Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Factional Competition in the Leadup to the the 2012 Majlis Election

One recurring debate that pops up about US-Iranian relations surrounds the perceived rationality of Tehran's decision making process - is it governed by apocalyptic religious ideology, or is it instead guided by rational self-interest? Supporters of the former explanation would argue that a politician like Ahmadinejad, who is not typically known for shying away from provoking confrontation (his comments about the Holocaust and Israel early in his administration were carefully calculated to produce the most amount of shock at home and abroad), would always pursue such a behavior even if it induced negative consequences.

Recent developments continue to add mounting evidence to the proposition that this is not the case and that the leadership in Tehran is not governed by an iron-clad ideology, but by a desire for survival (and the power needed to ensure survival) in the meat-grinder that is domestic politics.* Most recently, Ahmadinejad was rumored to have denounced the brinksmanship that Iran has engaged in over the Persian Gulf. The Telegraph asserts that:
Mr Ahmadinejad claims the supreme leader's loyalists are deliberately provoking a confrontation with the West to make him look weak, thereby undermining his supporters' prospects in elections to the Majlis... (The Telegraph)
This would provide a tempting explanation for the statements by figures like Gen. Safavi which, to all involved, appeared to be setting Iran up to lose face after being forced to back down from impossible positions (i.e. refusing to allow a USN carrier to reenter the Persian Gulf); in other words, to paraphrase John Limbert, it was a product of maximalist rhetoric painting the leadership into positions they could never hope to defend.

If this source is to be believed however this was not an accidental occurrence, but a concerted effort to sap Ahmadinejad's political capital leading up to the 2012 Majlis election. Indeed, Khamenei may be attempting to restrain an unpopular (among elites anyway) Ahmadinejad in order preserve the tenuous balance of power which sustains the legitimacy of the political sphere. The Supreme Leader's goal is not to publicly exclude Ahmadinejad or his allies from participation in they system because doing so would have much the same effect as the boycott by certain reformist candidates is intended to achieve - demonstrate to Khamenei that he (and by extension Velayat-e Faqih) no longer have the consent of the population to govern. In this manner, it's essential for the current alliance between traditional conservatives and principlists to actually deprive Ahmadinejad of his support at a popular level, and among key power nodes.

In this scenario, escalation could have several purposes. Sabotaging the economy by way of international relations would have negative consequences for Ahmadinejad who is already suffering significant public relations flak for his handling of the economy - the number one issue to many voters in the coming election. This option would also simultaneously be privately attractive to many key IRGC-aligned figures close to the Suprme Leader who could use the opportunity to consolidate their own 'grey-market' patronage networks. It seems short-sighted to believe however that this strategy will function without blowback for Khamenei; Ahmadinejad may be blamed in the short-term for the state of the economy, preventing him from using his faction to successfully balance against Khamenei, but it may be a Pyrrhic victory if it comes at the cost of heightened tensions, and an a sluggish economy overall. Furthermore, because Khamenei essentiallys offers no real alternative to this strategy it may eventually end up delegitimizing him as well in the end.

Alternately, it could function as a form of brinksmanship within Tehran. Khamenei may be gambling that when Iran is eventually forced to backdown from its 'impossible positions', then Ahmadinejad would be saddled with the blame for "bowing to foreigners intent on dominating Iran" - a common refrain in domestic factional warfare.

Maybe some other dynamic is at work here?

*  It should be noted that this is not to say that Iran is a purely rational state governed by formulaic calculations of power; they are still subject to the influence of ideology and the threat of miscalculation. This is far from a unique problem as all nations suffer from it to some degree and while it may weight the calculations one way or another, it can never negate the calculations altogether. Even if Ahmadinejad (or any politician) has come to the conclusion that his interest lies in avoiding conflict, it must be remembered that this is still only just a means to an end. In this case, the end is a revisionist redistribution of power towards a global multi-polar world.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

16th Armored Division

 Revised and Updated - August 23, 2014


16th Division HQ
116th Brigade
216th Brigade
316th Brigade
Appendix - Commander IMINT AND Organization Charts

AAA: Anti-Aircraft Artillery
ACV: Armored Command Vehicle
APC: Armored Personnel Carrier
ARV: Armored Recovery Vehicle
AVLB: Armored Vehicle-Launched Bridge
BG: Brigadier General
BG2: Brigadier General, 2nd Class
Col.: Colonel
Col2: Colonel, 2nd Class
MANPADS: Man-Portable Air-Defense System
MANPATS: Man-Portable Anti-Tank System
PKO: Peace Keeping Operations
SPA: Self-Propelled Artillery
SPAAG: Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun
UN: United Nations

The Iranian Army Ground Forces' 16th Armored Division is based in north-western Iran, and is associated with both the Army's North-West, and Western Regional Operations Headquarters. As of 07/2014, the Division is commanded by BG2 Abdulreza Shahri.

Since 2011, in accordance with the Army's 'Samen Alaeme' reorganization plan, the division has been restructured into:
- 16th Division Operations HQ (Qazvin)
- 116th Independent Mechanized Infantry Brigade (Qazvin & Gilan)
- 216th Independent Armored Brigade (Zanjan)
- 316th Independent Armored Brigade (Hamedan)

16th Division Operations Headquarters:
The former divisional-HQ has been converted into an operations HQ, the exact function of which remains unknown. The working assumption is that the HQ staff provides coordinating support for brigades during maneuvers, while devolving its previous responsibility for combat-support, and combat-service support to the brigades.

