Understanding the Military Equation in the Gulf

Published: February 26, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

This week The Economist contributed a thoughtful article to the conversation on what to do about Iran. [Link] It noted Iran has played for time while keeping an eye toward the day it “might be able to build a nuclear weapon.” Meanwhile the international community has negotiated with Iran, combining carrots and sticks while keeping powder dry for a last resort, military option. However, the “stand-off looks as if it is about to fail” according to The Economist.

As we take stock of the increasing prospects for a military confrontation between Iran and an international coalition we are mindful of the recent deployment of equal measures of blustery rhetoric and military forces for power projection demonstrations. The escalating tensions have reenergized the armchair admirals who seek to shape the conversation. Sadly much of the conversation ignores many of the facts on the ground. We are fortunate, however, that Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and his colleagues, have produced a collection of very valuable reports on the “Gulf Military Balance.” We were also fortunate to have learned about a well researched report from Kenneth Katzman and his colleagues at the Congressional Research Service addressing “Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz.”

All of these reports will be extremely useful to SUSRIS readers as background and context to a potential military conflict in the Gulf. Today we provide an overview of each of these reports for your consideration and remind you to check the SUSRIS Special Section on Iran [Link] that will be updated as new reference materials are available.

“The era of bullying nations has past. The arrogant powers cannot monopolize nuclear technology. They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed. Our nuclear path will continue.”

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, February 15, 2012.


Resources for Understanding the Military Equation in the Gulf


Iran and the Gulf Military Balance I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions
By Anthony H. Cordesman and Alexander Wilner
February 21, 2012

The tensions between Iran, the Southern Gulf states, and the US are reaching a crisis point that can easily escalate into military clashes or some form of more serious conflict. The US is now reshaping its posture in the Gulf to reflect its new strategy, and the need to adjust its force posture to take account of its withdrawal from Iraq. The GCC is now examining military options to improve its capability to deter and defend against Iran. At the same time, Iran is making new threats to “close the Gulf,” carrying out large-scale military exercises, and steadily refining its options for using its forces in asymmetric warfare.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed a comprehensive analysis of what is known and unknown about Iranian conventional and asymmetric military forces, the military balance in the Gulf, the risk of confrontation and conflict in the region, and the credibility of Iranian threats to “close the Gulf” and their potential impact on world energy exports and the global economy.

This analysis is designed to highlight key aspects of the threat Iran can pose to the region, and the priorities for US, Southern Gulf, and other countries to limit the risk of war and win any conflict if one should occur.

This analysis is entitled “Iran and the Gulf Military Balance I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions.”


Iran and the Gulf Military Balance II: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions
By Anthony H. Cordesman and Alexander Wilner
February 22, 2012

Competition Over Nuclear Threats, Missiles, and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction
Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, and future ability to arm its missiles and aircraft with such weapons, represents the most serious risk shaping US, Arab, Israeli and other military competition with Iran. It is also an area where the exact details of threat perceptions are particularly critical, although many key aspects of Israeli, US, and Gulf perceptions – as well as the perceptions of the decision makers in other states – are impossible to determine at an unclassified level.

There is little disagreement that Iran’s actions pose a potential threat, but there is far less agreement over the nature, scale and timing of this threat. US, European, Gulf, and Israeli policymakers and experts agree that Iran possesses a large and growing missile force, with some missiles capable of hitting Israel, and Europe. They agree that Iran has begun developing longer range and solid fuel missiles. At the same time, the Iranian program is in flux and many of Iran’s missile systems are still in a development phase where their range, accuracy, warhead, and reliability are impossible to predict.

There is no agreement as to when Iran may acquire missiles with homing warheads and the kind of terminal guidance that can hit point targets effectively with conventional warheads. There is no agreement on the reliability and accuracy of Iran’s missiles under operational conditions, there is no agreement on Iran’s ability to deploy systems with countermeasures to missile defenses. There is no agreement on when Iran might deploy a fully function nuclear warhead. And, there is no agreement on the future size, character, and basing mode of Iran’s missile forces once its long-range systems are deployed in strength.

