By Dryad Global, January 3, 2020, Intelligence Insights (abridged)
US Strikes Against Iran - What This Means And How Will Iran Respond?
Iranian sources have confirmed the killing of Qasem Soleimani, an IRGC Major General by the US. Soleimani led Iran’s Quds Force, which specialises in unconventional warfare and exterritorial activities. Soleimani’s death has also been confirmed by the US. A statement released by the Pentagon stated that ‘At the direction of the president, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani.’ The attack is believed to have involved a drone strike, which targeted Soleimani whilst he was being transited to Baghdad airport by local popular mobilisation units.
The Maritime Context
Whilst it remains likely that any Iranian response will be land-based, it is not inconceivable that the threat will spill out into the maritime domain. Operators in the region should be aware that the current threat context within the region’s waterways remains largely unchanged. Dryad assess that the HIGH threat to vessels within the region remains primarily focused on US and Saudi-flagged vessels. Dryad further assesses that there is an additional threat to vessels carrying US cargos or assets or are seen to be linked to US economic interests. Marshall Islands-flagged vessels, for example, which come under US protection as a US associated state, are also at a heightened risk. There is a latent but similarly HIGH risk to vessels belonging to states that support the US Sentinel operation.
Dryad assesses that it remains highly unlikely that Iran will attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, a claim it has often made. Leaving aside whether Iran actually possesses the capability to close the Strait, to do so would pose geopolitical issues for Iran, and would lead to potentially souring its key relationship with China. This is a relationship which Iran will be keen to nurture as it continues to attempt to side-line the US regionally whilst seeking much needed relief from sanctions. In addition, Iranian support to Syria remains dependant on the free passage of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian action within the Strait of Hormuz throughout 2019 could be seen as a miscalculation. The consequences of such actions were renewed international condemnation, saw a considerable build-up of US military assets within the region, and brought Iran no closer to resolving the issues caused by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Iran’s activities in the later part of 2019 could reasonably be seen as adopting a lesser focus on the maritime domain and a shift towards a broader strategy of high impact attacks on shore. The risk to vessels beyond the Strait of Hormuz, notably within the Red Sea currently remains HIGH for those vessels fulfilling the criteria above. Iran is able to, and has, previously targeted Saudi vessels via Iranian proxies in Yemen, a risk that remains extant.
Maritime security has increased within the region following the deployment of the US naval coalition under the auspices of Operation Sentinel, as well as taskforces by other states. However, the unwillingness of several other nations to cooperate with the US operation has led to a significant and tangible undermining of the operations effectiveness. Within the last week, Japan announced it would send naval assets to the region, but not as part of the US coalition. Dryad advises that vessels should be prepared to engage with the naval assets of friendly nations where conditions allow as this remains the most effective way of securing safe passage of vessels at this time. However, states should be mindful of the specific political nature of risks faced within the region and consider escorts by vessels other than that of the US Navy a priority.
Full report here - Dryad Global Channel 16