Iran has renewed its threat to close access to the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off some 17% of the world’s oil supply from its market. The US Navy has countered that such a move will not be tolerated. As each side tries to second guess the other, a heightened state of tension is being felt throughout the region.
Iran has long been seen by GerardDirect as the most dangerous bad actor in the growing sea of chaos that represents today’s Middle East. With its fingers deep in the most difficult areas of current turmoil, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, Iran foments unrest and danger wherever it meddles. Since closing an international seaway is considered an act of war according to international law, Iran is again pushing the envelope in a move that could result in a major new Middle Eastern confrontation.
Background The Strait of Hormuz is a natural bottleneck at the end of the Persian Gulf (see map), a body of water that lies between Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.
The latest crisis began on December 14, when Parviz Sarvari, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security Committee, said that his country was preparing to close off the crucial Strait of Hormuz as part of a ten day military exercise scheduled for the end of December. Overnight, oil prices jumped $2 to $100.45/per barrel in response.
Then al-Arabiya reported that Ramin Mehmanparast, Foreign Ministry spokesman, said closing the Strait was “not on the agenda . . . because Iran believes the region must have peace and stability to allow all regional countries to advance and develop.” The world relaxed just a little and oil prices stabilized.
But the quiet was short-lived. Over the past few days, Iran’s Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari and Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi reiterated the threat. Speaking to the Iranian English-language service Press TV, Sayyari said that “…closing the Strait of Hormuz is very easy for Iranian naval forces,” and that “Iran has comprehensive control over the strategic water way.”
Rahimi was even more confrontational, stating that if the US imposed further sanctions on Iranian trade then “…not even a drop of oil will be allowed through the Strait of Hormuz.” Oil prices again rose over $2 in response, to over $102.
In quick response to the threats, the US and France countered immediately with sharp rejoinders to Iran. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the Strait of Hormuz is an international strait and “therefore all ships, no matter what flag they fly, have the right of transit passage.”
At the US Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain, a spokeswoman assured the world that the U.S. Navy has a “robust presence” in the region to safeguard its “vital links to the international community.” She continued, “Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated.”
Demonstrating that the US was standing behind its words, US officials said Wednesday that the USS John C. Stennis and the guided missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay slipped into the strait Tuesday after a stop at Dubai’s Jebel Ali port. The Stennis is armed with NATO RIM-7 Sea Sparrow and Rolling Air Missile (RAM) surface-to-air missile systems, the Phalanx Close-in Weapons System for cruise missile defense, and the AN/SLQ-32 Electronic Warfare System.
The USS Mobile bay is a 570 foot Ticonderoga class cruiser that carries the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, two Seahawk LAMPS multi-purpose helicopters, and is used for anti-submarine warfare, anti-air, and anti-surface warfare.
The strong statement that the Stennis’ appearance in the Persian Gulf makes may give Iran pause, as it considers it’s next moves.
What is at Stake Most of the crude exported from Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq, as well as nearly all the liquefied natural gas from Qatar is transported through the Strait of Hormuz. Ironically, Iran is OPEC’s current rotating president, and oil exports account for 80% of the country’s economy. Sanctions against its exports could therefore cripple Iran’s economic engine.
At its narrowest, the Gulf is 34 miles wide. There is a six-mile-wide shipping lane governed by a Traffic Separation Scheme, a two mile-wide passage that separates the two shipping lanes that pass through the Gulf, one each for inbound and outbound ships. An average of 13 tankers carry about 15.5 million barrels of crude oil through the strait on an average day, making it one of the world’s most strategically critical maritime bottlenecks in the world. The oil traveling through the Strait represents 33% of the world’s ocean-borne oil, and 17% of oil shipments around the world.
This week, Iran’s Navy went ahead with its massive 10-day military exercise, dubbed “Velayat 90″. The war games cover an area stretching from the east of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden, including the shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. This is the first time the Iranian Navy has held naval drills over such a vast area, covering an area of 2,000 km. The games are being held at a time when the US and other Western nations are considering expanding their sanctions against Iran to include Iran’s Central Bank and an embargo on its oil exports.
Analysis Though some commentators have dismissed the comments as rhetoric, there is no doubt that shipping lines with vessels that use the area are clearly at risk. A sudden closure would either lock their ships in the Persian Gulf or prevent them from entering. Moreover, there is a real threat from Iran’s surface and air-launched anti-ship missiles, should Iran decide to display its power over the Gulf, with advanced missiles, which they are known to possess. They have also provided these to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Another real danger is that Iran will plant mines in the Gulf. Mines are easy to deploy and they destroy unwary targets indiscriminately. The Iranians used them in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War, and may be disposed to revisit this tactic. In 1988, the US frigate Samuel B. Roberts was one of the mines’ casualties, and America carried out heavy retaliatory strikes against Iranian facilities and naval vessels.
Today, Iran is ruled by megalomaniacal despots, and it is not clear that the lessons of 1988 will be either remembered or heeded.
The West continues to allege that Iran is building nuclear weapons (and the Iranians continue to deny it). In the face of a new conflict born of Western sanctions and a potential Strait of Hormuz blockade, there is a very real possibility that Iran’s growing sense of both empowerment and (possibly) of panic will lead it to consider any means of attacking the US and its allies as worthwhile, regardless of the cost.
Iran’s top decision-makers clearly believe that if the Strait of Hormuz is not open to Iranian exports, Iran will not allow the rest of the world to use it. The situation is tense and volatile.
The sanctioning of Iranian Central Bank and an embargo on the purchase of Iranian crude oil is likely to trigger strong Iranian reaction. Nevertheless, as we have observed before, the conduct of the Middle East is guided by the principle that it is the strongest who wins. If the West remains a tiger without teeth, Iran will achieve its nuclear power and the entire world will be at risk. On the other hand, if Iran is faced with sanctions against its Central Bank and oil exports, it may well react by blockading the Strait of Hormuz against their perceived enemies. But the consequences for Iran will be severe.
Iran’s ongoing war games are a blustering attempt to show the world how powerful Iran’s military is and how easy it will be for them to close the Strait of Hormuz at will . Iran’s Supreme Leader already has warned that “Iran is not a nation to sit still and just observe threats [of sanctions] from fragile materialist powers that are being eaten by worms from inside”. But this kind of bluster will not provide defense against an American military response to a blockade of the Strait, should the Obama administration recognize the seriousness of the threat to both our oil supply, our shipping in the Persian Gulf, and Middle East stability.
The ongoing chaos of the so-called Arab Spring has destabilized many of America’s former allies and turned them into nations with radical governments and a strong anti-American agenda. America’s strong stand against Iran’s latest threats, in a region whose culture respects strength and has nothing but distain for what it perceives as weakness, is the only policy that may prevent a new and deadly adventure in the Middle East.
Ilana Freedman is an geopolitical intelligence analyst with over 25 years in the field, and Editor of GerardDirect. She is a frequent speaker on the subject of global threats and counter-terrorism, and appears regularly on radio stations around the country. She welcomes your comments and questions below.