Is Gulf Security At Risk After Renewed Iran Sanctions?


The return of US sanctions against Iran brings to the fore the risk of saber-rattling by the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf, from where 30 percent[1] (over 17 million barrels) of the world’s crude oil shipment ferries every day. The narrow waterway, now vulnerable to intentional or accidental incidents and which IRGC threatens to block, could trigger restrained to full-blown hostilities in the absence of active hotlines between the regional states to deescalate tensions and viable confidence-building measures. That could quickly escalate potential tensions.
With Iran barred from selling much of its hydrocarbon resources, its stakes in the freedom of navigation in the Gulf seem marginal, thus enhancing its tendency to threaten other states using the waterway can increase. Tehran has repeatedly warned of disrupting the flow of oil supplies in the Gulf in the wake of renewed sanctions[2]. But is Iran’s elite really so trigger-happy to disrupt maritime traffic in the narrow waterway? Iran’s military posturing seems to support the statement. But the complexities, involved in operations to disrupt the Gulf region’s energy flows, suggest that Iranian threats are hardly aimed to raise stakes without options to resolve tensions. In short, the security of the Gulf region is too important to all actors to be treated as a potential zero-sum game conflict.
Iran has increased its naval and air force military activities in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf since September. On September 29, 2018, Iranian-backed Press TV aired footage of a close encounter between the IRGC navy and the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The reported incident took place earlier on March 21, but the release of the images was timed to boost public confidence in the Iran’s armed forces in the wake of renewed US sanctions against Iran’s energy sector on November 4. Apparently, the footage is a message to Iran’s Gulf neighbors that the IRGC is defiant in the face of US sanctions.
On September 21, Iran conducted a sizeable military wargame in the Gulf. Military drills involved Iran’s air force fighter jets simulating a joint operation— conducted between the Iranian Army and the IRGC— aimed to deny the access to the Gulf’s waters and the adjacent Sea of Oman[3]. On August 2, Iran had also conducted naval exercises in the Gulf, which according to reports quoting US officials involved 100 vessels, mostly small attack boats with high maneuverability[4].
Iran has frequently resorted to military brinkmanship in the Gulf waters in the past. In August 2017, a reconnaissance Iranian drone flew close to a 100 feet of a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet as the jet approached its US carrier for landing. The US Defense Department termed the Iranian UAV maneuver “unsafe and unprofessional altitude changes in the close vicinity” of the fighter jet[5]. The pilot aborted landing and opted for a go-around. In March 2017, Iranian speedboats approached the USS Nimitz as it entered the Strait of Hormuz from the Arabian Sea. A US Navy helicopter intercepted the IRGC vessels and deployed flares to warn against the approach. Tehran alleged that the US vessel behaved in “unconventional and unusual” manner[6].
The most important Gulf incident involving Iran may have occurred during the Obama government in January 2016, IRGC marine forces stopped two US riverine command boats in the vicinity of the Iran’s Farsi Island. All 10 US sailors aboard were detained and photographed for the media. Secretary of State John Kerry worked with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif to amicably secure the release of the US naval personnel. Later, the United States charged that Iran had violated the freedom of navigation guaranteed by international law by not only halting the vessels, but also “boarding, searching and seizing the boats and by photographing and video recording the crew.[7]
The Gulf has even been the theatre for direct confrontation between the Iranian and US militaries. On April 14, 1988, an Iranian mine damaged the USS Samuel B. Roberts near Qatar’s coast and injured 10 sailors, prompting US Operation Praying Mantis[8]. The fierce US response sank or damaged half of Iran’s operational fleet and targeted two oil platforms that reportedly were used to coordinate attacks against commercial ships ferrying in the gulf.

