New Submarines Could Assist Iran in Blocking Strait

The transport vessel USS Ponce, shown traveling through the Persian Gulf toward Bahrain last week. The United States is reportedly deploying additional naval forces in the Persian Gulf region to counter an expanding Iranian fleet of small submarines capable of planting explosives (AP Photo/U.S. Navy).
The transport vessel USS Ponce, shown traveling through the Persian Gulf toward Bahrain last week. The United States is reportedly deploying additional naval forces in the Persian Gulf region to counter an expanding Iranian fleet of small submarines capable of planting explosives (AP Photo/U.S. Navy).

Iran is expanding a line of small underwater vessels capable of planting explosives, which would bolster its capacity to potentially block a critical route for transporting oil from the Middle East, the Christian Science Monitor reported on Wednesday (see GSN, July 11).

Officials and lawmakers in Tehran have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation to oil trade restrictions imposed over Iran's disputed nuclear program. The United States and other Western powers fear Iran's atomic activities are geared toward establishment of a nuclear-weapon capability; the Persian Gulf regional power maintains its nuclear ambitions are strictly peaceful.

In response to the danger posed by the new Iranian submarines, the United States has sent to the region four more warships and a number of aircraft specializing in the elimination of mines, said Christopher Harmer, who in 2008 and 2009 headed future operations for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet (Anna Mulrine, Christian Science Monitor, July 11).

In addition, the Persian Gulf is due to receive a U.S. deployment of small, unmanned undersea craft to aid in spotting and neutralizing such ordnance, the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday quoted government personnel as saying (David Cloud, Los Angeles Times, July 11).

The Iranian submarines "are a threat to us because they can disperse them throughout the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and it’s extremely difficult for us to track them,” enabling them to lie "in wait to execute an ambush,” Harmer told the Monitor.

“Looking for small subs in shallow water is much more difficult" than identifying more sizable underwater ships "because the acoustics are so much more difficult -- smaller makes less noise,” the former commander said.

Iran “has prioritized these mini-subs" to exploit the advantage, "and have gone into overdrive building them,” Harmer said. Such underwater craft are typically characterized as weighing less than 500 tons and extending over no more than 100 feet, according to the Monitor.

Harmer said “no mini-subs” were held by the Iranian armed forces half a decade ago, but their present supply of the vessels is “strategically significant.” Nineteen submarines of this type are now operational, and the Middle Eastern nation has maintained a mean annual construction rate of four vessels.

U.S. armed forces insiders said the greatest concern posed by the vessels is their explosives deployment potential. Harmer warned Iran also wields "significant special operations capability" and could employ related forces in strikes against petroleum carrier vessels and other nonmilitary ships.

Tehran might also such tap elite military personnel to target a recently established oil transfer line offering an alternative to the Strait of Hormuz, according to the Monitor (see GSN, July 5).

Still, Harmer said he saw a "fairly small" probability of Iran turning its new vessels against U.S. objectives in the Middle East.

“The Iranians know that if they try to mine the strait, the U.S. Navy can clean it up” within “five or six days," the former officer said.

In addition, the Navy would consider such a move to justify “military action to degrade the Iranian military,” he said. “They know that in a straight-up fight, they cannot handle the American military. So they are trying to exercise as much influence and control without ever coming into outright conflict with the West.”

Iran's foreign minister recently played down the possibility of Tehran following through on threats to close the strait (see GSN, July 10).

One former high-level U.S. National Security Council staffer said "it’s almost inevitable that the military tensions in the Gulf increase” as multilateral dialogue with Iran falters.

“I think that it’s natural on one hand to see Western policy-makers giving more serious thought to the use of military options to bolster our position in the Gulf,” added Michael Singh, managing director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“I don’t think war is imminent,” but it is reasonable “to give credibility to your military threat so that the Iranians consider negotiations more seriously -- and any red line you set down,” Singh said.

“You want [Iran] to have a real respect for military options, yet at the same time you don’t want to take it so far that you spark an inadvertent conflict in the process,” he said. “That’s the fine line you’ve got to walk” (Mulrine, Christian Science Monitor).

A second U.S. aircraft carrier might remain stationed in the Persian Gulf area for three additional months, U.S. government insiders said in a Thursday report by CNN (see GSN, Oct. 7, 2011). The move -- now under consideration by the White House, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Navy leaders -- would renew until the end of this year a 2010 call for the second deployment by then-Pentagon chief Robert Gates (Mike Mount, CNN, July 12).

Iranian Brig. Gen. Shahroukh Shahram on Tuesday said anti-aircraft systems in northwestern Iran had simulated the interception of a hostile drone. The maneuver concluded a three-day defensive exercise, Iran's Press TV reported (Press TV, July 11).

Meanwhile, a one-time top Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer has allegedly accused Tehran of behaving deceptively in describing its atomic activities as exclusively nonmilitary in nature, the London Guardian reported on Thursday.

"The inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency are fooling themselves if they believe that the nuclear facilities on and under the ground are only for peaceful purposes," the unidentified general reportedly said in a written statement to Mohammad Nourizad, a leading Iranian dissident. "[Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] said (in a fatwa) that Iran has only peaceful intentions with its nuclear activities. This is a sheer lie."

"We undertook this nuclear gamble with the leader's knowledge -- that's why we are paying billions of dollars into Chinese and Russian bank accounts so that they support us in international negotiations and we could find a way out of this stalemate," the document continues (Saeed Kamali Dehghan, London Guardian, July 12).

Elsewhere, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are seeking consensus on new punitive measures against Iran for potential enactment within months, Foreign Policy magazine reported on Wednesday.

The Senate in May approved draft language expressly describing prevention of a nuclear-armed Iran as a U.S. objective. The bill would also mandate regular declarations by the administration on steps aimed at bolstering Tehran's political and economic isolation.

The House of Representatives has endorsed a proposal with crucial distinctions, though, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and multiple Senate staffers said the other chamber has not cooperated in pursuing agreement. One area of divergence concerns whether penalties would extend to every Iranian bank.

"There is a sense that if this isn't done in July it will not get done before the congressional election," a high-level Senate aide stated. "If the staffs of all the key offices agree on a compromise bill this could be done very quickly via a suspension vote in the House and a unanimous consent vote in the Senate. This is the time to do it" (Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, July 11).

Countries in Southeast Asia should aid in pressing Iran to resolving the atomic stalemate, Agence France-Presse quoted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying on Thursday.

Clinton said the 10-state Association of Southeast Asian Nations is viewed by Washington "as a partner in the broad international effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

"The best way to achieve the diplomatic solution we all seek is for the international community to stay united and to keep up the pressure that has brought Iran back to the negotiating table," the top U.S. diplomat said at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia.

""If we ease the pressure or waver in our resolve, Iran will have less incentive to negotiate in good faith or to take the necessary steps to address the international community's concerns about its nuclear program," she said (Agence France-Presse/The Nation, July 12).

The head of the Russian State Duma's international affairs committee on Wednesday expressed skepticism over the priorities of Western powers in their actions toward Iran.

"I have the feeling that it is not so much Iran's nuclear program that is drawing Western countries' attention, but rather ways of changing the regime in Iran and bringing to power forces better suiting the West," Alexei Pushkov said (Interfax, July 11).

July 12, 2012
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Iran is expanding a line of small underwater vessels capable of planting explosives, which would bolster its capacity to potentially block a critical route for transporting oil from the Middle East, the Christian Science Monitor reported on Wednesday.

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