The Buzz

5 Reasons the Middle East is Becoming More Dangerous for the U.S. Navy

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval ships frequent, aggressive behavior towards the US Navy has hit new levels in the past few months, triggering several risky encounters in the Persian Gulf, even prompting a terse exchange during the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump over who would respond better to such provocations if they were in the White House. Then US navy ships in the Red Sea were targeted on Oct 8 and 12 by missiles from Yemen’s Houthi rebels, a capability the group may have gained from their Iranian backers. Why have the waters in the Middle East become more dangerous recently? Here are five reasons, (hint: they all have to do with Iran).

1. The IRGC wants everyone to know nothing changed after the nuclear deal:

If there have been any consistent themes from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC since the implementation of the JCPOA in January is that Washington cannot be trusted, that the US Navy’s presence in the Gulf is unwanted and unnecessary, and that the Islamic Republic will not change its fundamental opposition to the United States. Iran has always justified aggressive actions towards foreign ships by asserting its rights to protect the Persian Gulf from hostile actors. We may see their behavior as unprofessional, but for the IRGC our presence is illegitimate and fundamentally not deserving respect. The IRGC’s maritime outbursts will likely only become more dangerous as it strives to send a message abroad, and back home, that any greater economic openness to the world due to the JCPOA does not foreshadow any real political change from this regime.

2. Iranian naval forces are making large strides in weapons and surveillance:

The Iranian military has a long-term strategy of increasing the zone of risk for the US Navy and Air Force to operate near Iranian territory. This so called anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) approach is similar to those China and Russia have pursued in recent decades. The IRGC Navy is at the forefront of the effort, investing in increasingly accurate cruise missiles that can reach throughout most of the Gulf, increasingly sophisticated mines, greater numbers of midget submarines, and even a new high speed helicopter-carrying catamaran. Long-range surveillance and targeting will also become more accurate as the Islamic Republic further deploys and improves its new over-the-horizon radar systems and reconnaissance drones. US naval assets can still operate effectively against Iran outside the Persian Gulf if needed, but the safe zone will continue to push deeper into the Indian Ocean.

3. Iranian military may be making a doctrinal shift to a more offensive posture.