The recent announcement by Iran that they intend to deploy warships to the United States maritime border may be “much ado about nothing.” An Iranian admiral stated that ships from Iran’s military fleet had begun a voyage to the U.S. maritime zone and that this was a response to U.S. naval exercises underway in the Persian Gulf. Media reports suggest that the ships in question will be a destroyer and a small helicopter carrier and that the mission will take approximately three months to complete. The language from Iran and the associated news coverage makes the situation sound tense, but as some U.S. officials have already implied, the entire situation may be “much ado about nothing.”
Iran has declared its intention to deploy naval warships far from its borders for several years now. Beginning in 2010, Iran sent ships to the coast of Africa to protect ships from Somali pirates operating in the region. It also has deployed vessels to countries such as Sudan and Syria. Sending ships as far away as the Atlantic Ocean however, is a far more difficult undertaking.
Iran first made statements about deploying ships near the U.S. in 2012. Iran has always been upset about the significant U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf, particularly the U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain. The U.S. interest in the region is based on the fact that nearly 40 percent of the world’s oil travels by ship through the Persian Gulf. Protecting that supply route is of vital interest to the U.S. and much of the rest of the world economy as well.
The concept of a long-distance, long-term naval deployment may not seem unusual or difficult to observers in the U.S. The U.S. has a long naval tradition, inherited in part from its colonial connection to Great Britain. The British Empire maintained the world’s most powerful and adaptable navy for many years during the height of its power, and the U.S. continued that tradition maintaining the most powerful navy in the world today. This is just one more reason that Iran’s intention to deploy warships to the U.S. maritime zone is “much ado about nothing.”
The ability to deploy ships far from home is an expensive and difficult task and even large states such as China are still developing the ability to undertake such operations. It requires ships that can remain at sea on their own for extended periods of time, and the availability of friendly ports to refuel and resupply. Iran faces difficulty on both of these counts. Their ships are comparatively small and Iran lacks reliable access to ports far from its waters where ships could resupply.
Should the Iranian ships approach the U.S. maritime zone as intended, the situation likely would remain “much ado about nothing.” As noted above, the U.S. still maintains the world’s most powerful navy. The presence of two small ships near its maritime zone would not pose any significant military or security threat to the U.S. or any allied interests. The U.S. could deploy an overwhelming naval and air based response should the Iranian ships demonstrate any form of aggression. Iran knows this, which highlights what is perhaps the true purpose of the deployment.
Iran is attempting to increase its stature on the world stage. They are attempting to remove economic sanctions by negotiating on their nuclear program, and they are attempting to involve themselves in regional issues such as the Syrian civil war. The successful deployment of warships so far from their borders would be seen as another development of Iran’s capabilities. It is something that the rest of the world would have to take notice of, even if it does not pose a direct threat to the U.S. itself.
Diplomacy is both a language and a dance. The statement by Iran that they intend to deploy warships near the U.S. is an example of both. It is a statement that Iran intends to increase its standing on the world stage, and it is a move designed to provoke a response. The success of such a statement remains to be seen, but in terms of the impact on the U.S. itself, it can still be considered “much ado about nothing.”
Editorial by Christopher V. Spencer