Iran’s government has a hydra head. Foreign policy initiatives are developed separately by different elements of the power structure, secular, and religious, with multiple operators in Qom.
In the past, there has been speculation that the IRGC is a third power center, which may be why on April 21, Khamenei replaced former IRGC head Mohammad Ali Jafari with Hossein Salami. In view of the risks of missile use, Jafari may have “gone soft”, with concern for the health of his men.
The hypothesis that Khamenei et al. have decided for serious confrontation gets a boost from the (May 4, Al Jazeera) sentencing of President Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoun (Rouhani’s “eyes and ears”), to jail for unspecified crimes for an unspecified duration. This technique, with multiple imprisonments of his cabinet, was used against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to hamstring his administration until he could he could lose the 2009 election.
Is there something more we can tease out of open source? A template based on the recent past gives insight into Iranian tactics, which emphasize surprise, asymmetry, and deniability. Against the background of comparatively moderate posturing by the secular government, attacks against U.S. forces have occurred in a deniable manner.
Shiite militias in Iraq received missiles in 2018. (Reuters) Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies. There is no indication they have wasted them on shots at terrorists. It has been stated that Iran has transferred manufacturing technology to militia. Although a militia could build a Palestinian Qassam rocket, the same is not possible for a Scud-type product. The skills transfer can be no more than final assembly.
Yemen’s land mass and civil war have also served Iranian deniability. The Scud-type missile launched from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, and the later Badr P-1 were provided by Iran. They were almost certainly moved into Yemen by boat. Houthi announcements imply they pushed the button themselves. But if Iranian technicians sighted the missiles and pushed the launch button, only precious HUMINT could tell the difference.
Since there is concern that the missiles being moved by boat could be launched from boats, the Chinese designed C-802 Silkworm is implied. But a boat launch would not serve deniability. The C-802 is extensively deployed for land launch at the Strait of Hormuz.
Where could missiles be emplaced and launched in a deniable way? A locale must be lawless, buyable, and deniable. It must adjoin the Red Sea, which must be transited by the U.S. forces that use the Suez Canal. Lawless locations are implied by pirate activity. Most of the pirate havens have been cleaned out. Pirate activity persisted in the Galmudug region of Somalia till at least 2017. (FP) Somalia’s Pirates Are Back in Business. This shows what is possible. perhaps further up the coast towards Bab el Mandeb.
Eritrea, inside the Red Sea, above and adjacent to the strait Bab el Mandeb, is geographically perfect. The Eritrean Islamic Jihad implies contested territory that Iran could rent for missile emplacements, which can be effectively camouflaged. The narrowness of the strait facilitates visual spotting, helpful since the only Houthi controlled radar station was destroyed in the aftermath of the attack on the USS Mason. See U.S.S. Mason; 3rd Missile Attack; Asymmetric Warfare with Iran. See also Houthi Missile Attacks on U.S. Destroyer; Iran Culprit, which considers the use of small spotter boats with optical sighting devices.
Iranian emphasis on (Reuters) small-boat swarming attacks suggests there may be an element of coordination of attacks on naval targets with launches by Shiite militia against U.S. land forces.
Conclusion: If Khamenei gets the nerve to push the button, saturation attacks are possible from shore based missiles in the Red Sea. Coordinated land attacks by Shiite militia may occur, particularly by those with an integrated Iranian component.
Iran has not overtly engaged the U.S. military since the 1988 Operation Praying Mantis, an event of the Tanker War. But if deniable attacks against a high value target, such as a carrier, are judged successful, Iran may be emboldened to launch from boats. They don’t plan to win, but neither do they aim to lose.