|Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group.|
Plenty of articles have been written, and will be written, addressing both the military and political implications of this exercise. Can Iran really sink an aircraft carrier? Is the timing of this exercise – which after all comes amid more collapsing nuclear negotiations and as Iran's continued, and ever more conspicuous, involvement in the conflict in Syria grows increasingly more costly – Tehran's way of reminding the U.S. that it will make any attack as costly as possible?
I suspect that is the case. But the much more interesting question is whether or not Iran could do it. We've all heard the rhetoric time and again over the years concerning how the regime has threatened to retaliate if its nuclear program is targeted by either the Americans or the Israelis, or both. But this particular exercise does serve as an apt reminder of how finely tuned the relatively unique, and doubtlessly formidable, the defense mechanisms of Iran are.
A controversial 2002 war games simulation, Millennium Challenge, arrived somewhat controversial conclusions. Iran's asymmetrical abilities, the American simulation estimated, could well take out not just a lone carrier but an entire battle group if it were operating within the gulf or near Iran's coastal waters. The blow was so severe that the simulation was overhauled to ensure a U.S. victory – which sounds like a ludicrous move since, after all, in the real world one cannot hit the reset button like a video game when it's not going the way one would like it to.
Unlike in the late 1980's when the U.S. Navy responded to Iran's mining of the Persian Gulf, during the so-called Tanker War phase of the Iran Iraq War, by attacking its British-made naval frigates (and in the process sinking the Sahand and crippling the Sabalan, which it let limp away) Iran's posture today focuses more on a complex network of much smaller crafts using asymmetrical tactics as part of a broader defensive infrastructure. And a networked defensive posture which is relatively decentralized and consists of units which can operate independently if circumstances necessitate it from along Iran's massive coast could indeed make any American attempts to operate in that area a costly nightmare, especially if they are relying on relatively conventional tactics against a largely unconventional adversary. An adversary which, operating from its own territory, would likely be, as was said of the Viet Cong, everywhere and at the same time nowhere.
Any potential U.S. effort to hamper Iran's ability to attack from its own coast would have to be very sizeable and would doubtlessly incur considerable civilian casualties in Iran itself. Such a scenario is highly likely in the case of a protracted war against Iran and the U.S. in the region. Especially if such an escalation is sparked off by a U.S. and/or Israeli strike targeting Iranian nuclear facilities. If ensuing exchanges of fire became prolonged and intensified, to the point of a de-facto war, Iranians would likely rally behind the regime, regardless of whether or not they agree with it or its policies. Another sombre reminder of what could possibly be at stake in the not too distant future.