Wednesday, September 9, 2009
As the pressure increases, Iran threatens to close strategic
Strait of Hormuz
With Iran torn by political turmoil over the disputed re-election of
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Persian Gulf and its energy
riches are once again in the eye of the storm and the focus is on
the Strait of Hormuz, the only gateway to the Persian Gulf and
arguably the world's most strategic choke point.
have repeatedly warned over the last two years that if the United
States or Israel launch military strikes against the Islamic
Republic's nuclear program and other strategic targets, they would
seek to close the narrow strait and cut off oil supplies to Asia,
Europe and the U.S.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, declared as long ago as 2006,
that if the U.S. or Israel attacked Iran then "definitely the shipment of energy
from this region will be seriously jeopardised".
There have been several confrontations in the Persian Gulf, particularly since
the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003. Incidents in the Persian Gulf can escalate
quickly in ways that neither Iran nor its potential opponents intend.
In recent months, Britain's Royal Navy has reinforced its mine warfare flotilla
attached to the U.S.-led naval armada in the Persian Gulf.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has deployed surface to-air and
anti-ship missile batteries along Iran's southern coastline of the Gulf. The
Strait is a 180 km-long horseshoe-shaped waterway between Iran on the northern
shore and Oman and the UAE on the southern coast. It is one of the world's most
strategic bodies of water. Some 40 percent of the world's oil supplies passes
through it. On a typical day, around 15 tankers carrying up to 17m barrels of
oil and oil products, along with dozens of freighters, pass through the Strait
of Hormuz-two fifths of the world's oil supply.
This comprises most of the oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports of Saudi
Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Iran. Going the other way, the GCC states
import most of their food and consumer goods through the strait and a prolonged
shutdown would cause serious economic and social disruption. If this choke-point
was closed for an extended period, the economies of the Middle East would suffer
significantly and this would generate severe economic dislocation around the
Millions of guest workers in the Persian Gulf states from developing countries
could also be left unemployed, leading to greater poverty in South Asia and East
This would send oil prices soaring once again from the current level of $65-$70
per barrel to the peak of over $150 it hit in 2007-08. The U.S. Energy
information Administration estimates that if the Strait were closed, only about
3m barrels of oil per day could realistically be redirected through Saudi Arabia
through a trans-Arabian pipeline to the Red Sea port of Yanbu on the kingdom's
west coast. But there would be no other way to transport the 31mm tonnes a year
of LNG-18 percent of world consumption — the Qatar and the UAE export.
Iran does not have to seal the strait entirely to provoke U.S. intervention, and
once that intervention begins, the potential for military escalation is high.
Iran depends on the waterway not only to export its own oil, but to import the
refined products it is unable to produce itself. Denied those imports, its
economy would soon collapse. Over the last 18 months, Tehran's naval forces have
conducted repeated exercises simulating the takeover of the Strait, which is
patrolled by the U.S. Fifth fleet and allied warships from a dozen nations. By
conservative estimate, Iran has several hundred Chinese made C-801 anti-ship
cruise missiles deployed along the eastern shore of the waterway, on islands in
the Strait, or aboard warships. There is also a major Iranian naval base at
Bandar Abbas, which dominates the bend in the Strait, and this would undoubtedly
be used for anti-ship operations if fighting erupts.
In October 2008, Tehran announced that it planned to construct a new military
base at Jask on Iran's south-western coast of the Gulf of Oman.
The IRGC's naval wing has bases on a strong of flyspeck islands-Abu
Musa, Larak and Sirri, in the southern Gulf. Other forces are
deployed on the larger island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf end of
the Strait of Hormuz.
At its narrowest point, the waterway is 55 Km wide. But the two deep-water
channels for incoming and outgoing vessels are much slimmer, each 3.2 Km-wide
median between them. This makes the strait an ideal place to use anti-ship
missiles because naval or civilian vessels would have little room for evasive
action. The missiles short range also minimises the prospect of U.S. or
coalition warships being able to shoot them down before they reach their
targets. However the U.S. and allied forces would be able to spot any launches
when Iran switches on its radars and is likely to have overwhelmingly air
superiority that would presumably be able to locate and destroy missile
batteries quickly once the fighting started. The Islamic Republic of Iran is
reported to have 300 older, subsonic anti-ship missiles such as the CSS-N-2
Silkworm and the CSS-N-3 Seersucker, deployed in 12 batteries at Bandar Abbas.
These are more vulnerable to U.S. countermeasures, but still pose a major threat
to unprotected merchant vessels that could be sunk in the shallow Strait of
Hormuz to block it.
In recent months, small swarms of Iranian craft have harassed U.S. warships in
the waterway at least twice in what could have been practice runs for
hit-and-run operations, a component of Iran and its IRGC strategy of asymmetric
warfare against the superior coalition forces.
Iran has three frigates and 20 fast-attack craft, French built Kaman-class
vessels and Chinese-supplied Huodong boats, capable of mounting such attacks,
but these would be highly vulnerable to U.S. naval and airborne weapons systems.
In the opening phase of the Hizbullah-Israeli war in July 2006 the Lebanese
fighters sank a Cambodian freighter and crippled an Israeli missile corvette,
the Hanit, off the Lebanese coast with Chinese-made C-802 missiles supplied by
The Islamic Republic of Iran used mine warfare against tankers carrying Arab oil
during the 1980-88 war and damaged half a dozen vessels. One was a U.S. warship,
the destroyer Samuel B.Roberts which came close to sinking after hitting a mine
Fear of renewed mine warfare has prompted the Arab states around the Persian
Gulf to acquire minesweepers. The UAE navy signed a contract with Germany in
2007 to purchase two surplus Type 332 Frankenthal minehunters.
The experience of past mine-warfare campaigns suggests that it could take many
weeks, even months, to restore the full flow of commerce, and more time still
for the oil markets to be convinced that stability had returned.
Dr.Fariborz Saremi is a political and military analyst living in
Germany. He is the spokesperson for the Azadegan Foundation in
Germany and a member of the International Strategic Studies
Association (ISSA) based in Washington, DC..
Original Article Published on World Tribune