Flashpoint Hormuz: US and allies brace for trouble in the choke-point Strait of Hormuz, gateway to the gulf, as regional tension escalates.
With Iran torn by political turmoil over the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the 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 Gulf and arguably the world's most strategic choke-point.
Iran's leaders have repeatedly warned over the last two years that if the United States or Israel launch military strikes against the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear programme and other strategic targets, they would seek to close the narrow strait and cut off oil supplies to Asia, Europe and the US.
Ayatollah Ali Khameni, Iran's supreme leader, declared as long ago as 2006, that if the US or Israel attacked Iran then "definitely the shipment of energy from this region will be seriously jeopardised".
There have been several confrontations in the Gulf, particularly since the US invaded Iraq in March 2003. Fortunately, these were largely probing exercises.
But, "incidents in the Gulf can escalate quickly in ways that neither Iran nor its potential opponents intend", cautioned Anthony Cordesman, a veteran American military analyst with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who has written extensively on the Middle East.
In recent months, Britain's Royal Navy has reinforced its mine warfare flotilla attached to the US-led naval armada in the Gulf region. And in June, the US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, midway up the Gulf from the strait, announced that it was expanding its headquarters in Manama, capital of the island state, by 70 acres under a January 2008 agreement with the kingdom's government.
These and other deployments have been described as routine by the Americans and their allies, but they are clearly taking no chances. Iran has also been making deployments around both ends of the strait. On 5 May, the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al Watan reported the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the most powerful military force in Iran and the praetorian guard of the Tehran regime, had deployed surface-to-air and anti-ship missile batteries along Iran's southern coastline on the Gulf.
The strait is a 180km-long horseshoe-shaped waterway between Iran on the northern shore and Oman and the United Arab Emirates on the southern coast. It is one of the world's most strategic bodies of water. Some 40% 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--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 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states import most of their food and consumer goods through the strait and a prolonged shutdown would cause serious economic and social disruption.
According to Jane's Intelligence Review, published in London: "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 world ...
"Millions of guest workers in Gulf states from developing countries could also be left unemployed, leading to greater poverty in South Asia and East Asia."
This would undoubtedly send oil prices soaring once again, from the current level of around $70 per barrel to the peak of nearly $150 it hit in 2007-08, or possibly even higher and more crippling levels.
The US 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 no other way to transport the 31mm tonnes a year of LNG--18% of world consumption--that Qatar and the UAE export.
Even if a closure of the strait was relatively short, in the order of several weeks, the economic shock waves would still be substantial. But the current global financial crisis would magnify the economic shock waves that a closure of the Gulf, which holds 55% of the world's known oil reserves, would produce.
"Extended closure of the strait would remove roughly a quarter of the world's oil from the market, causing a supply shock of the type not seen since the glory days of OPEC," Caitlin Talmadge of the Security Studies Programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), warned in a mid-2008 assessment of the Iranian threat.
Opinion is mixed on whether the Iranians would he able, or willing, to close the Strait of Hormuz, and, if they did, how long the waterway would be blocked. The Americans' high-tech forces would in all likelihood prevail in any conflict, but there is general agreement that if Iran sought to shut down Hormuz, conflict there would be.
"Iran does not have to seal the strait entirely to provoke US intervention," Talmadge observed, "and once that intervention begins, the potential for further 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.
But a July 2007 report by Republican Congressman Jim Saxton to the US Congress on the impact of a closure noted that threats to do so "imply a willingness to absorb substantial detrimental repercussions.
It is therefore a matter of judgment how real the threats are, hut the market does attribute some credibility to them." Saxton calculated that "the cumulative oil supply loss from a closure could reach the total amount of oil lost during previous oil shocks in 17 to 37 days."
It noted the extreme sensitivity of the oil market, which "reacts with caution to disturbances in the region that could threaten access to them". The sensitivity to events in the Gulf region is such that when Iran seized 15 British marines and sailors and took them hostage in March 2007, the world oil price rose by about $7 per barrel--8% of the level at that time--"even though the flow of oil was not affected".
All six of the oil shocks that have taken place since the end of World War II--from Iran's nationalisation of BP's holdings in 1950 to the Gulf war over Kuwait in 1990-91--"were not random events, as if natural disasters or accidents had caused them", the report noted. "Each crisis was associated with deliberate action in the Middle East to constrain the flow of oil or threaten the reserves."
Saxton observed that given the lessons learned from these events, such as the post-1973 build-up of strategic oil reserves by leading consumer states, the impact of a closure of the strait for a relatively short period of time could probably be contained without too much international economic disruption.
