U.S. Naval Options for Influencing Iran

By Gouré, Daniel; Grant, Rebecca | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

U.S. Naval Options for Influencing Iran


Gouré, Daniel, Grant, Rebecca, Naval War College Review


This article is intended to explore the range of options the U.S.Navy can provide to policymakers in developing a strategic approach to Iran. The Barack Obama administration has taken power just as a delicate change is beginning in the region. The American land, air, and naval presence in the Persian Gulf will diminish as forces return fromIraq. Simultaneously, the Obama administration will be trying to elicit fromIran an agreement not to develop a nuclear weapons program. At the same time, the new administration is committed to restructuring significantly U.S. armed forces. Changes in the naval presence in the region need to be considered not only with respect to domestic constituencies but also in light of the nation's security interests in the region.

The subsequent analysis focuses on the range of policy-relevant options the U.S. Navy can provide, short of war, that could help shape Iran's behavior. "Shaping" as a strategy can be defined as the performance of a set of continuous, long-term, integrated actions-with a broad spectrum of governmental, nongovernmental, and international partners-that seeks to influence the behavior of target nations and thereby maintain or enhance stability, prevent or mitigate crises, and enable other operations when crises occur. Actions short of war designed to influence the behavior of another nation fall under the rubric of shaping operations.With the end of the ColdWar, shaping operations became a more important part of the Navy's array of activities.

The Navy's 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower identified shaping as one of the critical element of naval operations.

This strategy reaffirms the use of seapower to influence actions and activities at sea and ashore. The expeditionary character and versatility of maritime forces provide the United States the asymmetric advantage of enlarging or contracting its military footprint in areas where access is denied or limited. Permanent or prolonged basing of our military forces overseas often has unintended economic, social or political repercussions. The sea is a vast maneuver space, where the presence of maritime forces can be adjusted as conditions dictate to enable flexible approaches to escalation, de-escalation and deterrence of conflicts.1

Navy leaders have never been shy about extolling the ability of maritime forces to shape behavior and influence events. "The Navy's role in global influence and deterrence will grow significantly in the future," Admiral John Nathman, former Commander, Fleet Forces Command, has said. "You can go up to 12 nautical miles [to a country's shoreline] without asking permission. You come with no footprint. And you deliver a message that can be broad, subtle, persistent, credible or powerful.The Navy can do that."2

Demand for Navy shaping operations has risen steadily over the past several years. All joint forces are engaged in shaping actions, which range from theater security cooperation and shaping to more elaborate options to deter and seize the initiative.

When thinking about deterring Iran, one thinks quickly of Navy options. In fact, there is both a valuable historical legacy and an important niche role for the Navy in operations to counter Iran at various levels of engagement. The same warships on scheduled deployment rotation can shift from presence to deterrence to the countering of aggression. Day in and day out, Navy forces help set the limits of Iranian military action in the Gulf.

Few question the idea that unique Navy capabilities to shape and deter have special strategic significance. Yet there is little awareness in the broader policy community of the impact that naval presence can have on the situation in the Persian Gulf over the longer term and during crises. Nor has it been made clear to decision makers that Iran's leadership is aware of our naval actions and factors the presence and operations of the U.S. Navy into its strategic calculations. …

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