The war of words between Israel, Canada, the USA and Iran has turned ferocious but it is unlikely that the the US-led 30 nations naval exercise IMCMEX 12, held in the Persian Gulf between 16 and 27 September is part of a planned attack on Iran.
Political and military brinkmanship during the exercise however, could lead to incidents and start a chain-reaction with catastrophic consequences.
The IMCMEX 12 exercise is hosted by the US Naval Forces Central Command and is a combination of an international military symposium followed by at sea exercises. The sea exercises are being held across a number of locations from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. The exercise is divided into three operations areas.
Operations Area North covers the Persian Gulf between Bahrain, Qatar and Iran up to the Straight of Hormuz. Operations Area South covers the entrance into the Persian Gulf and the waters between Oman, the U.A.E. and Iran including the Straight of Hormuz. Operations Area West covers the entrance into the Red Sea and the waters between Yemen and the Horn of Somalia.
The primary focus of the war games is to secure control over the narrow waters at the Straight of Hormuz and at the Horn of Somalia by conducting mine-sweeping exercises, exercises which counter a potential naval blockade by Iran, and counter-terrorism exercises including counter-piracy exercises at the Horn of Somalia.
Both waterways are among the geo-politically most volatile and geo-strategically most sensitive waterways world wide. One sixth of the worlds oil resources are transported through via the Persian Gulf.
The IMCMEX 12 exercise began on 16 September with a military symposium. On the same day Israel´s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told on U.S. Television that Iran was dangerously close to developing a nuclear weapon.
According to Netanyahu Tehran already has ninety per cent of the highly enriched fissile material that would be necessary to build a nuclear bomb. An attack on Iran´s nuclear facilities had to be carried out within months.
Netanyahu´s warning was by many analysts interpreted as a precursor of an Israeli attack on Iran´s nuclear facilities during the IMCMEX 12 war games. Iran responded by assuring that an Israeli attack would invariably trigger an immediate response against Israel and the closing of the Iranian administrated part of the Straight of Hormuz. Iran´s response would according to many analysts force the USA to respond by attacking Iran.
Although experts such as retired US 4-Star General Wesley Clark have stated that the USA is actively planning a war against Iran, and even though a ranking US Special Forces officer already in August 2011 has “blown the whistle” on a planned US war on Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and against Iran, it is unlikely that an Israeli attack, let alone a US-led war on Iran will be intentionally initiated during the IMCMEX 12 exercise.
One of the most obvious reasons is that it would be a strategical mistake of catastrophic proportions for the US Navy.
US Naval forces enjoy world wide predominance but they are not invulnerable. Massing US and allied naval forces including aircraft carriers in the narrow and shallow waters of the Persian Gulf and the Straight of Hormuz is making them extremely vulnerable to Iranian missile systems.
Over the last decade the USA has developed missile defense systems in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states along the Gulf Coast of the Arabian peninsula but Iran has kept up by improving its missile capabilities.
Iran has deployed anti-ship missiles on land and on a on variety of vessels, including small and agile patrol boats which are difficult to detect and to target. In case of an attack on Iran the Iranian defense would initially focus on primary targets like aircraft carriers, destroyers and vessels with cruise missile capability.
Even small Iranian patrol boats are capable of firing high-tech missile batteries which could severely damage and sink large American ships including aircraft carriers.  The secondary defense wave would most likely target the remaining cruisers, frigates amphibious assault vessels, hovercraft and utility ships.
Previous US led war games in the Persian Gulf in which attacks against Iran have been simulated resulted in devastating losses and defeats of the attacking forces. In one of these war games, the Millennium Challenge 2002, more than 20.000 US servicemen would have lost their lives during the first day of a confrontation with Iran.
An Israeli attack on Iran during the IMCMEX 12 exercise could have catastrophic consequences for the USA and its allies, including Israel.
It is unlikely that US naval forces which are literally stuck in the Persian Gulf like sitting ducks in an Iranian shooting gallery could make a significant contribution to the defense of Israel against Iranian missiles and the approximately 100.000 missiles Hezbollah could be targeting at Israel in response to an Israeli attack on Iran.
The continuation of the war of words over the next months is more likely than a premeditated attack on Iran during the naval exercise. The volatile political situation and the fact that both Israel and the USA are using the IMCMEX 12 naval exercise for political brinksmanship however, increases the likelihood of unplanned incidents which could develop into a dangerous spiral of violence and war.
According to international maritime law almost all traffic entering the Persian Gulf passes through waters administrated by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). Almost all traffic leaving the Gulf is passing through Iranian administrated waters.
Iran has not only the right but according to international law the obligation to regulate and patrol the northern part of the Straight. The warships of the US Navy or the navy of the other 29 participating nations who are deployed into Operations Area North or South have to pass through Iranian waters.
According to international law Iranian naval vessels have the right to approach US warships. The US Navy has previously provoked incidents when Iranian naval vessels approached and broke what US naval commanders most likely perceive as their comfort zone.
On several occasions US warships have opened fire on Iranian patrol boats. An incident of that nature, provoked, unprovoked, or even as a response to a perceived threat on the one side or the other has the potential to ignite a dangerous spiral of violence.
The tense political situation and military brinksmanship can make it difficult to contain an incident. US-President Obama is facing an election. A tough stance on Iran would benefit his popularity within the American Jewish society and among conservative voters.
Israel´s threat to attack Iran´s nuclear facilities has gained renewed urgency when Benjamin Netanyahu made the unfunded statement that it is only a matter of months before Iran has enough highly enriched fissile material for a nuclear bomb.
Netanyahu´s statements will increase Tehran´s expectations of an attack during the war games and aggravate an already volatile situation. The war on Syria and Tehran´s awareness about US plans to attack Iran rather sooner than later are not exactly defusing the situation.
As unlikely as a premeditated Israeli or US led attack on Iran during the IMCMEX 12 war games is, the risk that an unplanned incident initiates a spiral of violence is imminent.
Dr. Christof Lehmann
1) Haghshenass F., “Iran´s Asymmetric Naval Warfare”, Policy Focus, nr. 87; Washington D.C., USA.
2) McCown, (2010) “Developing Intuitive Decision-Making In Modern Military Leadership”; Newport, R.I. Naval War College, October 27.2010, p.9 Reuters