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[James Stavridis] What Iran will do next, and how to stop it

Predictably, Iran is reacting badly to the announcement that Europe is planning to send a multinational naval force to protect merchant ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz. “We heard that they intend to send a European fleet to the Persian Gulf which naturally carries a hostile message, is provocative and will increase tensions,” said an Iranian government spokesman last week.

In combination, the Europeans’ welcome decision to increase the warship count and the Iranian response -- only verbal thus far, thankfully -- are likely to increase the chances of a military miscalculation that provokes a shooting war.

The strategic backdrop, of course, is the US-Iranian conflict that is being played out in the aftermath of the American pullout from the 2015 agreement to circumscribe the Iranian nuclear program. Disappointed with the somewhat limited scope of that agreement, the Trump administration withdrew, much to the dismay of our European allies, and proceeded to levy harsh economic sanctions on Iran. In response, the Iranians are trying to show the world they control the Strait of Hormuz and can close it if they so choose, causing significant disruption to the global economy.

This disruption strategy is somewhat akin to a protection racket: “That’s a nice naval strait you’ve got there, and it would be a shame if something were to happen to it.”

The Iranians are striking Saudi oil assets, shooting down US drones, affixing mines to ships and, most recently, seizing a British tanker. So far, the Western response has been strong -- Washington is tightening sanctions and now the Europeans (not including, alas, Germany) are literally getting on board with the US. So what happens next? What are the Western allies’ options to defuse the crisis but still keep up the pressure to modify Iran’s bad behavior?

It seems clear the Iranians have little inclination or motivation to back down. They will probably increase the aggression toward merchant shipping, either putting mines in the Strait of Hormuz or actually sinking a ship, probably surreptitiously using a diesel submarine. They could also widen the conflict “horizontally” by unleashing their surrogate terrorist organization in Lebanon, Hezbollah, against Israel, or having its Afghan spinoff, Liwa Fatemiyoun, carry out attacks against US troops in Afghanistan.

If Iran takes such a reckless course, the West will likely respond militarily. Certainly the international escort mission will be ramped up in size and intensity. The US part of it -- which will be called Operational Sentinel, according to Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- will include significant intelligence, logistic and command and control support. Based on my own decades of experience in the Gulf, including commanding the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group during the Iraq invasion in 2003, I am certain that the US Central Command’s operational plans will give the president plenty of options.

These likely include sweeping mines; sinking Iranian warships, which the US did as part of the “Praying Mantis” operation in the late 1980s; striking Iranian land-based air defenses (which was to have been a part of the attack Trump paused at the last minute in June); and conducting an offensive cyber operation against Iranian military assets, and possibly even the nation’s civilian electric grid at the point where it supports the military infrastructure.

Can the US and its allies avoid a shooting war? Maybe. The incentives ultimately drive each party toward the bargaining table. The US will demand real modifications in Iranian behavior: Stopping their proxy wars in Yemen and Syria; ending support for Hezbollah’s aggression toward Israel; paring down its ballistic missile program; and, above all, a longer-term nuclear agreement. The Iranians will want the sanctions lifted, access to international capital, and guarantees against any attempt at regime change by the US. The sides are far apart, to say the least.

Tactically speaking, look for things in the Gulf to get worse before they get better. But over time, it’s not in anyone’s interest to stumble into a war -- certainly not for Trump with the 2020 election looming. There is room for a deal, but the odds of miscalculation continue to rise.

James Stavridis
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.