Threat Perception Calculus
Iranian mines and its armed forces pose a threat to freedom of navigation across the Gulf. Given blunt statements by the IRGC about controlling navigation in the Gulf, the worst seems yet to come. Or it may not if brinkmanship in the Gulf waters can be avoided by both Iran or the United States. This is critically important as tensions rise in US-Iran relations in the wake of renewed sanctions.
There are early signs that Washington is eager to avoid any military confrontation with Iran in the Gulf waters. Sanctions against Iran’s energy sector took effect on November 4. But the US Treasury had given waivers to eight countries, including Italy, Turkey, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China and India, to import oil from Iran for up to 180 days or six months[9]. These countries are willing to import roughly up to 75 percent of Iran’s total oil exports. Then on November 20, the United States granted a 45-day temporary waiver to Iraq to purchase gas and electricity from Iran[10]. In total, the waivers have allowed Iran to retain exports of 1.1 million barrels of oil per day, down from the nearly 2.5 million bpd that it exported before the latest sanctions[11]. Payments from the exempt countries will be deposited into escrow accounts in their local currency. Iran may use the sums to buy certain non-sanctioned goods for humanitarian purposes from some nine trading partners.
It is unclear if the sanction waivers on oil industry can force Iran to avoid disrupting trade and commerce in the Gulf region. Waivers will make sanctions against Iran a little less painful, but Tehran remains vulnerable economically. The Trump administration has pressured key European countries to avoid working with Iran and to uphold the tight sanctions regime, or face the US sanctions punishment against the European companies and banks that work with Iran. Washington is also keen to bar Iran from using the SWIFT system for financial transactions.
Iran is pragmatically keeping its options open to explore ways to work with Europe, China and Russia to ease the pain of sanctions. Yet anti-US rhetoric has surged in the Iranian parliament and the press. Some of it could be for domestic consumption, to assure the hardliners in Iran that the country remains defiant in the face of US pressures. It can also incite public sympathy for Iran’s embattled government in hard times. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif is dealing with the fallout of failed terror attempts in France and Denmark, both of whom have been blamed on the country’s state machinery. The fact that there has not been any close military call between the United States and Iran in the Gulf waters since sanctions kicked in endorses the adoption of a restrained approach on both sides.

What Can Go Wrong?
President Hassan Rouhani’s pursuit of a more rational and measured approach in the conduct of Iran’s foreign policy despite sanctions may not guarantee peace in the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGC holds military sway in the troubled waters. The January 2016 incident between IRGC and US forces in the Gulf is a case in point of how the IRGC can take matters in its own hands when dealing with the United States. Back then, Iran was dealing with a far friendlier US administration than now. John Kerry and Javed Zarif enjoyed a good working relationship. Any hostile interaction at the sea now can potentially trigger a disproportionate response if President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis choose to raise the stakes with Iran[12].
The United States and its Gulf Arab allies are reluctant to raise hostilities with Iran, and eager to keep navigation open in Gulf waters. Iran’s military leadership may increase the stakes when it comes to navigation in Gulf waters, especially if Tehran is unable to trade with Europe. But in so doing, it could also disrupt critical oil supplies to other trade partners such as China or India. So a real fear in the Gulf remains the breakup of an accidental collision or miscalculated asymmetrical move by Iran. In such a scenario, an Iranian drone crash or a naval speed boat accident could escalate regional conflicts in the Gulf. The ensuing confrontation could be hard to avoid if sanctions take their toll on Iran and the country decides that conflict could better serve its interests than attempts to appease the world.

John Mauldin, “2 choke points that threaten oil trade between the Persian Gulf and East Asia,” Forbes, April 17, 2017, accessed November 26, 2018,
“Iran leader backs suggestion to block Gulf oil exports if own sales stopped,” Reuters, July 21, 2018, accessed November 26, 2018,
Saman Javed, “Iran launches 'show of strength' military exercise in Gulf,” The Independent, September 21, 2018, accessed November 26, 2018,
Phil Stewart, “Iran naval drills underway amid tensions with US,” Reuters, August 2, 2018, accessed November 26, 2018,
“UAV unsafe and unprofessional interaction with US Navy F/A-18E,” US Naval Forces Central Command, August 8, 2017, accessed November 26, 2018,
Warren Strobel, Matt Spetalnick, “Anxious phone calls, tense moments before Iran's Supreme Leader okayed US sailors' release,” Reuters, January 14, 2016, accessed November 26, 2018
“Operation Praying Mantis Demonstrates Same Priorities Navy Values Today,” United States Navy, April 17, 2013, accessed November 26, 2018,
Tom DiChristopher, “Trump will grant 8 waivers to buy Iranian oil, allowing imports beyond US sanctions deadline,” CNBC, November 2, 2018, accessed November 26, 2018,
“US gives Iraq temporary waiver on Iranian energy imports,” EIU, November 20, 2018,
Alex Lawler, “Rocked by Trump's sanctions, Iranian oil exports drops further,” Reuters, November 8, 2018, accessed November 26, 2018,
“Trump vs Iran Twitter war of words rages,” July 24, 2018, AFP, accessed November 26, 2018,
Editorial Team