However, this assumption cannot be verified. Between 2011 and 2013, there is only marginal activity in the former divisional garrison in Qazvin that would indicate a significant transfer of equipment.

In at least one instance the body is referred to as a 'tactical headquarters'. Although the distinction between the tactical and operational levels of war is significant in the West, it is unclear if it is equally significant in Iran.

The uncertainty is compounded because the brigades formerly subordinate to the division are associated with different regional operations HQs. The 116th and 216th brigades are associated with the north-west region, while the 316th AB is part of the western region. There is similar uncertainty concerning the relative roles of the divisional HQ versus the regional HQ, both ostensibly functioning at the same 'level'.

As of July 2014, the HQ is commanded by BG2 Abdulreza Shahri.

Because the HQ is co-located with the 116th Brigade, a review of relevant satellite imagery is found in the following entry.

116th 'Shahid Safavi' Independent Mechanized Infantry Brigade:

The 116th IMIB is based in Qazvin, where it shares a garrison with the division's operations HQ. Part of the brigade is permanently stationed at the Army's garrison in Manjil, which is in the Gilan province.
Google Earth offers imagery of the Qazvin location from 04/2003, 06/10/2011, 06/18/2011, 10/2011 (partial coverage), and 06/2013. Imagery is ostensibly available from 07/2012, but vanishes when viewed up close.

 Reconnaissance for the 116th IMIB includes an armored-cavalry section equipped with FV101 Scorpion light-tanks. Traditionally deployed at battalion strength within the divisional structure, they are deployed within brigades at an unknown level. At least four (one plt) are visible during BG Heidari's visit in 04/2014, while up to eight (two plts) are possibly visible in GE's 10/2009 and 06/18/2011 imagery.

Heavy armor for the 116th IMIB is provided by a battalion of FV4201 Chieftain tanks, which are stored under the cover of two long garages. Imagery from Heidari's visit shows the battalion at close to full-strength with around 40 tanks. This compares to wartime battalion strength of 45 tanks, with companies of 15. The battalion also includes two ARVs, and two AVLBs, both FV4201 variants, as well as three M113 APCs, and three M577 ACVs.

The most notable aspect of this brigade is the 185th Mechanized Infantry Battalion, which is trained to participate in UN peace-keeping operations. Created in 1993, the Bn has sent officers on a handful of UN missions for observation and training, including Eritrea, North & South Sudan, and Ethiopia. However, they have yet to to actively deploy as a unit for a UN mission. As of April 2014, the battalion is commanded by Col2 Mohammed-Reza Kazemi.
Col2. Kazemi (Saff #370)
The battalion is equipped with M113 APCs and M577 command vehicles, with an estimated strength of around 33 vehicles. A maximum of 25 are shown in GE's 06/2013 imagery, six of which are painted UN-white, suggesting that, at most, only a company has received the high-visibility paint scheme.
Wikimapia annotations identify the battalion's barracks-cluster. The cluster includes an H-shaped kitchen, at least two ancillary buildings, and four barracks, which is consistent with three rifle companies, plus a headquarters and weapons companies. The battalion commander noted that the unit is composed of seven companies, leaving one unaccounted for.

There is a second cluster with the same number of buildings, suggesting the existence of a second infantry battalion. There are at least three more recognizable clusters with between 3-5 T-shaped barracks. At least one more infantry battalion associated with this brigade is deployed in Manjil and is described below.

In addition, there are two tall, and 10 low & long buildings similar to military dormitories elsewhere. Some of these are undoubtedly associated with divisional personnel.

The base also contains a large number of residence-style housing with private courtyards.

Brigade combat-support includes a 12-gun battalion of M109 self-propelled artillery, which also comes equipped with the M548 tracked ammunition resupply vehicle.

Up to 34 towed guns, most likely the 130 mm M-46, are visible across a range of imagery. No distinct organization of these guns is apparent, but the number of observed is equivalent to about two battalions with batteries of six guns each. Newly imported Kraz-5233 and/or 6322 trucks are employed as gun-tractors.

Since towed artillery has only been observed at the Qazvin garrison, they were likely associated with the (former-) division rather than the co-located brigade. As of 2013, these guns remained in Qazvin, indicating that transfer of division fire-support was not part of the independent brigade restructuring.
Brigade air-defense includes a battalion of 12 ZSU-57-2 and/or ZSU-23-4 SPAAGs, which are consistently visible across the range of GE imagery. Both types have been documented in hand-held imagery, though only the ZSU-57-2 has been specifically linked to the brigade itself.

Air-defense is also provided by upwards of 27 towed Zu-23-2s, which are visible in GE's 06/18/2011 imagery. A similar number is found at the Zanjan garrison, suggesting these may be held at battery strength in infantry battalions, and/or battalion strength at the brigade level.

Engineering support for the brigade includes an engineering battalion deployed at the Manjil garrison, which is described below. Additional equipment is present at Qazvin, which is organized at an unknown strength and likely includes divisional assets. This includes three excavators, three-seven graders, four bulldozers, two-four bucket-loaders, and around 10 heavy trucks.

Between 2011 and 2013, the quantity of construction equipment drops precipitously, possibly indicating that the restructuring involves the transfer of non-combat support equipment to the brigade level. This is circumstantially supported by the construction of a motor-pool for engineering equipment at the Zanjan garrison during the same time. However, given the irregularity with which equipment observed in the open, this cannot be confirmed.

