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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How Iran Uses the Threat of Naval Mines

Aircraft Carriers
The Blue Angels, flies over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) on May 20, 2020. US Navy Photo/

Naval mines have caused more damage and destruction to U.S. warships than any other weapon since World War II. Used as asymmetric weapons, these self-contained explosive devices continue to be underrated. 

Naval mines are very cheap, and the damage they cause to submarines and other vessels is astounding. The cost-to-damage ratio has historically made mines the preferred weapon at sea. Today, more than 60 navies possess different mine variants, ranging from smaller contact mines to advanced multi-influence weapons. America’s top adversaries – Iran, Russia and China – all carry thousands of mines, which should concern the U.S. Navy.

Mines Are a Consistent Threat to U.S. Naval Power

For centuries, mines have been utilized by navies to defend and project power. While defensive mines can deter invading forces from moving into certain waters, offensive mines can cause psychological impacts. Mines are difficult to locate without professional equipment, making their dispersal in bodies of water very risky. Since 1907, international law has instructed governments to publicly disclose mined areas. However, by World War II, many navies acquired the capability to drop mines by aircraft over enemy harbors. Prior to the innovation of more advanced mines, the contact variant represented the only mine in use. In order for a contact mine to detonate, it has to be physically touched by a target. As new mine variants and new military capabilities emerged in the first half of the last century, this weapon became one of the U.S. Navy’s worst nightmares. 

Throughout the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Islamic Republic of Iran mined several areas of the Persian Gulf and nearby waters. Its navy primarily used variants of the 1908 Russian-designed contact mine, which was ultimately responsible for the sinking of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG058) in 1988. According to the U.S. Naval Institute, Iraq also indiscriminately deployed over 1,000 mines in the northern Gulf during this period of conflict:

“In the early morning of 18 February 1991, the USS Tripoli (LPH-10), which had embarked airborne mine-countermeasure helicopters, struck an Iraqi contact mine; four hours later, the Aegis cruiser Princeton (CG-59) fell victim to a Manta mine, a ‘mission-kill’ that took the cruiser out of the war and cost about $100 million to bring her back on line. More to the point of the impact of a possible Iranian mining campaign in 2012, it took the Multinational Coalition forces more than two years of intensive mine-countermeasure operations to declare the northern Gulf mine free.”

The U.S. Navy’s history with naval mines makes clear how they threaten its warships. Perhaps, for this reason, Iran has used the threat of mines to extract concessions from the West. Amid growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran in 2012, Tehran threatened to mine the Strait of Hormuz. According to Iran’s then-top naval commander Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, forcing the closure of the strait would be “easier than drinking a glass of water.” The Strait is a strategic waterway; nearly a third of the world’s oil needs to pass through it. The international community’s dependence on the functioning of the Strait makes Iran’s threats serious. 

Holding the Gulf, and the World, Hostage

Over the last decade, Iran has become more aggressive in the Persian Gulf.

In 2020, Iran’s navy was accused of carrying out an attack targeting four commercial ships owned by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates off the port of Fujairah. The following year, an Israeli-managed tanker was targeted in an attack off the coast of Oman. Iran was likely the culprit, according to U.S. military officials. Earlier this week, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz showed photographs of Iranian vessels in the Red Sea, referring to their presence as a threat. Last month, several Middle Eastern news outlets reported that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have placed sea mines in the Red Sea. According to Breaking Defense, the mines were positioned in the southern part of the waters, where U.S. Navy and other allied ships sail through. Yemen’s Deputy Minister of Legal Affairs and Human Rights said that “the sea mines used by the Houthis came with the support and training of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” Additionally, “According to a January report by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, the Houthis continue to plant sea mines in the Red Sea, off islands north of the three ports that they occupy.”

U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations in Vienna are expected to restart in the coming weeks. Tehran could be using its mine use as leverage during the talks. Iran’s leadership wants the U.S. and the rest of the West to recognize its ability to disrupt the global supply of oil, a significant threat to the world economy. Since Iran’s naval capabilities are generally lackluster, the regime depends on mines and their potentially destructive impacts to exert power over the Persian waters. 

Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.