Estimates of the nature of Iran’s nuclear weapons efforts vary more sharply, although most US, European, Gulf, and Israeli policymakers and experts now agree that Iran is actively working towards at least the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Similarly, they agree that Iran possesses virtually all of the technology and equipment necessary to produce fission weapons and has significant nuclear weapons design data.

There is no agreement as to exactly how far Iran has come in weapons design, over the nature of its nuclear weapons program if a dedicated program exists, how much is know about Iran’s various nuclear facilities, its future enrichment programs and how they will be concealed and protected. There is no agreement as to when or whether Iran will carry out actual nuclear tests, produce bombs or warheads (although the spectrum of uncertainty is now generally felt to be 2-5 years), no agreement as to how Iran will approach the storage and control of such weapons.


Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz
Congressional Research Service
January 23, 2012

Kenneth Katzman, Coordinator, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs;
Neelesh Nerukar, Coordinator, Specialist in Energy Policy;
Ronald O’Rourke, Specialist in Naval Affairs;
R. Chuck Mason, Legislative Attorney;
Michael Ratner, Specialist in Energy Policy


Some officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran have recently renewed threats to close or exercise control over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s threats appear to have been prompted by the likely imposition of new multilateral sanctions targeting Iran’s economic lifeline—the export of oil and other energy products. In the past, Iranian leaders have made similar threats and comments when the country’s oil exports have been threatened. However, as in the past, the prospect of a major disruption of maritime traffic in the Strait risks damaging Iranian interests. U.S. and allied military capabilities in the region remain formidable. This makes a prolonged outright closure of the Strait appear unlikely. Nevertheless, such threats can and do raise tensions in global energy markets and leave the United States and other global oil consumers to consider the risks of another potential conflict in the Middle East. This report explains Iranian threats to the Strait of Hormuz, and analyzes the implications of some scenarios for potential U.S. or international conflict with Iran. These scenarios include:

  • Outright Closure. An outright closure of the Strait of Hormuz, a major artery of the global oil market, would be an unprecedented disruption of global oil supply and contribute to higher global oil prices. However, at present, this appears to be a low probability event. Were this to occur, it is not likely to be prolonged. It would likely trigger a military response from the United States and others, which could reach beyond simply reestablishing Strait transit. Iran would also alienate countries that currently oppose broader oil sanctions. Iran could become more likely to actually pursue this if few or no countries were willing to import its oil.
  • Harassment and/or Infrastructure Damage. Iran could harass tanker traffic through the Strait through a range of measures without necessarily shutting down all traffic. This took place during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Also, critical energy production and export infrastructure could be damaged as a result of military action by Iran, the United States, or other actors. Harassment or infrastructure damage could contribute to lower exports of oil from the Persian Gulf, greater uncertainty around oil supply, higher shipping costs, and consequently higher oil prices. However, harassment also runs the risk of triggering a military response and alienating Iran’s remaining oil customers.
  • Continued Threats. Iranian officials could continue to make threatening statements without taking action. This could still raise energy market tensions and contribute to higher oil prices, though only to the degree that oil market participants take such threats seriously.
Source: Congressional Research Service

If an oil disruption does occur, the United States has the option of temporarily offsetting its effects through the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Such action could be coordinated with other countries that hold strategic reserves, as was done with other members of the International Energy Agency after the disruption of Libyan crude supplies in 2011.

Iran’s threats suggest to many experts that international and multilateral sanctions—and the prospect of additional sanctions—have begun to affect its political and strategic calculations. The threats have been coupled with a publicly announced agreement by Iran to resume talks with six countries on measures that would assure the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is used for purely peaceful purposes. Some experts believe that the pressure on Iran’s economy, and its agreement to renewed talks, provide the best opportunity in at least two years to reach agreement with Iran on curbing its nuclear program.


Related Items:

On SUSRIS.com and SUSRISblog.com


Reference Material

In the Media

*February 2012*


Articles and Interviews on SUSRIS by and with Anthony Cordesman