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Closing Strait of Hormuz not so easy for Iran-analysts

  • A military personnel works on a map at a naval ship during the Velayat-90 war game on Sea of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran December 28, 2011. (REUTERS/Fars News/Hamed Jafarnejad)

WASHINGTON: Iran's navy chief boasts that closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil traffic would be "easier than drinking a glass of water." Hardly, U.S. analysts say.

Iran's navy does not have the size for a sustained physical blockade of the Strait, but does have mine-laying and missile capability to wreak some havoc, analysts said.

"It wouldn't be a cakewalk" for Iran, said Caitlin Talmadge, a George Washington University professor who has written about the Strait of Hormuz. "If Tehran really wanted to cause trouble, it could."

But the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet is nearby and keeping a close eye on Iran's activities in the Strait. Mine-laying or missile activity would not go undetected and would likely generate a U.S. response.

The Fifth Fleet said on Wednesday that "any disruption will not be tolerated." That came after Iran's navy chief said closing the Strait of Hormuz "is really easy... or as Iranians say, it will be easier than drinking a glass of water."

Iran's threat followed European Union foreign ministers' decision to tighten sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and leave the door open to the possibility of an oil embargo, and moves by the United States to expand sanctions as well.

Iranian saber-rattling about closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipping is not new, and the waterway, which is 21 miles (34 km) wide at its narrowest point, has yet to be cut off to traffic.

But the context for this week's threats from Iran is new. The oil exporter appears to be feeling even more threatened by the West over possible oil-related sanctions.

"We're in the game of threats. If you're going to cut them out of the oil market, they have no interest in the flow of oil from the region," Vali Nasr, a Tufts University professor, said.

Iran's message is: "If we are not allowed to play in the game, we have no interest in allowing anybody else to play," said Nasr, a former State Department adviser.

Iran would not be able to sustain a line of ships to block the Strait because it mainly has smaller boats that do not have the ability to stay in open waters in a coordinated formation for days, analysts said.

It could not duplicate the blockade action taken by U.S. naval vessels during the Cuban missile crisis, for example.

Iran can harass oil tankers and western warships with missiles, laying mines and possible suicide attacks with small boats, or try to attack a Gulf export facility, analysts said.

But it is not easy to sink an oil supertanker, which is much bigger and more resilient than a warship, analysts said.

Iran has 23 submarines and more than 100 patrol and coastal combat boats. The Fifth Fleet has more than 20 ships.

Oil tankers can find work-arounds to Iranian activity in the Strait by sending smaller vessels that could travel closer to the Oman coastline. But hostilities can raise the cost of insurance and transportation costs.

Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby said: "Efforts to increase tension in that part of the world are unhelpful and counter-productive. For our part, we are comfortable that we have in the region sufficient capabilities to honor our commitments to our friends and partners, as well as the international community."

"The expectation is that the U.S. military could address any Iranian threat relatively quickly," Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said.

But just making the threats alone can economically benefit Iran through higher oil prices by unnerving oil markets, analysts say.

"Iran saber rattling raises oil prices and that's good for Iran," Talmadge said.

If there were an incident in the Strait, the U.S. military could issue a warning that if Iran's ships came out from the coastline it would be considered an act of war, she said.

A key concern is that if Iran does try and destabilize the Strait of Hormuz, that could lead to military confrontation with the United States.

But Maloney said both Iran and U.S. President Barack Obama's administration would be cautious about escalating tensions too much.

"I don't think Iran wants to go to war," she said. But there are parties in Iran's leadership that would welcome higher conflict because it plays to their base, she said.

Iran needs the Strait as much as any other oil producer because its economy is highly dependent on it, Talmadge said.

"But they don't really have a lot of cards to play, they're very isolated internationally and in the region, so this is the one that they tend to pull out when they are desperate," she said.

Historically, "they are the boy who cried wolf, or the country who cried Hormuz. They've made this threat before and it hasn't materialized," Talmadge said.

About 2 million barrels of oil products are exported daily through the narrow channel separating Oman and Iran which connects the biggest Gulf oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

"They routinely threaten to close it, and there hasn't been a period in history in which they've actually done that," Maloney said.

 
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