The other day in the Strait of Hormuz history repeated itself but, as always in such cases, only as farce.
Five French-made speedboats flying the colors of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s parallel army, approached a US warship in a “threatening posture.” When the Americans asked what the Iranians wanted, the answer came loud and clear: Move away or we will sink you!
In response, the Americans trained their heavy guns on the tiny IRGC boats and prepared to fire.
The incident ended with some huffing and puffing at the end of which the IRGC warriors backed off and sailed away.
Had the IRGC not run away we might have had a repeat of what happened on 18 April 1987.
On that day, a group of IRGC speedboats actually fired on a US warship, triggering a naval duel that lasted more than 12 hours.
At the end of the day, the IRGC had lost most of its navy, a loss from which it did not recover until the mid-1990s. The Americans also did “collateral damage” worth $1.2 billion to Iran’s offshore oil installations.
No one knows how many IRGC men died. However, thanks to their better equipment, superior firepower and training, the Americans sustained few losses.
The duel had come in the context of Tehran’s campaign to stop the flow of Kuwaiti oil through the Strait by firing on tankers flying the Kuwaiti flag. Asked for help by Kuwait, the US had put the tankers under American flag. But even that had not stopped the IRGC’s quixotic campaign.
Significantly, the Americans took extra care not to destroy Iran’s regular navy which they had helped build in the1970s. With one or exceptions, the Iranian regular navy stayed on the sidelines as the IRGC took a beating.
The IRGC and its political masters showed that they had not learned one basic lesson of strategy: not to join battle unless you have at least a 50 per cent chance.
The 18 April 1987 battle has entered US naval history as one of the five greatest victories ever won at sea by the Americans. (It is taught at US naval academies as a model for sea warfare.)
The battle, which has been kept a secret from the Iranian people to this day, had greater consequences.
It showed that the regime created by Khomeini, like other authoritarian and/or totalitarian ones elsewhere in the world, lacked self-restraining mechanisms and would not stop unless it hit something hard. (Last year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put this in his usual colorful way when he said that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear policy was a locomotive with no clutch, back-gear, or brakes.)
Having hit something hard on his way, the ayatollah decreed an immediate halt to attacks on tankers.
He also ordered the IRGC to maintain a low profile within territorial waters. Khomeini understood that his brake-less locomotive had hit something hard and feared that, if he persisted, it might hit something harder.
The ayatollah who understood politics as the art of managing the use of violence, realized that he was provoking something more than the homeopathic doses of violence, mostly in the form of diplomatic gesticulations, that his American adversaries had used in response to the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, the holding of American hostages in Iran and Lebanon, and the mass killing, by Hezbollah suicide-bombers, of 241 US marines in Beirut.
Khomeini was forced to break his public pledge not to end the war with Iraq until his armies “liberate Karbala and move on to liberate Jerusalem.”
Within hours, his envoys at the United Nations were indicating that he would end the war provided the Americans took no further action.
Within weeks, the ayatollah had ordered an end to a war that had lasted eight years, cost a million lives, produced four million displaced persons, wiped out Iran’s biggest port, and cost the nation some $200 billion dollars in physical damage. (Khomeini described his decision as “drinking a cup of poison”. Ten months later, he was dead.)
If last week’s pseudo-engagement at Hormuz did not develop into a re-make of the 18 April 1987, it was because someone in Tehran ordered the IRGC to cut and run.
Whoever that “someone” in Tehran may be, has demonstrated that he has learned the lesson of the 18 April disaster. Provoking the Americans into a military conflict at this time could be even more disastrous for the Khomeinist regime.
In 1987, the Americans had just a few hundred troops in the region, mostly as technical advisors. Today, they have more than 230,000 in Iraq, the Gulf, and Afghanistan.
In 1987, the US could threaten the Khomeinist regime only from the southwest as the USSR controlled all regions to the north plus Afghanistan to east of Iran. Today, the US has a ring of bases around Iran- from Turkey to Pakistan, passing by Transcaucasia, Central Asia and Afghanistan. In addition, the US has assembled the largest naval battle group ever seen in the region.
Two other factors must be taken into account.
First, the Bush administration has already declared the IRGC “a terrorist organization”, making it politically easier to take action against it.
Secondly, it is clear that were a clash to take place now it would not remain limited as in 1987.
At that time, the Reagan administration only wanted to ensure the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. Today, the Bush administration hopes to reshape the balance of power in the Middle East in a way that could leave no place for the Islamic Republic without major changes in its overall policies and behavior.
A military conflict today cannot end in a draw. Nor could it be kept a secret from the Iranian people. It would have to end with a clear winner a loser.
Despite the so-called “scoops” about US plans to launch a war to change the regime in Tehran, a major military conflict at this time remains unlikely.
The reason is that “someone” in Tehran, whoever it is, may have understood the fact that a regime that, compared to 1987, has lost much of its popular base is in no position to risk another war.
Despite astronomical sums spent on building a military machine, the Islamic Republic is still in no position to enter a regular war with any hope of surviving, let alone winning. However, it remains a “superpower” in asymmetrical warfare, suicide-attacks, hostage taking, and what the rest of the world regards as terrorism. In that sense, the Islamic Republic has been at war with the US since 4 November 1979 and continues to inflict losses on its American enemies wherever possible, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is why those speedboats were ordered to run away, leaving the Americans with a dire choice: either to assume the responsibility of triggering a major conflict or continuing to accept the drip-drip losses inflicted on them for decades by the IRGC in asymmetric war.