It went off in a powerful blast from a shipboard launcher to the cheers of sailors and soared across the skies over the Gulf of Oman, leaving a white trail on its way to a target somewhere over the horizon.
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Billed as a new surface-to-air missile and tested during 10 days of naval exercises that ended on Monday, Iranian officials say the Mehrab is designed to evade radars. But showing off the projectile was designed to attract attention by convincing the world that the Islamic Republic is capable of closing the strategic Strait of Hormuz and choke global oil supplies.
“I said at the beginning of these war games that we have no intention of closing the Strait of Hormuz during the maneuvers, but doing that would be as easy as pie for us,” Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told state-owned PressTV after the launch. “Iran’s naval forces do have the ability to close the Strait.”
But behind the display of military prowess is an army equipped with out-of-date
equipment acquired when the Shah was still in power, supplemented with inferior
hardware bought from China and North Korea or like the Mehrab, developed and
manufactured at home. Analysts maintain that Iran’s armed forces are more bluster than
“There is not a lot of concern about direct military threat from Iran. There is that notion that the US can withstand any operation undertaken by Iran. The threats of closing Hormuz are not really serious,” Christian Koch, director of the International Studies Research Program at the Gulf research Center, told The Media Line. “At the moment what the Iranians are trying to do is to increase the sense of insecurity.”
Iranian officials have threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions are imposed on its central bank or on oil exports. Such a scenario came closer to reality over the weekend when US President Barack Obama signed into law tough new sanctions targeting Iran's Central Bank and financial sector.
The Hormuz is vulnerable. The only sea passage into and out of the Gulf, which is home to the world’s biggest petroleum reserves, the strait is a relatively narrow channel just 54 kilometers across at its narrowest point. Iran controls one of its two coasts.
Tankers traveling through it account for about one-third of the world’s ship-borne oil traffic. In fact, Iran did have some success in the 1980s disrupting oil supplies enough during its war with Iraq to raise insurance premiums, which is why Iran’s naval exercises sent shivers across the world. Crude oil for February delivery reached an eight-month high Tuesday on the New York Mercantile Exchange to nearly $103 a barrel.
But, said Christian Le Miere, research fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the US and its allies could cope with the challenge.“Iran could not maintain an effective blockade for any long period of time. That requires sea power well beyond its capacity,” he told The Media Line. The most challenging weapon in Iran’s arsenal would be mines targeting tankers passing through the Strait.
On Tuesday, Iran's army chief Ataollah Salehi kept tensions boiling, saying that the country would take action if a US aircraft carrier returned to the Gulf. The carrier had reportedly left the area due to Iran's exercises including the missile launch.
Just what does Iran’s arsenal consist of? Outsiders can only make rough estimates, but Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, concluded after analyzing data from a variety of sources that the Islamic Republic is a “comparatively weak conventional military power.”
Iran is barred from buying military hardware from the West and has a relatively small defense budget. Cordesman estimated Tehran spends between $12 billion to $14 billion on defense less than the tiny United Arab Emirates across the Gulf and no more than a third of what its chief rival in the region, Saudi Arabia, allocates for arms.
On paper, Iran has 312 combat aircraft. But, citing an IISS estimate, Cordesman said as many as 60% of the aircraft have little or no mission capability at any given time because the Cold War-era F-14s, F-5Bs and the like that make up its fleet are old and poorly maintained.
Iran’s navy, which in the Gulf is controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), poses a more serious but not insurmountable problem, Cordesman said. While it lacks modern combat surface vessels, Iran has three Russian Kilo-class submarines, which may be able to lay smart mines and fire long-range homing torpedoes, as well as a fleet of small submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles.
“The navy and IRGC cannot close the Gulf for an extended period, but they could
severely restrict shipping through the Gulf for five to 10 days,” Cordesman concluded in a paper included in the US Institute of Peace’s book The Iran Primer. He estimated that with the support of Iran’s neighbors the US could destroy Iranian military power within weeks.
The qualitative gap between Iran and its Gulf neighbors is due to widen as Saudi
Arabia accepts delivery of state-of-the-art aircraft from the US. Last
week, the Obama administration announced a $29.4 billion deal with Saudi
Arabia to sell and upgrade advanced fighter jets. Riyadh will get 84
new F-15SAs starting in 2015 while 70 F-15s already in the fleet will be
A week before, the White House cleared the sales of between $2 billion
and $3 billion worth of Lockheed Martin’s Thaad missile interceptors to
another Gulf power, the United Arab Emirates.
Koch, of the Gulf Research Center, says the most serious threat posed by Iran is
asymmetrical warfare that employs irregulars or proxies to engage in
sabotage. Iran doesn’t need to close Hormuz to wreak havoc; it could
target oil fields, power plants and other critical but vulnerable installations on the Arab side of the Gulf.
“That is a much more dangerous scenario,” Koch said. “The Iranians have shown
themselves to be an intelligent power in that sense.”