His report made no allowance for a closure during a global recession such as the one the world is now suffering. But it concluded that "the chances of overcoming a disruption have improved", since the last major shock in 1973, "provided it does not usher in an era of deteriorating oil supply".
Over the last 18 months or so, Tehran's naval forces have conducted repeated exercises simulating the takeover of the strait, which is patrolled by the US 5th Fleet and allied warships from a dozen nations.
By conservative estimate, Iran has several hundred Chinese-made C-80l and C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles deployed along the eastern shore of the waterway, on islands in the strait, or aboard warships. These would play a key role in any bid to block, or control, the strait.
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 southwestern coast on the Gulf of Oman. It remains unclear what forces would be deployed there, but Jask would facilitate Iranian operations in the approaches to the Strait of Hormuz from the seaward side.
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 Gulf end of the strait. These are essentially raiding groups using armed speedboats, which during the 1980-88 war constantly attacked tankers in the Gulf.
At its narrowest point, the waterway is 55km wide. But the two deep-water channels for incoming and outgoing vessels are much slimmer, each 3.2km wide with a 3.2km-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 US or coalition warships being able to shoot them down before they reach their targets. However, US and allied forces would be able to spot any launches when the Iranian switch on their radars and are likely to have overwhelming air superiority that would presumably be able to locate and destroy missile batteries quite quickly once the fighting started.
The Iranians are reported to have some 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 US countermeasures, but they still pose a major threat to unprotected merchant vessels that could be sunk in the shallow strait to block it.
Over the last year or so, coalition naval forces in the region--the Gulf and the Arabian Sea--have conducted a series of exercises designed to counter possible Iran attempts to close the strait.
These include attacks by large swarms of small, high-speed armed craft or maritime suicide attacks using small boats similar to the Al Qaeda operations that crippled the USS Cole, a missile destroyer, in Aden harbour in October 2000 and blew a hole in the French supertanker Limburg a year later as it sailed off Yemen's Hadramaut coast.
In recent months, small swarms of Iranian craft have harassed US warships in the waterway at least twice in what could have been practice runs for such hit-and-run operations, a component of Iran's strategy of "asymmetric warfare" against the superior coalition forces.
Iran claimed in October 2007 that it had amassed a fleet of 1,ooo low-tech speedboats to counter the 5th Fleet's armada of 30-40 high-tech warships. The damage such vessels, armed primarily with rockets and machine guns, could inflict is limited. Firing broadsides of cruise missiles would be more dangerous.
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 US naval and airborne weapons systems.
In the opening phase of the Hizbullah-Israeli war in July-August 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 Iran.
Admittedly, the Israeli ship was hit because it had foolishly not engaged its anti-missile defences, but the attacks give some idea of what a larger and coordinated Iranian operation might achieve.
But it is sea mines that would pose one of the major threats. Mining the waterway is considered the most likely method Tehran would employ--a tactic that was used to some effect during the so-called Tanker War between Iran and Iraq in their 1980-88 conflict.
The Iranians used mine warfare against tankers carrying Arab oil during the 1980-88 war and damaged half a dozen vessels. One was a US warship, the destroyer Samuel B. Roberts which came close to sinking after hitting a mine in 1988.
Fear of renewed mine warfare has prompted the Arab Gulf states to acquire minesweepers and MCM ships. The United Arab Emirates navy signed a contract with Germany in 2007 to purchase two surplus Type 332 Frankenthal mine hunters.
Despite these forces, analysts say it would take weeks, possibly months, for them to clear safe passages in the strait if Iran was able to sow only 200-300 mines. In 1991, it took the US-led allies 51 days, from 1 March to 20 April, to clear 1,157 moored mines laid by the Iraqis off Kuwait--three of which hit two US warships.
"Tehran has amassed an arsenal of naval mines, and mining would be one of the one of the most lasting and time-consuming tactics to counter," according to US security consultancy Strategic Forecasting. "Iranian forces would use both surface and submarine assets--some more surreptitious, some less so--to attempt to saturate the Gulf."
Any such operation would send insurance rates through the roof and in all probability curtail the volume of supertankers using the strait if it remained navigable.
Caitlin Talmadge estimates that Iran has an arsenal of some 2,000 mines. While the types are not known, the Iranians are suspected to possess the sophisticated MDM-6 manufactured by Russia, which can be laid by ships or submarines. Each of the Iranian Navy's three Russian-supplied Kilo-class submarines can carry 18 MDM-6s.
These contain 1,100okg of high explosive, making them 10 times more powerful than the mines Iran used in the tanker war of 1984-88 or against the US Navy in 1987-88.
"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," Talmadge concluded.
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|Publication:||The Middle East|
|Article Type:||Cover story|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2009|
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