The Trump Administration has issued an edict to the U.S. Navy: sink any Iranian vessel that harasses U.S. warships operating near Iran. The last two American presidents had to deal with Iranian brinkmanship at sea. Yet, never before has the White House given such an explicit order.
First, the coronavirus pandemic not only has crippled the United States, it also has eviscerated the leadership of Iran, which already was grappling with an economic decline caused by the sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration for its wanton pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Second, as the global price of oil collapses, Iran’s economy is suffering even more than it already was (oil is a key commodity for Iran). This creates a negative feedback loop, making Iranian aggression more likely in the region.
Third, Iranian aggression against American forces in the region not only is on the rise, but Iran passed a major milestone recently: the country has placed its first indigenously produced satellite into orbit. Many believe that the satellite launch was merely cover for the testing of an Iranian ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload over any target in the world.
This is certainly a possibility.
But there’s something more to this launch that has American strategists concerned beyond the expected concern over Iran progressing in the critical domain of reliable ballistic missile capabilities.
More Than a Nuclear Threat
Iranian space capabilities pose two additional threats for the United States and its allies: First, Iran can now place surveillance and communications satellites in orbit that will give Iranian forces operating on the ground, at sea, and in the air greater situational awareness. As Tehran aggressively pursues its grand strategy of regional hegemony, such capabilities will be key, particularly as Iran faces advanced foes in the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel—all of which have access to space capabilities that Iran has otherwise lacked.
Second, there is the added threat of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. The threat of EMP to undefended US systems, such as radios and early warning radar, was first discovered during a US military high-altitude nuclear weapons test over the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1962. An EMP blast is a non-lethal and devastating way to cripple the electronics of a rival. Most American electronic systems, civilian and military alike, are undefended against EMP attack. While the Ayatollah of Iran has long argued against using nuclear weapons in a first strike against Iranian adversaries, he has condoned the creation and use of EMP weapons as “Sharia approved” bombs. In 2010, for example, Iran’s military doctrine was updated to include the use of EMP weapons against the Americans and their allies should conflict between the West and Iran erupt.
American foes have determined that our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. On our own, the United States (and its allies, like Israel) are high-tech powers whose militaries are unstoppable. We proved this in Desert Storm. This is why American rivals from China to Russia to Iran and North Korea have embraced asymmetrical warfare methods as a way of undermining America’s otherwise overwhelming military dominance. By effectively “turning off” the power on the U.S. military and its allies, in the way an EMP would do, Iran suddenly would be facing an American force that is disjointed, disabled, and demoralized. And since the fighting would be closer to Iranian territory, suddenly the Iranian forces would enjoy significant advantages.
The EMP Threat
Last year, I cautioned about the possibility that North Korea may have spent the last decade seeding Earth orbit with EMP bombs in anticipation of holding the world hostage. We know that Iran and North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are aligned closely—and EMP capability is an outgrowth of those programs—so Iran, like North Korea before it, may have just weaponized space. One can expect Iran to launch many more satellites into orbit over the next year or so to complete the constellation it is developing. At that point, both North Korea and Iran would have the capability to threaten the American military with certain technological defeat.
The fact that Iran has named their first satellite, “Noor,” (meaning “Light” in Farsi) should concern us. North Korea named their satellite constellation “Brilliant Star.” While these might be fanciful names for satellites, they could also be indicative of a dark sense of humor among our foes.
Even if the Iranian satellite is not an EMP weapon, the capabilities it and similar systems will be able to provide Iran’s growing military threat in the region is a game-changer. I believe that Iran’s space threat, more than any other part of Iran’s ongoing threat to the United States and its allies, is why the White House has issued its shoot-to-kill orders for any Iranian boat so much as looking at a U.S. Navy ship the wrong way.
As the coronavirus pandemic destabilizes the world system, American rivals—China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela—are all looking to test America’s ailing deterrence. The Trump Administration’s change in U.S. Navy rules of engagement is meant to dissuade Tehran from being bolder than they’ve already been. Above all, it is a recognition of the dangers associated with Iranian forays into technological systems that might initiate an EMP attack on U.S. satellite constellations or, heaven forbid, the American homeland.