteghlal, left, and Persepolis, right, prior to start of their 73rd derby match, during Iran's Jam-e-Hazfi, or Elimination Cup, at the Azadi (Freedom) stadium in Tehran, Iran, on Dec. 9, 2011. Iran's top two soccer teams fought in a quarter final match of the cup and Esteghlal won 3-0. (Vahid Salemi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Ghazaleh Miramini, left, practices guitar with her music teacher Amir Salami at a music school in Tehran on Nov. 3, 2011. In the 1980s, Iran's music almost vanished. Music schools went into full recession, police or militias stopped cars to check what passengers were listening to and broke tapes playing pre-revolutionary singers, and clerical institutions even banned music as un-Islamic. But Iran's social life has dramatically changed a decade later, with a landslide victory of former President Mohammad Khatami with relaxing some of rigid restrictions on cultural and social activities, including bans on music bands, but Iran has tightened censorship of books, films, and music since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power. (Str / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Amin Gholami, right, dances in Azeri-style as Aydin Kanani plays a Gaval, a large-sized tambourine, in the Gharadagh mountainous area in northwestern Iran on Oct. 26, 2011. (Str / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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