Iran seizure of British yachtsmen spotlights stakes in Strait of Hormuz
Iran's seizure of five British yachtsmen of its coast last week highlights the growing role of the country's Revolutionary Guard along a vital oil shipping lane.
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Now controlled by ideological Revolutionary Guard
And as things stand, the most politically powerful and ideologically committed of Iran's two naval forces is in control of the strait. Iran has a traditional navy which was build and modernized under the Shah, the country's ruling monarch who was deposed in 1979. Many naval and army officers were executed or otherwise purged in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, and the traditional navy has often been viewed with suspicion by the Islamists who became Iran's dominant political class.
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In the years since, the Revolutionary Guard – defenders of the Islamic revolution chosen as much for their ideological soundness as their military ability – have developed their own navy of sorts, involving light fast boats and cruise missiles based on the coast. According to a recent briefing by the US Office of Naval Intelligence, they are also purported to have suicide crews willing to ram enemy vessels with explosives.
"Iran uses its naval forces for political ends such as naval diplomacy and strategic messaging,'' said the open-source US Naval Intelligence briefing on Iran's naval forces last month. "Public statements by Iranian leaders indicate that they would consider closing or controlling the Strait of Hormuz if provoked."
The Revolutionary Guard was put in charge of the Strait in 2007 in a naval reorganization that the US report says plays to its strengths – and to its stated intent to shut the strait if threatened. The traditional navy's heavy ships now largely patrol the Gulf of Oman, where they have the range and ability to engage enemy ships far from Iranian territory.
The Guard's lighter boats – which need to frequently resupply at shore – will seek to extend Iran's presence in the Strait.
With Iran's announcement this week that it will soon build 10 new nuclear sites, and with the Republic's recent rejection of an offer to enrich its stockpile of uranium in Russia and France to fuel a civilian nuclear reactor, tensions between Iran, the US, and other powers are rising over its nuclear program. The Obama Administration is marshaling international support for a new round of sanctions against Tehran.
With all this, the chance of conflict between Iran and the US has increased, however unlikely it still may be. If fighting ever does break out, the Strait of Hormuz and the Iranian's ability to project force their will become crucial.