Monday, March 07, 2005


Austin Bay discusses the possibility that Iran might close the Straits of Hormuz in response to US and European sanctions to prevent Teheran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The Iranians didn't actually threaten anything but simply warned of an "oil crisis" in the event they were pushed to the wall. ABC News Online says:

Iran's top nuclear official has warned the United States and Europe of the danger of an oil crisis if Tehran is sent before the United Nations Security Council over its nuclear program. ... "The first to suffer will be Europe and the United States themselves, this would cause problems for the regional energy market, for the European economy and even more so for the United States," he said.

The Iranians were at pains to distinguish between a 'reasonable' Europe and an intransigent United States. Teheran pointedly implied that if the whole region were destabilized the fault would lie squarely with the United States.

Mr Rowhani, who was speaking at a conference in Tehran on nuclear technology and sustainable development, however expressed optimism that an agreement would be reached with Europe over the development of Iran's nuclear program. ...  Mr Rowhani warned the US that it could destabilise the region if it blocks an accord with Europe. If Washington brings the issue before the Security Council, "Iran will retract all the decisions it has made and the confidence-building measures it has taken", he said.

Actual speculation that Iran was threatening naval action was from the Persian Journal, which reported ominous statements from a senior member of the Iranian government.

"An attack on Iran will be tantamount to endangering Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and "in a word" the entire Middle East oil," Iranian Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezai said on Tuesday. About 40 percent of the world's crude oil shipments passes through the two-mile wide channel of the strategic Straits of Hormuz. ... Teheran could easily block the Straits of Hormuz and use its missiles to strike tankers and GCC oil facilities. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that oil tanker traffic through the Straits of Hormuz will rise to about 60 percent of global oil exports by 2025. Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ... said such a significant increase in oil prices would also be sparked by international sanctions on Tehran.

The Iranians could blockade the Gulf, but for how long is the question. (DIA) Director Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby testified last month that

"Iran can briefly close the Strait of Hormuz, relying on a layered strategy using predominantly naval, air and some ground forces. Last year it purchased North Korean torpedo and missle-armed fast attack craft and midget submarines, making margin improvements to this capability."

The threat seems serious because he strait is only two miles wide in places. The World Tribune Com claims that "Teheran could easily block the Straits of Hormuz and use its missiles to strike tankers and GCC oil facilities, according to the new edition of Within weeks, the rest of the world would be starving for oil and the global economy could be in danger." In fact, a blockade of the Persian Gulf has been attempted before -- by Iraq -- but went largely underreported in the pre-Internet days during the Tanker War of 1984-1987.

In 1981 Baghdad had attacked Iranian ports and oil complexes as well as neutral tankers and ships sailing to and from Iran; in 1984 Iraq expanded the socalled tanker war by using French Super-Etendard combat aircraft armed with Exocet missiles. Neutral merchant ships became favorite targets, and the long-range Super-Etendards flew sorties farther south. Seventy-one merchant ships were attacked in 1984 alone, compared with forty-eight in the first three years of the war. Iraq's motives in increasing the tempo included a desire to break the stalemate, presumably by cutting off Iran's oil exports and by thus forcing Tehran to the negotiating table. Repeated Iraqi efforts failed to put Iran's main oil exporting terminal at Khark Island out of commission, however. Iran retaliated by attacking first a Kuwaiti oil tanker near Bahrain on May 13 and then a Saudi tanker in Saudi waters five days later, making it clear that if Iraq continued to interfere with Iran's shipping, no Gulf state would be safe. These sustained attacks cut Iranian oil exports in half, reduced shipping in the Gulf by 25 percent, led Lloyd's of London to increase its insurance rates on tankers, and slowed Gulf oil supplies to the rest of the world ...

As the Tanker War spread to attacks on all shipping, the tankers were convoyed in and out the Gulf by naval vessels, resulting in one action where the FFG-7 class USS Stark was nearly sunk by a French built Exocet missile fired by an Iraqi warplane. Iran did not attack US naval vessels at the outset.

Iran refrained from attacking the United States naval force directly, but it used various forms of harassment, including mines, hit-and-run attacks by small patrol boats, and periodic stop-and-search operations. On several occasions, Tehran fired its Chinese-made Silkworm missiles on Kuwait from Al Faw Peninsula. When Iranian forces hit the reflagged tanker Sea Isle City in October 1987, Washington retaliated by destroying an oil platform in the Rostam field and by using the United States Navy's Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) commandos to blow up a second one nearby.

Within a few weeks of the Stark incident, Iraq resumed its raids on tankers but moved its attacks farther south, near the Strait of Hormuz. Washington played a central role in framing UN Security Council Resolution 598 on the Gulf war, passed unanimously on July 20; Western attempts to isolate Iran were frustrated, however, when Tehran rejected the resolution because it did not meet its requirement that Iraq should be punished for initiating the conflict.

In early 1988, the Gulf was a crowded theater of operations. At least ten Western navies and eight regional navies were patrolling the area, the site of weekly incidents in which merchant vessels were crippled. The Arab Ship Repair Yard in Bahrain and its counterpart in Dubayy, United Arab Emirates (UAE), were unable to keep up with the repairs needed by the ships damaged in these attacks.

Parallels with the earlier Tanker War are bound to be inexact. Most naval attacks were by Saddam Hussein's forces in the Northern Persian Gulf, where the waters are wider. Iraq did not enjoy Iran's geographical advantage of actual positions at the chokepoint. But the Iranians demonstrated the ability to fire missiles from land batteries at maritime targets owing to the extreme narrowness of the Straits and to mine it. Another FFG-7 class warship, the USS Samuel B. Roberts was seriously damaged when it struck an Iranian mine in April, 1988 and was so heavily damaged it had to be shipped home by heavy lift for a year's repair at Bath Iron Works.

Three days after the mine blast, forces of the Joint Task Force Middle East executed the American response - Operation Praying Manits. During a two-day period, the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force units of Joint Task Force Middle East destroyed two oil platforms being used by Iran to coordinate attacks on merchant shipping, sank or destroyed three Iranian warships and neutralized at least six Iranian speedboats.

But the bottom line is that an Iranian blockade of the Gulf of Hormuz will probably fail to stop tanker traffic completely, just as it failed in the 1980s. US forces in the region have grown comparatively more capable, with facilities within the Gulf itself, both in Bahrain and in Iraq, for example. An Iranian blockade would however, disrupt tanker sailings, increase insurance premiums and generally drive the cost of crude upwards; it might even sink a number of tankers and naval vessels, but in the end the United States would prevail. Strangely enough, the Iran blockade threat is more powerful "in being" than in actual implementation. While it remains simply a threat, it can be used as a diplomatic lever to extract concessions. If actually carried out, Europe and China, whatever their political inclinations, would be forced by economic necessity to help break the blockade.