- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2006

A largely overlooked article in the Sunday Telegraph (London), datelined Washington April 12, 2006, should have been a wake-up call for our top policymakers. This piece convincingly described Iran’s alarming potential for seizing control of the Persian Gulf. The probable Iranian conviction they have this ability must no doubt be perceived by them as greatly strengthening their position on nuclear development.

There are, however, measures, noted below, we could and should quickly take to counter this Iranian threat. As the Sunday Telegraph notes,

“The [Iranian] regime is… reviewing its contingency plans to attack tankers and American naval forces in the Persian Gulf and to mine the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 15 million barrels of oil (about 20 percent of world production) passes every day. Any action in the Gulf would send oil prices soaring — a weapon that Iran has threatened to wield. [Control of the Persian Gulf also would enable Iran to cut vital sea support links to our troops in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.]

“The naval wing of the Revolutionary Guard has in recent years practiced ‘swarming’ raids, using its flotilla of small rapid-attack boats to simulate assaults on commercial vessels and United States warships. … The Pentagon is particularly sensitive to the dangers of such attacks after al Qaeda hit [and nearly sank] the USS Cole off the Yemen with a suicide boat in [Oct. 12] 2000, killing 17 American sailors [and wounding 42].”

The Telegraph goes on to quote “U.S. intelligence sources” that believe “if Iranian nuclear facilities were attacked by either America or Israel, Tehran would respond by trying to close the Strait of Hormuz with naval forces, mines and antiship missiles.” One should add that such measures also could well be triggered just by sanctions.

The Telegraph says Lt. Gen. Michael Maple, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in March 2006 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee stated: “When these systems become fully operational, they will significantly enhance Iran’s defensive capabilities for the Strait and ability to deny access to the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz.” In this context, another American intelligence officer warned that the “U.S. Navy would be able to reopen the Strait, but that it would be militarily costly.” A former Iranian intelligence officer was quoted as saying, “Iranian navy’s Strategic Studies Center has produced an updated battle plan for the Strait.”

On March 31 and April 2, Iran announced it has powerful new weapons for naval use. In any case, the presence of large numbers of highly effective Sunburn and other antiship missiles present a major threat to our vulnerable ships, including large carriers. In short, our fleet has a “glass jaw” and has to avoid danger. This vulnerability was well demonstrated by Navy reaction to the USS Cole attack, when, on June 22, 2001, the U.S. 5th Fleet hurriedly put out to sea from Bahrain in the face of just an al Qaeda threat. What would the 5th Fleet do when faced with Sunburns?

In an August 2002 Pentagon Joint Forces war game, Millennium Challenge 2002 (Persian Gulf area), the “Red [Iranian] Team”, headed by ace war-gamer Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper USMC (Ret.), launched a salvo of cruise missiles, including Sunburns, from aircraft, small ships and shore batteries which overwhelmed the Aegis cruiser defense and sank 16 “Blue Team” (U.S.) ships including an aircraft carrier, Aegis cruisers and six amphibious ships. (Gen. Van Riper’s far too realistic scenario was disallowed and remains closely-held by the Pentagon.)

The Solution: During the 1980s “Tanker War,” the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in fast vessels equipped with missiles were steaming around and shooting at ships. Then, in the words of its captain, when USS Iowa entered the Gulf, “all southern Iran would go quiet.” He added that “in regional conflicts where a deterrent is needed,” battleships can “influence events ashore.”

Today, only the USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin, the world’s most survivable ships, massively armored and otherwise extensively protected, can risk effectively challenging the current Iranian naval threat. Also by controlling the Strait, they could block Iranian oil exports and gasoline imports, thus creating a major economic hardship for Iran. For a show of force, short of conflict, these two ships would also have an enormous psychological impact that could support our diplomatic moves and head off hostile Iranian actions in the Gulf. Indeed, the very fact that we were bringing these ships back could have a sobering effect on the Iranians.

Unfortunately, a persistent, totally groundless bias against battleships has long plagued the Navy which finally maneuvered Congress into donating these ships as museums. However, Congress stipulated these ships could be returned to service in a “national emergency.” They could be reactivated within a year.

William L. Stearman, is a former U.S. Navy officer with combat experience and served on the White House National Security Council Staff under four president. He is the senior (flag rank) U.S. Foreign Service officer (retired) and a former adjunct professor of international Affairs at Georgetown University.

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