Similarly, between 2011 and 2013, two of the motor-pools containing tractor-trailers and other equipment likely associated with the division's transport and logistics sections were vacated, suggesting that this equipment has been pushed down to the newly-independent brigades.

These two events would be consistent with the stated aims of the reorganization, which is to increase the “stand-alone” capability of combat-brigades, by providing them with organic mobilization and maneuver capability.

The brigade maintains a separate detachment stationed at the Army's garrison in Manjil, which they share with the Navy's commando school. This includes the engineering battalion noted above, which was deployed for mine-clearance operations along the country's western border until 2013/2014. It also includes at least one “rapid-reaction” infantry battalion equipped with M113 APCs, 29 of which are visible in GE's 08/06/2013 imagery.

As of April 2014, the detachment is commanded by Col. Javad Rostam-Zadeh.

216th 'Shahid Mokhabari' Independent Armored Brigade:
The 216th Brigade is currently based in Zanjan, but is in the midst of a transfer to a new location some 20 km to the west of the city, near the village of Esfajin. As of July 2014, the brigade is commanded by Col./BG2 Ali Mazheri.

GE offers imagery of the garrison from 06/2005, 10/2010, 10/2011, 06/2012, and 07/2013.

Located in the city, the brigade's base has been an impediment to the city's urban development, leading to its inclusion in on-going nation-wide construction of new garrisons. However, like in many other cities, the Zanjan transfer has been delayed by bureaucratic disputes between the Army and the civilian government. As of Summer 2014, the actual transfer has not yet begun.

Brigade reconnaissance includes an unknown number of FV101s.

As an armored rather than mechanized brigade, the 216th is composed of two, rather than one tank battalion. The two battalions can be consistently identified across a range of imagery thanks to their distinct motor-pools. However, no more than 50+ FV4201s are visible in any given imagery. Each battalion is shown equipped with an AVLB, two ARVs, and three M113/M577 ACVs.

Another difference between mechanized and armored brigades is the type of AFVs employed by infantry battalions. Verified with parade imagery, more than 30 BMP-1s are visible in GE's 06/2012 imagery. They are typically parked in two distinct clusters adjacent to their respective garages. It may be that these are two distinct infantry units, or simply a function of available parking space.

A number of BTR-60s have been seen on parade, hinting at the possibility of another mechanized unit, but have not been observed in any overhead imagery.

Battalion weapon companies and support elements (e.g. MEDEVAC) are motorized in part by ATVs and bikes. This includes MANPADS, MANPATS, and 60 mm mortars.

At the brigade level, additional armament support is provided by M40 recoilless-rifles, TOW & AT-4/5 ATGMs, 81 & 120 mm mortars, and DShK machine-guns. These are organized at an unknown level, and are primarily motorized by organic tactical vehicles like Toyota Land-Cruisers and Jeeps.

HQ units, both at the battalion and brigade level, rely heavily on unarmored Jeeps in addition to the M577 ACVs.

Artillery support is provided by a self-propelled M109 battalion.

Brigade air-defense includes at least 27 towed Zu-23-2s, which is the same strength as the Zu-23-2s observed in Qazvin and are likely organized in a similar manner. ZPU-4s have been observed on parade and are organized at an unknown rate. On parade, Zu-23-2s are shown towed by a number of vehicles including ¾-ton tactical vehicles, and by larger Kraz and Mercedes Benz trucks, suggesting the possibility of different deployment levels alluded to in the Qazvin entry. No SPAAGs have been documented.

Between 2011 and 2013, a new motor-pool for engineering equipment is constructed, and populated with construction equipment possibly transferred from the division during the post-2011 restructuring. Equipment includes an excavator, and at least one bucket loader.

Another motor-pool contains a range of vehicles, including M577 ACVs, and additional light and heavy trucks including those in the MB 911 size-range and those fitted with containerized equipment-shelters. These are likely associated with brigade headquarters and non-combat support elements such as signal units (which are organized at a unknown rate at brigade level).

Next to this is a second motor-pool primarily populated between 2011 and 2013. Although the warehouse and other buildings pre-date the reorganization, new vehicles which may have originated in the former-division include tractors, tractor-trailers, and a range of medium and heavy trucks. Other than this, the brigade would have little in the way of organic transport and support in comparison to the observable equipment at the division HQ in Qazvin.

316th 'Shahid Qehrman' Independent Armored Brigade:
The 316th Brigade s based in Hamedan, and as of 05/2014, it is commanded by BG2 Hamza Beidari.

Unlike the other two brigades associated with the 16th Division HQ, the 316th is part of the Army's western military region, as opposed to the northwest region. According to comments made by the commander, the role of the 316th brigade in the region is to provide operational depth by functioning as a combat reserve.

Google Earth offers imagery of the Hamedan garrison from 06/2011, and 05/2014. Imagery is ostensibly available from 11/2012, but vanishes when viewed close-up.

The division's 252nd armored-cavalry reconnaissance battalion has traditionally been stationed in Hamedan, though it is unknown whether this deployment survived the war, let alone the 2011 reorganization.3 At least some FV101s continue to be observed on parade in Hamedan, indicating that some of this capability has been maintained.

Heavy armor for the 316th Brigade includes two battalions equipped with Chieftain tanks, which have been historically designated the 224th and 227th Bns. In GE's 06/2011 imagery, one of these battalions is clearly visible with a strength of 34-35 FV4201s, plus two ARVs, one-two AVLBs, and six M113/M577 ACVs.

