George Friedman
Iranian naval exercises scheduled for February underscore a strategy that is both political and military: To deter an attack, Iran must enhance the perception that it possesses the strength to attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz. And it needs to continually refine its own tactics, capabilities, and command and control processes in order to maintain that perception. However, the exercises carry the risk of exposing operational weaknesses, and ongoing tensions mean a misstep could escalate into conflict.

Analysis

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is slated to conduct naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz later this month as part of the seventh "Great Prophet" exercise, the latest in a series of exercises dating back to 2006. The IRGC has already begun ground maneuvers (Hamiyan-e Velayathave) further inland. This year opened with the end of the Velayat-90 naval exercises, followed by ground maneuvers conducted near the Afghan border (Shohaday-e Vahdat).

Each exercise highlights Iran's need to heighten the credibility of its military capabilities. A strong perception that Iran could not only initiate but sustain action in the Strait of Hormuz strengthens the credibility of its deterrent against U.S. military action. But with U.S. warships located in the Persian Gulf and the wider region, Iran must boost such perceptions carefully to avoid revealing operational vulnerabilities or sparking an unintended escalation.

The Great Prophet exercises are led by the more ideologically committed IRGC, which has been involved in some of Iran's most aggressive recent behavior -- its gunboats harassed the USS Hopper (DDG 70), USS Port Royal (CG 73) and USS Ingraham (FFG 61) while transiting the strait in January 2008 -- and some of the most overtly staged displays of military power.

Perhaps the most notorious recent incident took place in 2008 during the third Great Prophet exercise. The IRGC staged a simultaneous launch of multiple ballistic missiles and rockets in a manner clearly designed more as a public relations stunt than a tactically representative exercise. After one of the missiles failed to launch, Iran released forged photos showing a fully successful launch. The images appeared prominently in newspapers throughout the West.


George Friedman

George Friedman is the CEO and chief intelligence officer of Stratfor, a private intelligence company located in Austin, TX.