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
Journal, which reported ominous statements from a senior member of the
"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
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
Geostrategy-Direct.com. 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
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
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.