The second battalion is parked under the cover of two long garages similar to those used in Qazvin. However, these garages are shared with an unknown number of light AFVs, including BTR-60s, making it difficult to accurately quantify its strength.

Similarly, the brigade's infantry strength cannot be assessed with available resources. BTR-60s and BMP-2s have been documented with hand-held imagery on parade and display, but are hidden under cover in satellite imagery. 25 suspected-M113s can be seen in GE's 05/2014 imagery, but are absent from any parade imagery. Due to image quality and dimension estimates, it is possible that some are actually ZSU-23-4 SPAAGs.

Brigade artillery includes an M109 battalion, which may have more than the usual number of 12 guns.

Parade imagery shows the 316th Brigade using tactical vehicles – including motorcycles, ATVs, and Jeeps – for the same purposes described in the entry for the 216th Brigade.

Air defense is provided in part by what is most likely a battalion of ZSU-23-4 SPAAGs, which are frequently observed on parade, but cannot be confidently identified on satellite imagery.


[coming soon]

Appendix - Commander IMINT AND Organization Charts:
[coming soon]

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Tanker War 1987-1988 - Operational Lessons for 2012 and Beyond

As I mentioned in late-October, one of the reasons for the lack of posts this Fall has been due to my focusing on a research project concerning the modern political history of Iran as part of my academic studies at the Evergreen State College. One key element in this study was an examination of the dynamics that affected the US-Iranian relationship during the Tanker War and the effect of military force on attempts to coerce the Iranian leadership in Tehran to adopt certain positions. In light of recent tensions in the Gulf, I feel an examination of historical precident may serve to clear away at least some of the clouds. What follows is one of the papers I wrote for the project.

I offer this disclaimer: it must be remembered that 2012 is not 1988 and no matter what historical similarities may exist, there are also differences that make it risky to base ones future moves entirely off of past precedents. All the same, while history may not offer us a panacea, it is still valuable nonetheless.

My apologies if any of the foot-notes are off, I had to transcribe them from "chicago-style" footnotes in a word document which doesn't lend itself to copy-paste.


One of the primary effects of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 was to radically alter the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region. The US strategy of using Iran and Saudi Arabia to ensure regional stability and contain the Soviet Union had collapsed; Iran’s military was also left in disarray, a mere shadow of its former self. Iraq meanwhile was now under the leadership of Saddam Hussein who seized power in 1979 and who, in the wake of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords in the late-1970s, began to envision Iraq as the leader of a pan-Arab ‘rejectionist’ bloc who could fill the security void in the Persian Gulf. (1) This came to a head in September of 1980 when, following months of escalating border clashes, the Iraqi army crossed the border en masse and attempted to seize and hold a significant portion of south-western Iran in what James Bill describes as a “political struggle for the hegemony of the Persian Gulf”. (2) Inevitably the war spilled into the Gulf; after spending two years forcing Iraq out of their territory, Iran began a series of offensives aimed at punishing Baghdad and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Facing defeats in the ground war, Iraq opened the first phase of the Tanker War in 1984 by using the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) to strike at shipping in an effort to deplete Iran of their ability to export the petrochemicals on which it depended. Unable to attack Iraqi oil export capacity (Iraq had switched to using Kuwaiti tankers, or using overland pipelines), Iran resorted to attacking neutral shipping traffic carrying Iraqi oil and other goods. (3) The Tanker War escalated through 1986, drawing more and more international attention. A number of successful Iranian offensives, especially the capture of the strategic Faw peninsula, Iraq’s only border with the northern Persian Gulf, was beginning to create the fear that Iran might be able to topple Baghdad and in doing so, mark the first step in Iran’s regional domination. This was also paired with the revelation in the second half of 1986 that the US had been secretly supplying arms to Iran. (4) This confluence of factors led Washington to accept Kuwait’s call at the end of 1986 for international escorts for their tanker convoys.(5)

The decision to escort Kuwaiti tankers and protect them from Iranian attacks officially marked the US entry into the Tanker War and the start of confrontations between the US Navy (USN) and Iran’s naval forces (INFs). (6) Between 1987 and 1988 the USN and INFs would butt heads on several occasions, eventually concluding with Operation Preying Mantis in the spring of 1988. This paper aims to explore the operational lessons that can be gleaned from studying these engagements and what these lessons can tell us today about the possible behavior of INFs in a contemporary naval war in the Persian Gulf. Its experience has had a catalyzing effect on Iranian strategic planning and has revolutionized the way Iran intends on fighting the US but despite this, the case-study remains woefully underexploited as a pedagogical tool for contingency planning within the US. (7) Specifically, this paper will unpack the conventional wisdom surrounding the efficacy of military force to coerce Iranian policymakers into both drawing down the Tanker War, and contributing to an overall cease-fire with Iraq.

