That's the thing, Sully: the US just has to be prepared to destroy other things the Iranians can't tolerate losing. We don't have to look for every little boat straying into the SOH. You never fight symmetrically if you can help it.
This is a case where if they send one of ours to the hospital, we send ten of theirs to the morgue. One mine strike should prompt a major strike on Iran's navy, air force, and military infrastructure in the south. Blind 'em and knock all their teeth out, so to speak. They'll stop laying mines.
What you're envisioning is an environment in which we don't ratchet up the pain on Iran, but just go into a defensive crouch. If that does happen, shipping will be stymied in the SOH. But that's a political decision, not anything dictated by our military capabilities. One carrier airwing and two Tomahawk-equipped destroyers could sink 90% of Iran's navy at the pier, kill most of their southern-deployed tactical aircraft and disable their airbases, blow up most of their ammo and take out their early warning radars and their anti-air missile sites -- in 24 to 36 hours.
Never, ever, ever fight a mine war symmetrically. Words to live by.
Sully -- the SOH waters are international, as opposed to being a harbor or territorial waters. If you've ever transited the SOH you'll understand the extreme difficulty any mining force would encounter, of laying a comprehensive minefield undetected. Actually, let me rephrase that. The impossibility of laying a comprehensive minefield undetected.
What Iran can do undetected is put out floating mines with dhows and small boats, and perhaps get a tethered influence mine or two into a traffic channel. To think Iran can do more than that, we must assume absolute quiescence on the part of everyone else. The US Navy would have to know it was happening (and we would) and not do anything about it.
You won't be surprised, I imagine, to learn that there are plans ready to implement for dealing with the mining of the SOH. The US doesn't keep our premier mine-countermeasure forces in the Gulf, but the Gulf Cooperation Council navies have all improved their anti-mine forces significantly in the last 15 years, and between them, our own deployed forces' capabilities, and the rotating mine warfare forces of our European allies (primarily the Brits and Dutch), there is a good coalition capability in-theater.
Escorting merchants through cleared channels is the immediate measure to keep traffic going, and that, again, is an effort for which there is a coalition plan. The Saudis, Emiratis, Omanis, etc would provide escorts along with the Western navies.
The real issue -- the potential hard spot -- would be taking action against Iran to prevent further mining. Operation Praying Mantis filled that role in 1988, but the question would be what OSlash was willing to authorize, and whether his idea of counterattack would make Iran sit down and shut up.
But if he were willing to take effective action, the forces are on-station, and the plans in place, to do that. Iran could achieve only a brief interruption of commercial traffic through the SOH, if we took prompt and decisive action. It's only if we turned a blind eye to obvious preparatory activity, or let a vulnerable situation for commercial traffic drag on and on, that Iran could do more. It all depends on us.
CKM -- What I'd say is we have to evaluate the options, including Friedman's, in light of reality. Which is that we don't have a free hand in Asia, nor do we have automatic fealty to our strategic lead from even Japan, much less India, Pakistan, China, or Russia.
I'm not suggesting you (or Friedman) thought we did. He's generally looking at things pretty comprehensively. But I think even Friedman has not taken into account the latitude Russia and China both derive from a Japan looking to consolidate Asian ties, and increasingly wary of going out on a limb with the US.
Friedman's is a strategic proposal that stands or falls on its execution, and the reality of our situation in Asia complicates that as well as making it more critical. What he proposes is feasible, in the abstract -- but not with OSlash in charge. It's something another president might pull off. But we haven't got the one who could in office.
That said, do I think we should cut and run from Afghanistan and strike Iran? Certainly I've thought of it. The situation in Afghanistan, in my estimation, requires more resources than Americans are willing to put into it. This is NOT because our troops can't defeat the Taliban, it's because the whole effort is so vulnerable to interdiction.
Russia does not want us to consolidate an integral, independent, Western-oriented Afghanistan that is not beholden to Russia. Russia will let us fight the Taliban for her, but Russia won't let us achieve a truly liberal-democratic Afghanistan with genuine independence of Central Asian oligarchic patterns. That is a fact that we cannot change, period.
So Russia will sabotage the effort to do that through being Karzai's best buddy, through continuously advancing the "alternative" of a Russian-brokered, SCO/Asian power-approved solution for Afghanistan, and through getting herself in the middle of our alliance, and convincing the allies (who function as the boundaries of what we can do) that Russia is the the "key" to the whole thing.
Honestly, I think some of the advice OSlash is probably getting right now runs along exactly these lines. There are plenty of people who can see this. The new slogan about Karzai's corruption, and how that's making us rethink our priorities, is way too simplistic for, at the very least, Richard Holbrooke. There are other factors at work, and people who recognize them.
My guess is that OSlash is looking for the way to disengage from Afghanistan, and promise her by implication to Russia, or at least hold that as a bargaining chip. There are different ways to approach this same thought without the "realism" emerging as quite so simplistic and cynical -- and the idea is not wholly without merit. I would expect OSlash to botch the execution completely, however.
Afghanistan was never "the" war we needed to fight. That's the basic truth. After years of insisting that it was, however, OSlash is owed no apologies by anyone else for being left to figure out how to exit gracefully.
CKM -- may I recommend reading the latest TOC post as an opening bid on answering that?
Sully -- your point is well taken, but as the discussion has already outlined, more of the world would be galvanized by an Iranian act of war in the SOH, than gives a flying you-know-what about Iranian proxy armament in Iraq or Afghanistan (or Lebanon or Israel, for that matter).
Mining the SOH is still a scenario in which unassailable pretext and unified will are likely to come together and produce useful action by the international community.
As much as it entails, moreover, it's still too small and simple a task for the US Navy (not any other) to force open the SOH and keep it that way, for the prospect to scare off OSlash. It can be done without him having to display a lot of "will." Couple that with the fact that doing it would keep our pesky allies off his back, and that NOT doing it would really frost the American people -- even Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd -- and you have the perfect Heroic Scenario for The One.
I also think that if Iran does obtain a real nuclear arsenal, there is a good chance that it will find itself constrained – and changed – in ways that the radicals will not enjoy.
Can you expand on that, CKM? The thing is, I don't see a nuclear-armed Iran as being any more constrained by the deterrent power of others than the current, non-nuclear-armed Iran.
Certainly the USSR never was. Becoming a nuclear power did not make the Soviet Union stop fomenting Marxist insurrection elsewhere, or make it stop seeking to subjugate the Third World periphery in avowed geopolitical opposition to the West. I don't see any area of Iran's actual aspirations in which she would be constrained by having nuclear weapons, as opposed to emboldened.
Mining the SOH is an act of war by international convention. Doing it is a decision to declare war and invite retaliation. Until the US Navy and Air Force pack up and leave the Gulf, Iran will think more than twice about such a decision.
Watch for it. It will be the North Korean tunnels all over again. Iran will kick and scratch and then let UN inspectors in to eyeball the undergound chamber(s) at Qom, and they will be found to be...empty.
There are no WMD in Iran.