Will the US and GCC Recapture Three Iran-Held Persian Gulf Islands?
Tehran used its 10-day Velayati 90 naval exercise ending Monday, Jan. 2, as the impetus for blocking the Persian Gulf against US warships with a flood of menacing rhetoric and new rules for navigating the strategic water.
The belligerence radiating from Tehran caused the United States and Gulf Cooperation Council members to double-check their military capabilities for withstanding Iran. They asked themselves whether the GCC defense pact was up to operations against Iranian targets, and whether the alliance could manage without the aid of an American air and naval shield.
The answer to both questions was affirmative, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report; the GCC commands enough air and sea strength for the job, provided its rulers have the will to use it. Until now, they have shown little taste for direct military action, with the sole exception of the Saudi-led expeditionary force mounted last year to rescue the Bahraini throne from an Iranian-backed Shiite revolt.
American and GCC response plans for meeting an adversarial Iran are not the same although there is some overlap.
Washington and Riyadh, along with most of the oil emirs, agree that a limited Iranian operation partially and temporarily closing the Strait of Hormuz would warrant an equally limited response on their part.
An Iranian attack as an opening for recovering three lost islands
From that point on, they differ: GCC rulers would confine their military response to Iranian seaborne targets in the Persian Gulf (which they refer to as "the Arabian Gulf"), whereas Washington maintains that if American targets were attacked, an aggressive Iran must be made to pay a much heavier price, such as strikes on military and strategic shore installations related to its marine presence in the Persian Gulf, the Straits of Oman and Aden and, in extreme circumstances, targets on its Arabian Sea coast.
The seaborne targets in GCC sights would include the three small disputed Persian Gulf islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs seized by Iran from the United Arab Emirates forty years ago. The emirates are confident of commanding the military resources for a surprise attack for their recovery.
In 1992, Iran assumed full control of islands of and strung out a network of military bases there. They include a submarine base and Revolutionary Guard marine and air force facilities for assault helicopters, armed with anti-ship and anti-tank rockets. Built there too were logistical depots to house supplies for reinforcements brought in from the mainland on their way to attack GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia.
The three islands also boast missile batteries for defense against attacks by air or sea.
This military system may sound formidable, but in recent years Tehran has let the facilities fall into disrepair and neglected to replenish weaponry with more up-to-date hardware – probably because of budget shortfalls.
Neglected defenses, valuable strike forces
Strategic infrastructure on the Iranian mainland and defenses for nuclear facilities rated higher priority for top-of-the line weaponry. Even so, key Iranian nuclear sites, such as the UF6 gas production plant in Isfahan and the heavy water plant under construction at Arak, are still not equipped with effective defense systems against missile and air attacks.
So it is no wonder that that the defenses of Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs were allowed to rust, so providing the GCC with a chance for getting them back.
But Iran will not let them go without a fight because, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report, lodged there are some pretty effective strike forces.
They include about a quarter of Iran's speedboat fleet of bomb vessels and Revolutionary Guards torpedo boats, and models of the record-breaking British Bradstone Challenger speedboat, the prototype of which Tehran purchased in April 2010. These high-performance 51-foot crafts are scattered in hidden harbors of the three islands.
When the Challenger was acquired, it was suspected in the West and the Gulf that Iran would arm the craft with high-speed Russian torpedoes and use it for sinking a US aircraft carrier and conducting hit-and-run raids.
Also ensconced on the islands are elements of two crack marine brigades, trained like the US Navy SEALs in all types of guerilla warfare, beach landings and operations behind enemy lines.
US intelligence and the GCC spy agencies reckon that these units will carry out the dual tasks of helping to block the Strait of Hormuz and going into action against Persian Gulf oil installations at the start of a US or Israel attack on Iran.
The islands are key to controlling Hormuz
US and GCC military planners agree that the islands can be liberated without a large army. Their strategic importance is substantial. A glance at the map attached to this article shows that a controlling presence on those islands also commands the movements of oil shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
In Washington, Riyadh, Kuwait and Dubai, strategists are trying to think ahead of potential Iranian action for preventing a US aircraft carrier transiting the Strait of Hormuz.
They ask: Would such Iranian action justify an operation to capture the three islands?
Another question: Will Gulf rulers, ever distrustful of President Barack Obama's Middle East objectives, do the operation alone, or opt for coordinating with the United States?
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, they are all fully conscious of the furious payback the Iranians will probably unleash for a US invasion of the three islands, with or without the Arab emirates' cooperation: "Volunteer" forces from Iran and Iraq would be set loose in Bahrain to "liberate" the kingdom from "Saudi and GCC occupation."
But no one in those capitals can decide if this is an empty threat or whether Iran will be driven into expanding hostilities from Hormuz out to more distant parts of the Persian Gulf region.