Following Kuwait’s request in late 1986 for international escorts, Iran began a wide range of provocative military posturing in order to avoid this scenario which it rightfully felt would unjustly help Iraq. In February and April INFs began deploying Chinese-built HY-2 anti-ship cruise-missiles (ASCM) and threatened to seize the straits of Hormuz. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) also began a process of highly-visible arms procurement and training in preparation for a conflict with the USN; they also escalated their sea-mining operations. The political leadership also threatened the US and USSR that they would be repulsed if they attempted to interfere in the Persian Gulf, specifically saying that it would become “a second Afghanistan”.(8)

Then, on May 17, an IrAF fighter jet on an anti-shipping operation in the Persian Gulf fired at what it likely believed was an Iranian tanker. The ship in question was in fact a USN frigate called the USS Stark. The damage caused by the two Exocet ASCMs crippled the ship and killed 37 US sailors. In the US, debates erupted about the nature of the US mission in the Gulf and whether or not Reagan had the authority to station military forces in a warzone without getting authorization through the War Powers Act. This led many parties in the region, including Iran and the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)(9) , to fear that “…a peripheral strategy of indirect attacks on U.S. ships and forces … might lead the Congress and American people to demand that the U.S. halt its reflagging effort, or even withdraw from the Gulf.”(10) The debate over the Stark also came in the wake of the US withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984 following the car-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut where 241 marines were killed, an attack which was most likely perpetrated by Iran’s proxy group in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Iran’s interpretation of these two events was such that Iran believed that the US was ‘self-constrained’ when it came to force and even though the US might theoretically have an extremely power military, it lacked the national will in order to use it and at the same time remained vulnerable to highly symbolic attacks that dealt significant blows (such as the casualties in the wake of the barracks bombing and the Stark). Furthermore, the lack of any punitive measures toward Iraq in retaliation for the attack further emboldened Iran into believing that the convoy escorts that were about to begin were toothless.

The first US escort convoy for Kuwaiti tankers was set to take place in mid/late-July. Only a month earlier in June, Iran had begun sea-mining operations in the northern Gulf near Kuwait. (11) It was in this environment that the US-flagged Bridgeton, part of the very first US-protected convoy, struck and was crippled by a floating sea mine on July 24th. Up until this point, the USN strategy was to rely on the threat of US power alone to deter Iran from attacking the convoys. (12) The failure in this policy was that while the presence of a carrier-battle-group was a powerful show of force that Iran recognized could deal significant damage to their navy; they didn’t believe the US would ever be able to muster together enough support to actually use it, a belief that was verified when Iran escaped all retaliation for the mining.

In the wake of the incident, Iran was further emboldened by the fact that USN was impotent against a threat like naval mines. Guided-missile-frigates were effective in projecting power across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans against waves of hypothetical Soviet aircraft, but carried no counter-measures against WWI-era floating mines that were found in the confines of the Persian Gulf; as an ad-hoc measure, the USN resorted to stationing sailors at the bow of ships with a rifle and a set of binoculars. As a result, the US has proved incapable of carrying out its mission of protecting the tankers and was dealt a sharp blow to their prestige.

The Bridgeton incident also demonstrated to Iran the importance of ambiguity. Because Iran never directly admitted responsibility and there was nothing conclusively tying Iran to the mines in question the international community was never able to pin the blame on Iran and generate momentum for any kind of punitive action. (13) Then-PM Mir Hossein Mousavi credited the attack to “invisible hands” and top military authority Hashemi Rafsanjani threatened further attacks on states that supported Iraq’s war effort. (14) (15) In the following months, the IRGCN was encouraged by Ayatollah Khomeini to escalate its confrontations with the USN. (16) Cordesman asserts that in August 1987, “…every week brought a new Iranian effort to strike at the U.S. by indirect means … that would embarrass the U.S. and potentially force it to withdraw.”(17)

The US’s only response to the incident is to issue Iran one of the first major ‘lines in the sand’ so-to-speak – if the US caught an Iranian mine-laying ship, it would be sunk. (18)  This threat does not appear to have had any deterrent effect because INFs followed Khomeini desire to escalate their confrontation with the USN with numerous small boat attacks and a renewed sea-mining campaign in August and September. During this time, Iran relied heavily on plausible deniability to protect them from retaliation from the USN, relying on a fleet of covert mine-laying ships which were difficult to track in the crowded Persian Gulf. However, this strategy failed when USN forces were able to capture the Iran Ajr landing craft being used to lay a minefield north of Qatar on September 21.(19)

The reason this line-in-the-sand didn’t have a deterrent effect on Iran with regard to their decision to continue mine warfare can be traced to the same fundamental reason that Iran felt it could attack the Bridgeton – US threats still didn’t hold any credibility. Mine warfare offered enough anonymity to avoid retaliation, but still offered the possibility of dealing a crippling blow to the USN which would then, presumably, spark a withdrawal. Interestingly though, the Iranian leadership initially took a conciliatory posture when the possibility of a major US attack in response was still possible; then-President Ali Khameini emphasized that Iran had no interest in entering into war with the US.(20)

On one hand, while the Iran Ajr incident did result in an increase in domestic support for Reagan and for the idea of a military reprisal against Iran, and helped isolate Iran diplomatically, the continued lack of any actual punitive retaliation quickly swept fears of a war with the US from the INF’s minds. (21) Consequently, by October the Tanker War was back to its regular tempo with small boat attacks and clashes with the USN. This culminated on October 15/16 when Iran fired a handful of HY-2 ASCMs toward Kuwait, striking both a neutral tanker, and the US-flagged Sea-City Isle.(22)

This time, the US decided that they would strike back. Launched on October 19, Operation Nimble Archer was conceived of as limited, proportional response designed not to escalate the existing level of tensions so as to not endanger a comprehensive cease-fire being negotiated at the same time; a handful of USN surface vessels destroyed two abandoned oil platforms off the southern coast of Iran.(23)

