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With Iran There Is Too Much Mixed Messaging In The Maritime

In the maritime domain, the United States is sending a set of inconsistent messages to Iran, mixing belligerence with apparent accommodation. On one hand, U.S. and Saudi forces are gradually turning up the heat on Iranian-held islands by conducting joint assaults on small Saudi-held islets in the Persian Gulf and integrating land-warfare units into maritime assault operations. On the other, the U.S. Government is sending a more accommodating message, allowing Iranian vessels to come closer to U.S. combatants than most U.S. citizens can get in American waters. How these signals play out in the coming days as Iranian tankers trundle towards Venezuela and a likely confrontation is anybody’s guess. 

A Bellicose But Benign Warning…

Earlier this month, the U.S. Naval Institute highlighted guidance from the U.S. Maritime Safety Office, reminding “all international traffic to maintain a safe distance of at least 100 meters from U.S. naval vessels in international waters and straits.”  To a domestic American audience, 100 meters may sound like a daunting “line-in-the-water”, but, to an Iranian provocateur in an explosives-packed cigarette boat, 100 meters is nothing. 

A speedboat travelling 40 knots can cover 100 meters in a little more than five seconds. Of course, the challenge of closing distance is a tad more complex when the target is traveling at 10-20 knots or more, but, in any constrained sea lane, a benign curiosity-seeker in a high-performance motorboat can transform into a mortal threat in an instant. 

To compare, U.S. citizens operating in American waters are often kept farther away from U.S. naval vessels than boats of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. In U.S. waters, the standard naval vessel protection area for Navy ships is 500 yards (457.2 meters), and any vessel approaching that boundary must “operate at the minimum speed necessary to maintain a safe course,” or proceed as directed by Navy or Coast Guard authorities. Only under very special circumstances can a vessel come within 100 yards. Some naval forces are afforded even more protection. Off Jacksonville, Florida, private vessel operations within all waters within 1 nautical mile of any submarine under U.S. Coast Guard escort are controlled. 

Of course, those regulations are mild in comparison to the restrictions in place to protect passenger ships, ferries or vessels carrying hazardous cargoes. 

Certainly, this warning to stay one hundred meters away from U.S. vessels may help avoid a repeat of an incident in April, when Iranian speedboats came within fifty yards of USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB 3) and ten yards from U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maui (WPB 1304). But to a Navy that is trying to navigate a line between peace in war, 100 meters is just enough to let the Iranians continue modest provocations while allowing a President who has threatened to “shoot down and destroy” Iranian gunboats that harass American ships to appear strong for his domestic audience.. 

While A Thinly-Veiled Fist Threatens Iranian Islands

While the U.S. Navy tries to sail away from an untimely direct maritime confrontation with Iranian small craft, pieces are slowly easing into place to, if necessary, strike Iran’s Persian Gulf islands and militarized oil platforms. These forces are holding at risk the favored maritime hideouts of Iranian’s troublesome Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

There are plenty of targets. In 1971, Iranian forces snatched the strategic islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs from a nascent United Arab Emirates. The islands are still in dispute, but, while they are held by Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps uses the islands smuggle contraband, interfere with maritime commerce or launch attacks against neighbors. Deeper into the Gulf, Iran’s isolated Farsi Island outpost is a chronic irritant, and has been a center of Iranian mischief for years. 

Over the past few months, U.S. commanders have been putting the pieces in place to roll back the influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps upon Gulf waters. Outside of the practice raids that took place this month, the USS Lewis B. Puller has been quietly integrating boat-killing Army units, including AH-64E Apache attack helicopters aboard the vessel. Others have been employing AC-130W Stinger II gunships in a maritime superiority role.


While the United States is eager to avoid inopportune conflict in the Persian Gulf by claiming a wider vessel exclusion zone around U.S. naval forces, the U.S. is apparently positioning assets capable of taking limited action in the Gulf to roll back any future Iranian provocations. While unannounced, the fires put in place over the past few months seem to be mirroring doctrine proposed on about a year ago. That doctrinal proposal suggested that Iran, if it was faced with a “use them and lose them” approach (where Islands supporting bad Iranian behavior were at risk of being blockaded and invaded by a credible force), might be encouraged to try a less confrontational approach in the maritime.

For now, the emerging threat to Iran’s set of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-held island strongholds is credible. America’s ready amphibious force may lead the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to constrain itself or, if not, and confrontation ensues, it may enable other Iranian leaders to somewhat begrudgingly sacrifice a few islands in exchange for a dramatic reduction in the status of the bloated and overly meddlesome Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Source: Forbes Business

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