14 January 2017

Iran, Mattis, and the Real Threat to U.S. Strategic Interests in the Middle East

Iran, Mattis, and the Real Threat to U.S. Strategic Interests in the Middle East by Anthony H. Cordesman, Center for Strategic & International Studies

The events in Iran and the Gulf during the last week have been a grim reminder that Iran remains the major threat to U.S. strategic interests in the Gulf and the Middle East, and that General James Mattis has been all too correct in singling out Iran as such a threat. Islamist extremism and terrorism are very real threats—but they are limited in scope and lethality.

In contrast, Iran has the ability to trigger a major war in the region, and to threaten the world's main source of oil and gas exports—the 17 million barrels of oil a day that flow through the Strait of Hormuz. Any such Iranian action threatens the stability of the entire global economy, the global (and U.S. domestic) price of oil and of transportation fuels, and the import and export capabilities of America's key trading partners in Asia—more than a third of U.S. manufactured imports.

There is nothing theoretical about this threat. On January 8, four Iranian Revolutionary Guards fast patrol boats came within 900 yards of the U.S.S. Mahan, a guided missile destroyer that was providing an escort to an amphibious warship with 1,000 Marines on board, and a Navy oiler making passage through international waters in the Gulf. They were heading directly towards U.S. vessels, and the U.S.S. Mahan had to fire warning shots to keep them at safe distance. Moreover, this is only the latest incident in a sustained pattern of harassment and provocation in the Gulf. The New York Times reports that there were 35 close encounters between American and Iranian vessels in 2016, most of which occurred during the first half of the year, and 23 encounters in 2015.

This is a grim reminder of the fact Iran has threatened in the past to close the Gulf to all shipping traffic, and is steadily building up a mix of naval, missile, and air capabilities to threaten shipping traffic all along its Gulf coast, at the Strait, and outside in the Gulf of Oman. This is not posturing or some casual series of incidents. Iran is steadily building up its submarine and submersible capabilities, land/sea/air based anti-ship missile forces, ability to rapidly deploy smart mines, and ability to "swarm" with missile-armed patrol boats and high speed craft armed with explosives that can be used for suicide attacks. At the same time, it is expanding its activities in the Indian Ocean…

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