In response to this show of force Iran temporarily halted all anti-shipping operations until November when Iraq resumed attacks on Iranian targets in the Gulf. At this point, even though Iran resumed tanker-hunting in the Gulf, they were careful to only attack neutral targets and steered clear of any direct attacks on the USN. (24)  This indicates that Iran responded at least somewhat positively to Operation Nimble Archer by choosing not to continue the harassing attacks against the USN. Despite this, the incident also confirms a second trend in INF behavior which is that while Iran does respond positively, within the framework established, they will continue to do it’s best to subvert the aims of USN forces. What I mean by this is that in the wake of Nimble Archer Iran might have retreated to the limits set – Iran stopped attacking US-flagged tankers, but within this rule Iran stretched the limits as far as possible by escalating the mining war, and in attacks against neutral-flagged tankers. This was again illustrated at the end of 1987 when it appears that the US covertly threatened Iran over the conditions in the Gulf. While it is impossible to know the exact nature of the threat, it appears to have been in regards to Iran’s continued attacks against maritime traffic. (25)  Combined with an aggressive naval strategy of shadowing Iranian warships by the USN, Iran relented and in February through early-March, the Persian Gulf was relatively calm.(26)

In March and April of 1988, the Iranian leadership was under extreme pressure following setbacks in the ground war to produce a final victory so as to end the war. (27) (28) During this time, there is a divisive internal debate going on in Tehran surrounding the strategy in the Gulf, some believed that only had to be dealt a further blow, while some others felt that a military confrontation would only end in disaster. (29) Ultimately though, the IRGCN restarted their sea-mining campaign in the Gulf which culminated on April 14 when the US warship USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a floating mine in the southern Persian Gulf which crippled the vessel. While this attack would justify a more significant response then Nimble Archer, the retaliation for the deliberate mining of a US warship was still a limited, proportional response; On April 19 the USN destroyed two oil platforms, sunk an IRIN frigate, missile-boat, and severely crippled another frigate. (30) The USN also declared that it would now act to protect all neutral shipping passing through the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s response to this incident was mixed. Those who favored a confrontational posture suffered significant fallout in Tehran as the US, instead of backing down, struck back at Iran. (31) Likewise, many in Iran’s conventional armed forces were stunned, for the rest of the war the IRIN and IRIAF were ordered not to engage the USN. (32)  Combined with the accidental shoot-down of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf by the US cruiser USS Vincennes on July 3, Preying Mantis had the effect of indicating to Tehran that the US would never tolerate an Iranian victory and now had no compunctions about intervening directly on Iraq’s behalf. The fact that the US response took place on the same day that Iraq recaptured the strategic Faw peninsula drove this point home. Rafsanjani declared that “Time is not on our side anymore, the world – I mean the anti-Islamic powers – has decided to make a serious effort to save Saddam Hussein and tie our hands.”(33)

The most interesting reaction came from the IRGCN however, despite the fact that Khomeini was under intense pressure to end the war the IRGCN was further incensed in the wake of Preying Mantis, and, against the better urging of various factions in Tehran, continued to harass the US after a limited operational pause in May. (34) By June, small-boat attacks and mine-laying had resumed, and HY-2 ASCM facilities were expanded around the straits of Hormuz. (35) This is easily one the more important lessons of the US’s interaction with the INFs during 1987-1988; one cant talk about how “Iran” responds to coercive violent force like Preying Mantis because there isn’t a singular ‘Iran’ to respond to it in the first place. What the US perceived when it saw Khomeini spitefully accept the ‘chalice of poison’ when he signed the ceasefire with Iraq was that “This sequence of events...has clearly indicated that Iranians, despite all their rhetoric, religious zeal and determination, at the end of the day are also quite susceptible to the implications [and effects] posed by an overwhelming and decisive military force”.(36) In reality however, the decision to accept a cease-fire was far more complicated and owed the final outcome more to factional competition then the decisive impact of US operations. For instance, without the pressure from other factions, it is more then likely that the IRGCN would have escalated its attacks on US ships, leading to further confrontation in the Fall of 1988. In other words, it might have been necessary for the US to demonstrate that they would never let Iran win the Tanker War in order for a comprehensive ceasefire, but it alone would not have been sufficient to force Iran to cease hostilities.

The reason the Tanker War serves as such a good teaching tool today is because this is exactly the way Iran has approached it, Tom Cooper asserts that:
“Preying Mantis should be seen as a 'university' of the modern Iranian naval power. Not only that the Iranian leaders learned a lot about the behaviour of the US politicians and military commanders from that operation, but their naval forces learned about all of their inherent weaknesses, about the equipment of their enemy and his/her technological superiority, and prompted them to search for ways of evading these, or exploiting their weak spots. Preying Mantis prompted them to tackle all of these through successive reforms and modernizations ever since. The modern-day Iranian naval forces are actually neatly tailored to the (Iranian) lessons of Preying Mantis.” (37)
Today the possibility of naval warfare between the US and Iran is again a prescient threat. In the same way that the Iran-Iraq war sprung from a contest between Iran and Iraq over the hegemony of the Persian Gulf, Iran and the US are now locked in a geostrategic struggle for control over the influence of the same region. (38) So what can the Tanker War tell us about the contemporary behavior of INFs?

The fundamental and most important lesson is that Iran can in fact be successfully deterred and coerced through the threat and use of military force. The ability to successfully extract concessions however is dependent on the credibility of a ‘greater force’ which can be brought to bear should Iran fail to be deterred by a limited reprisal.

