Iranian shipping threat extends beyond Strait of Hormuz

British oil tanker Stena Impero surrounded by IRGC speedboats. Credit: Morteza Akhoundi/ISNA/Handout via Xinhua

The threat to shipping from US-Iran conflict is by no means limited to ship traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Expert analysis indicates that the world’s busiest shipping lane, the Red Sea, is also implicated in the potential theatre of war.

“The Al Asad airbase attack did not constitute a settling of the score; it is therefore very conceivable that Iran will now retreat deeper into the ‘grey zone’ when calculating its next steps,” Jake Longworth, senior intelligence analyst at EOS Risk, told SAS. The Suez Canal, a vital bottleneck in tanker trade, recorded oil traffic of 3.9 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (boe/d) in 2016.

“It is definitely misleading to present the Iran crisis as being confined to the Persian Gulf region … Iran does possess ‘strike potential’ in the Red Sea via Yemen’s Houthi movement, a proxy they supply with sophisticated weaponry and strategic assistance.”

Iran’s use of general cargo vessel MV Saviz, currently anchored 100 nautical miles (185 km) off Jizan, Saudi Arabia, as a staging point for assisting Houthis in Yemen, is an open secret. In July 2019, Saudi Arabia claimed to have evacuated an injured seafarer from the vessel before airlifting them to a military hospital in Jizan. “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) operates a maritime forward operating and logistics base in the Red Sea on board the MV Saviz … it is likely that the high-tech radar and electronic systems installed on board this merchant vessel have been used to directly assist in some Houthi offensive maritime operations,” Longworth indicated.

Houthis have been implicated in the 2016 attack on Saudi frigate HSV-2 Swift and missile attacks on Bahri very-large crude carriers (VLCCs) Abqaiq and Arsan in 2018. “The majority of attacks against Saudi and Emirati-affiliated merchant and naval tonnage in the Red Sea can be indirectly attributed to Iran. The main maritime weaponry used by the Houthis in the region consists of anti-ship missiles, remote-controlled waterborne improvised explosive devices (WBIEDs), and naval mines with contact detonators.”

US President Donald Trump has made clear his stance on the matter, in various statements and tweets, that if Iran strikes any US citizens or assets, the country will not shy away from conflict.

However, military experts indicate that a conventional war between both countries is unlikely, thanks to the likely pyrrhic outcome of any potential invasion, identified during “The Millennium Challenge” wargame that was held in 2002.

“Both sides, however, still share a mutual desire for escalation control and all actions are still being pitched just short of the threshold for an outbreak of conventional war,” said Longworth. “It is still a dangerous zero-sum game to be playing, especially when so many different Middle East powder kegs are at risk of igniting.

“The geographical reach of Iran’s Quds Force and the regime’s strategic patience means forecasting where, when, and how the next attack will unfold is something of a fool’s game. No doubt there will be particular assets, locations, and broader strategic objectives that feature more regularly on the IRGC’s notepads, but in a multifaceted ‘grey zone’ conflict defined by ambiguity, it is very difficult to forecast specifics.”