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US quietly prepares for naval clash with Iran in Strait of Hormuz

Iran is ramping up its production of mini-submarines, which are 'a huge problem' for US naval power. The US has countered by sending minesweepers to the region.

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While the diesel-electric powered Iranian mini-submarines have limited range, they have torpedo tubes and can quickly lay mines, which is their most troublesome feature, according to US military officials. 

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Iran also has “significant special operations capability,” including “extensively” trained frogmen, says Harmer. However, at a tactical level, the most likely use of Iranian frogmen would be against civilian targets such as oil tankers and other international commercial maritime traffic, he adds. 

But if conflict between the US and Iran escalated militarily, Iran could also conceivably use its frogmen to attack a new pipeline that runs from the United Arab Emirates to the Gulf of Oman, a pipeline that bypasses the Straits of Hormuz.

The production of the mini-submarines is clear confirmation that while the average Iranian citizen has suffered greatly under Western sanctions, the Iranian military-industrial complex has not been affected “in any substantial way,” Harmer says. 

The answer, he says, is to “substantially increase the sanctions – or acknowledge that they’re not working.” 

Prospects for imminent war still small

Indeed, as the negotiations with Iran break down, “I think it’s almost inevitable that the military tensions in the Gulf increase,” says Michael Singh, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council. “I think that it’s natural on one hand to see Western policymakers giving more serious thought to the use of military options to bolster our position in the Gulf.”

In response, “What you’re seeing is the Iranians beefing up their asymmetric naval warfare capabilities, as opposed to trying to take on the US Navy head-to-head.” 

That said, “I don’t think war is imminent,” adds Mr. Singh, now managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But it does make sense, he adds “to give credibility to your military threat so that the Iranians consider negotiations more seriously – and any red line you set down.”

Though the threat posed by Iranian mini-submarines is “valid,” the likelihood that Iran would use the submarines to threaten US interests in the region is “fairly small,” Harmer adds. “The Iranians know that if they try to mine the strait, the US Navy can clean it up” in “five or six days.” 

It is also clear that the US Navy would view any mine-laying as a reason to “take military action to degrade the Iranian military,” he adds. “They know that in a straight-up fight, they cannot handle the American military. So they are trying to exercise as much influence and control without ever coming into outright conflict with the West.”

America, too, must choose its actions carefully. “You want them to have a real respect for military options, yet at the same time you don’t want to take it so far that you spark an inadvertent conflict in the process,” Singh says. “That’s the fine line you’ve got to walk.”

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