Historically Iran has proven to be extremely vulnerable to threats against its ability to export petrochemicals; while Iran did maintain an overall policy of confrontation with the USN over the span of the Tanker War, political leaders were careful into never provoking the US into attacking this lifeline. (39) In fact, this specific threat proved its efficacy as Iran, after been informed by the US that any use of HY-2 ASCMs in the straits of Hormuz would be tantamount to a declaration of war on the United States, never used them except in the Northern Gulf. (40) Throughout the Tanker War Iran relied on these exports to maintain their war against Iraq and prevent the complete erosion of public support for the war. It should be noted that Iraqi anti-shipping efforts never seriously endangered the ability of Iran to export the majority of its oil. (41) Moreover, the Iranian economy is still highly dependent on petrochemicals and is the single largest source of government revenue.(42)

However, it should be noted that today Iran still feels the US has little credibility in the Persian Gulf, in part because Iran is so confident in its strategy developed in the wake of their defeat in the Tanker War. (43) Meanwhile, strategists in Tehran have carefully observed the US experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq and have come to the conclusion that, in the words of the current military advisor to the Supreme Leader, Major General Safavi “The Americans have many weaknesses. In fact, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they clearly displayed their strengths and weaknesses. … They are very cowardly, there are even scenes from Iraq in which they are seen crying. When their commanders encounter a problem, they burst into tears. … I can therefore say that our advantage over the foreign forces is moral and human.” (44)  This is, in essence, a repackaging of the same ideology that perceived the US withdrawal from Lebanon as signaling the US position as a ‘paper tiger’ that couldn’t stomach a fight.

The fact that the U.S. lacks this credibility is one of the reasons we can expect INFs to continue their policy of brinksmanship in the Gulf, aimed at exposing the US’s supposed inability to exert its will. Like their operations in the Tanker War, INFs will push the limits of US ‘lines-in-the-sand’ in an attempt to discredit the US effort. This can be observed even today in the numerous confrontations that have happened in the past decade in encounters between the USN and the IRGCN. (45) Defeating this brinksmanship can only be achieved by immediately and decisively responding in order to establish credibility. In other words, Iran cannot be allowed to test and exceed the limits set by the USN.

In carrying out a reprisal aimed at establishing credibility, the US would be aided by a significant transformation in the way US forces have operated in the region since the 1980s. During the Tanker War, the US was restricted to basing their forces from aircraft carriers and floating barges because of the reluctance of Arab states to visibly cooperate with the United States. (46) Today these same states are less far less reluctant to balance growing Iranian influence by shoring up their relationship with the US; after being asked about the loss of US influence in the Gulf, Secretary of Defense Panetta quipped that “…in Bahrain … we've got almost 5,000 troops … We've got about ... 3,000 in the UAE and about 7,500 in Qatar.” (47) Gulf Arab States would be far more likely to contribute to any Gulf peace-keeping operation and just as importantly, aid the US logically by providing basing for US airpower.

But this advantage would do little to outweigh many of the new challenges that have sprung up in the 20+ interceding years. Most notably, Iran’s naval forces are far more capable today; instead of only being equipped with small-boats armed with machine-guns and light rocket launchers, the IRGCN now operates a large fleet of advanced torpedo and missile-boats, a modest fleet of light submarines, and a large number of shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM). Sea-mining capability has also become more credible since 1988.(48)

The lack of a parallel conflict like the Iran-Iraq war to drain the economy and consume resources means that the Iranian populace will be much more likely to oppose political concessions to de-escalate the naval conflict in the same way that Preying Mantis, in conjunction with Iraqi ground offensives, pressured pragmatic factions to push-through a cease-fire agreement in opposition to the hardliners. Furthermore, the fact that IRGC-led factions are currently politically dominant in Tehran means that those individuals and factions most likely to be successfully deterred by the threat of force from the US are the same ones that will likely be sidelined in a confrontation between the two countries.(49)

Another challenge the US would face is the inherent unpredictability of warfare and the risk of miscalculation. For instance, it is extremely likely that Iran could misinterpret any wide scale punitive measures as attempts as ‘regime change’, the perpetual boogey-man in the night for Iranian strategists. (50) (51) If this happens, it is extremely unlikely that Iran would react rationally to a limited war, and would instead act to preserve the very survival of the Islamic Republic. This possibility casts into light the value of the proposed hot-line between US and Iranian forces that would mirror the red-telephone of the Cold War that connected Washington to Moscow in order to prevent accidental nuclear war. Iran rejected this possibility in late September. (52) The end-state of these diverse factors is that if the US hopes to coerce Iran into backing down from any future naval conflict, the US government must be prepared to invest significantly more in terms of effort invested, and in acceptance of any possible loss.

