Will Iran strike at sea or by land in response to US 'snapback'?

Iran has a weak navy and it doesn’t have a strong army either. What it does have is proxy groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

An Iranian locally made cruise missile is fired during war games in the northern Indian Ocean and near the entrance to the Gulf, Iran June 17, 2020 (photo credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
An Iranian locally made cruise missile is fired during war games in the northern Indian Ocean and near the entrance to the Gulf, Iran June 17, 2020
Iran is outraged by the US decision to try to impose “snapback” sanctions. It has sought out support from China and so far that appears to be pushing back against the US plan to impose United Nations sanctions.
But Iran knows that Washington’s plan will not stop with attempts at snapback, as the US recently sought to interdict Iranian gas exports to Venezuela, and Washington has other plans in place to exert maximum pressure on Tehran.
The usual Tehran response to US threats or actions is to strike at sea or by land.
Iran has a weak navy and it doesn’t have a strong army either. What it does have is proxy groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It also has ballistic and cruise missiles and drones that it has invested heavily in. At sea it has fast boats run by the IRGC and new cruise missiles and other weapons, such as mines.
Iran is preparing a list of options, as it has for the last two years, to continue to seek to show the US that it can strike at America’s assets in the region and at US allies. This threat is indicated by Iranian media reports about new missiles and even graphics in Iranian media showing the range of its various missiles and drones.
What do we know so far? Iran is pleased that China appears to be helping to stop the US from pushing snap-back sanctions. The sanctions were an element of the 2015 Iran Deal. Iran’s Press TV has celebrated Beijing’s support.
Iran is seeking a long-term economic deal with Beijing at the same time while the Trump administration has had public feuds with China in the last year over Covid-19 and also a trade war. Recently CNN reported a Chinese submarines using an underground facility as part of China’s increased military activity and naval power. Iran is pleased that it may have found an ally that will eventually stand up to Washington.
In the meantime though, Iran will look to its wheelhouse for how to respond.
The Iranian playbook comes down to two choices. The first choice is for Esmail Ghaani, the man who replaced IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani, to encourage attacks on the US and allies by proxies. Ghaani has been to Iraq recently and to Syria. But he is not well loved in Iraq. He does not know the ground and is not respected by the militias. Coordination with Hezbollah and the Houthis may be slightly less than before.
Nevertheless, Iraqi-based pro-Iranian militias have been firing rockets at the US embassy, US forces near Baghdad airport and US forces at Camp Taji almost daily. Iraq’s Prime Minister was in Washington this week so the rockets were designed to show him who is boss of Iraq. Iran is boss, that was the message.  
Iran can order more rocket strikes and attacks on US supply convoys. It has carried out some 30 rocket attacks in the last six months and six attacks on supply convoys. It could also use the Houthis to conduct more attacks on Riyadh, but Saudi Arabia is well prepared for this.
Iran also knows that US Central Command will retaliate if there are US casualties in Iraq. The US already carried out airstrikes in December and March against Iranian-backed groups. This is the calculation Iran must look at.
Iran might also look to harass the US in the Euphrates valley or Tanf base near Jordan, but it knows it will be met with retaliation if it does so too openly. Iran is lucky that in Lebanon the UN tribunal that ruled on a 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri did not go after the Assad regime or Hezbollah’s leadership. This saves it from having to do more in Lebanon to confront the US.
Hezbollah has said it reserves a right to strike at Israel for a July attack Hezbollah blames on Israel in Syria. So far Hezbollah has been holding its cards close to its chest after a Beirut explosion caused questions about the possibility of Hezbollah’s connection to storing ammonium nitrate at Beirut port. Best for Iran to remain low key in Lebanon.
Tehran could act at sea. This is where it has become more proficient in the last two years. Iran is angered by the UAE-Israel deal to normalize relations. Parliament speaker Mohamed Baqher Qalibaf and others want tough reactions to the UAE. Others want to warn the US and UAE.
What might the Iranian game-plan at sea look like? Iran knows the US has drones and F-35s in Al-Dhafra base in the UAE. Iran also closely follows the comings and goings off Khor Fakkan and Fujairah, the UAE ports on the Gulf of Oman. Iran has struck here before.
On May 12, Iranian frogmen allegedly damaged four commercial ships off Fujairah. Two were Saudi ships, one Norwegian and one a UAE ship. Then Iran struck again a month latter, mining two ships that were off the coast of Iran. The Kokuka Courageous, a Japanese-owned ship, was struck while Japan’s prime minister was in Iran in June. The Norwegian-owned Front Altair was also damaged. The US showed a video that illustrated Iran’s involvement.
Then Iran downed a US Global Hawk drone on June 20 and said it could have targeted a manned US P-8 plane. The White House ordered retaliatory strikes but backed down. A month later, Iran seized the Stena Impero, a British ship, in response to the UK Royal Marines taking the Grace, a ship with Iranian oil being sent to Syria. The Grace was renamed the Adrian Darya and released in September, and the Stena Impero was also released by Tehran.
Iran didn’t stop there though, it had already planned and carried out drone and cruise missile strikes on Iraq’s Abqaiq facility. Iran had also ordered attacks on Saudi Arabia from Iraq in May 2019 and also from the Houthis against a facility near the UAE. That attack on Shaybah oil and gas field was largely unnoticed at the time in August 2018. It was a dry run for Abqaiq.
Iran then shifted to attacks on US forces in Iraq, but it didn’t forget the naval war with the US and US allies. The US had seized two ships laden with Iranian weapons that were heading to Yemen. These were one of at least three, maybe four, that were seized from December 2019 to May 2020. In April 2020, Iranian IRGC fast boats harassed US ships in the Persian Gulf. The US threatened to sink Iranian ships in retaliation.
In July 2020, Iran towed a scale model of US aircraft carrier out to sea and used it for target practice. This is the third time Iran used the same mock carrier, but it was a message to the US. The same month Iran apparently hijacked a ship called the Gulf Sky and took it from off the coast of the UAE to near Bandar Abbas.
In August, Iran used helicopters to board the mv WILA, a tanker off the coast of Iran. I did this after the US stopped four tankers on the way to Venezuela full of Iranian gas and took the gas based on a US court order. On August 20, Iran boarded a UAE ship as well.
The pattern is clear. Iran uses helicopters and fast boats and mines to harass ships. It knows when and where to strike. It knows all the ships that pass near the UAE. It monitors US drones and aircraft that leave US bases and it monitors the US navy. It harasses US ships. It has shown off new Khordad air defenses and cruise missiles along the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.
Iran knows that it can strike at a time of its choosing. When it chooses to do so, against the US attempt to put in place snapback sanctions, it will have a large canvas on which to operate. It must only wonder if the US will act to deter it the way the US has in Iraq. It knows that US allies, such as Saudi Arabia, have not acted to deter it in the past, after the strike on Abqaiq.