By James Stavridis*
I have spent much of my working life in the Arabian Gulf and have encountered Iranian naval forces there on several occasions. They were uniformly unprofessional, confrontational and clearly concerned with making life as difficult as possible for both legitimate merchant shipping and the navies of the many countries with which the Iranians have intractable disputes. They are cowardly in the face of opposing military forces, but at the same time dangerous and unpredictable.
As I watch the situation in Gaza escalate, I fear that the chances of Iran intervening by firing the 130,000 rockets Hezbollah has stored in northern Israel are increasing. In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s shameful and devastating attack on Israel on October 7th, I would have estimated the odds of direct or proxy intervention by Iran at around 10%. But as world opinion begins to turn against Israel in the wake of the inevitable civilian casualties in Gaza, Iran is becoming increasingly bold.
They are conducting exploratory attacks from the north, trying to assess whether the Israelis have maintained a strategic reserve sufficient to deal with a second front coming from Lebanon. They have also carried out about 20 proxy attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria, seeking to determine what the US response might look like. Iran-backed Houthi rebels recently fired missiles from the southern Arabian Peninsula – which were shot down by a US destroyer. They have engaged in cyber attacks targeting Israel and others in the region. It is clear that Iran is testing the “waters” to see if an escalation would be effective.
I have seen this sequence of events before in the Arabian Gulf. When I was a section leader on an Aegis cruiser in the late 1980s, I watched them harass legitimate tanker traffic, anonymously drop mines in the critical Strait of Hormuz, and attempt to overfly and target US warships like our own my.
Finally, we were forced to destroy a significant portion of the Iranian navy in Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988. The navy sank one Iranian frigate and crippled another. They also sank a gunboat, three speedboats and destroyed a number of platforms in the Gulf from which Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval forces operated.
Iran is increasingly likely to put hot pressure on Israel and the US, and I’d say the odds of a serious attack from Iran have increased unpleasantly, to over 20%. It could close the Strait of Hormuz, send oil prices soaring and proceed in unpredictable ways, especially with two US carrier strike groups, multiple Air Force strike aircraft squadrons and a Marine strike group currently stationed in the region. . It is not excluded that there will be a direct military confrontation between the forces of the USA and Iran.
What further options are available to US President Joe Biden if Iran miscalculates his blunt warning to the ayatollahs – which was simply: “Don’t do it”?
If Iran decides to attack, either through more proxy actions — notably by Hezbollah — or even directly, Biden will be presented with a detailed list of options for what he might do in response. I’ve been involved in preparing such lists over the years, and it’s terrifying to do so, knowing that you’re essentially developing a menu of death and destruction.
To be sure, the Pentagon already has detailed target lists of Iranian facilities based on years of confrontation dating back to the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Some of the options that might be considered include:
-Cyberattacks by the US Cyberspace Administration, backed up by the National Security Agency (NSA), targeting critical Iranian infrastructure: oil and gas facilities, refineries, shipping terminals, and possibly the electricity grid of both Lebanon and Iran. All would be legitimate military targets if struck in response to Iranian adventurism in the current crisis.
-Special forces operations against Hezbollah, which may include joint missions with Israeli counterparts, to undermine the command and control interface between Tehran and Hezbollah. Special Forces could also be significantly effective if used against both Hezbollah and Iran’s logistical support, arms shipments (both sea and land), and resupply efforts for aid to Hamas.
-Long-range strikes, possibly using Tomahawk missiles from the cruisers, destroyers and submarines accompanying the two aircraft carriers already in the area. With ranges of over 1,500 nautical miles and incredible accuracy, these strikes could be deployed constructively against critical Iranian military targets, such as the sprawling Bandar Abbas Naval Station from which much of the Iranian navy (both conventional and units of the Revolutionary Guards).
-Air strikes by F/A-18 Hornets or Joint Strike Fighters from the deck of the USS Eisenhower in the North Arabian Sea. The US Air Force could augment these with strikes from across the Arabian Gulf against Iranian coastal infrastructure. Both naval and air force attack aircraft are within minutes of key Iranian targets. In addition to coastal targets, US airstrikes could destroy Iranian infrastructure in the Gulf region, including offshore platforms or oil and gas pipeline wellheads.
These targets would not cause significant civilian collateral damage, but would have both a profound military impact and a crippling economic impact. The above list, in fact, is only the beginning in terms of the US capability with the force currently deployed in the region. Iran’s leaders are extremists, but not insane. Hopefully they are reading things carefully.
*James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, retired US Navy admiral, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also vice president of global affairs at The Carlyle Group. He serves on the boards of American Water Works, Fortinet, PreVeil, NFP, Ankura Consulting Group, Titan Holdings, Michael Baker, and Neuberger Berman, and has been an advisor to Shield Capital, a cybersecurity investment firm.