1) ‘Rejectionist’ meaning anti-Israel, anti-US, and anti-Imperialist; Farhang Rejaee, "Introduction," The Iran-Iraq War: The Politics of Aggression, ed. Farhang Rajaee (Gainesville, Fl: University Press of Florida, 1993), 2-3.
2) Keith McLachlan, "Analysis of the Risks of War: Iran-Iraq Discord 1979-1980," The Iran-Iraq War: The Politics of Aggression, ed. Farhang Rajaee (Gainesville, Fl: University Press of Florida, 1993), 26-27.
3) Tom Cooper, and Farzad Bishop, Iran-Iraq War in the Air: 1980-1988, (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2000), 161.
4) Cooper and Bishop, 229. The US grew closer to Baghdad in the wake of Iran-Contra because Washington felt it had to mend its relationship with the Arab states, who felt betrayed that the US would provide arms to Iran.
5) David Christ, "Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.-Iranian Confrontation at Sea," Policy Focus, no. 95 (2009): 2,
6) Iran’s forces include the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp Navy (IRGCN) and Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). ‘INF’ is a provisional designation not used outside of this report.
7) Tom Cooper. Operation Preying Mantis. Air Combat Information Group Forum. October 27 2011.
8) Anthony Cordesman, The Lessons Of Modern War, Vol. 2: The Iran-Iraq War , (Westview Press, 1990), chap. 9.
9) The GCC includes the nations of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, The UAE, and Oman.
10) Cordesman, chap.9
11) Cordesman, chap.9
12) Christ, 4
13) Cordesman, chap.9
14) Cordesman, chap.9
15) Interestingly, both of these figures (Mousavi and Rafsanjani) are key figures in the modern-day reform movement within Iran
16) Fariborz Haghshenass, "Iran’s Asymmetric Naval Warfare," Policy Focus (2008): 5
17) Cordesman, chap.9
18) Cordesman, chap.9
19) Christ, 13
20) Cordesman, chap.9
21) The US’s only response was to sink the Iran Ajr landing craft which was envisioned by some to be retaliation, but lacked any actual punitive measures against other targets, i.e. it didn’t actually raise the cost for mining operations.
22) Tom Cooper, and Farzad Bishop, 253.
23) Cordesman, chap.9
24) Cordesman, chap.9
25) Cordesman, chap.9
26) Christ, 7
27) Anthony Cordesman, The Lessons Of Modern War, Vol. 2: The Iran-Iraq War, (Westview Press, 1990), chap.10, p.29.
28) These setbacks include the failed Iranian Valfajr-10 offensive in which Iraq made heavy use of chemical weapons and the use of SCUD-type missiles during the War of the Cities to strike population centers.
29) Christ, 13
30) Cordesman, chap.10, 25-28
31) Christ, 13
32) Cooper and Bishop. 276
33) Cordesman, chap.10, 30
34) Cooper, ACIG Forums
35) Cordesman, chap.10, 34-40
36) Jahangar Arasli, "Obsolete Weapons, Unconventional Tactics, and Martyrdom Zeal: How Iran Would Apply its Asymmetric Naval Warfare Doctrine in a Future Conflict," Occasional Paper Series, no. 10 (2007): 20
37) Tom Cooper, ACIG Forums
38) This can be observed in a number of official statements from naval commanders and other officials. See ‘Fars News English’ in the works cited section for a few examples.
39) Cordesman, chap.9
40) Christ, 10
41) Cordesman, chap.9
42) The implication here is that if because the USN and USAF today can operate a far more effective campaign to destroy infrastructure compared to the IrAF in the 1980s, as demonstrated during Iraq 1991/2003 and Libya 2011, the ability to actually affect Tehran’s policy by way of oil revenue would be far greater.
43) See Tom Cooper quote above
44) Arasli, 44
45) Shachtman 01/08/2008
46) Cordesman, chap.9
47) Dreyfuss, 10/14/11
48) For the full details of Iran’s naval modernizations and their larger doctrine aimed at asymmetrically defeating USN forces, see Haghshenass’s “Iran’s Asymmetric Naval Warfare” and Arasli’s “Obsolete Weapons”
49) Thaler et al, 2009
50) --- (foot-note related to another paper I had written for this project which is otherwise unavailable)
51) Fars News, December 2010
52) Gladstone, 2011

Works Cited:
McLachlan, Keith. Analysis of the Risks of War: Iran-Iraq Discord 1979-1980. The Iran-Iraq War: The Politics of Aggression. Edited by Farhang Rajaee. Gainesville, Fl: University Press of Florida, 1993.

Cooper, Tom, and Farzad Bishop. Iran-Iraq War in the Air: 1980-1988. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2000.

Christ, David. "Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.-Iranian Confrontation at Sea." Policy Focus. no. 95 (2009).

Tom Cooper. Operation Preying Mantis. Air Combat Information Group Forum. October 27 2011.

Cordesman, Anthony. The Lessons Of Modern War, Vol. 2: The Iran-Iraq War . Westview Press, 1990.

Haghshenass, Fariborz. "Iran’s Asymmetric Naval Warfare." The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Policy Focus. (2008)

Arasli, Jahangar. "Obsolete Weapons, Unconventional Tactics, and Martyrdom Zeal: How Iran Would Apply its Asymmetric Naval Warfare Doctrine in a Future Conflict." Occasional Paper Series. no. 10 (2007): 20.

Fars News English, "Commander: IRGC Monitoring All Enemy Moves in Persian Gulf ." Last modified 10/25/2011. Accessed October 27, 2011.

Fars News English, "Armed Forces Hail Iranian Navy as Powerful Force in Region ." Last modified 11/27/2010. Accessed October 27, 2011.

Shachtman, Noah. The Danger Room, "How Iran Attacks at Sea (Updated)." Last modified 01/08/2008. Accessed October 28, 2011.

Dreyfuss, Robert. PBS Frontline-The Tehran Bureau, "Iran after the Iraq Pullout ." Last modified 10/24/11. Accessed October 29, 2011.

Fars News English, “Minister: Enemies Continuing Soft War to Overthrow Islamic Republic.” Last Modified 12/03/2010. Accessed October 29, 2011.

Gladstone, Rick. "Iran Mass-Produces New Missile and Rejects ‘Hot Line’ Idea With America." The New York Times, , sec. World, September 28, 2011. (accessed October 29, 2011).

Thaler, David, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold Green, Charlotte Lynch, and Frederic Wehrey. "Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics." RAND Corporation Monograph. (2009).