Unwilling to bend on its nuclear enrichment program, Iran threatened to block the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz should the U.N. move ahead with a new round of sanctions. Since about 20% of the world’s oil supplies go through the Strait of Hormuz, the U.S. considers any Iranian move to block international waters an act of war. European Union announced new sanctions after Tehran rejected a new International Atomic Energy Agency report Nov. 8 indicating that Iran was most likely working on its first A-bomb. Only 21 nautical miles across from Iran to Oman, the Strait of Hormuz is a vulnerable shipping lane, subject to harassment from Iranian al-Quds speedboats, threatening oil tankers on their way from various Persian Gulf ports. “Americans are not in a position whether to allow Iran to close off the Strait of Homuz,” said Iran’s IRNA state news agency.
Since the row broke Dec. 27, the price of crude rose two dollars a barrel, a fraction of a spike should hostilities breakout. “Any threat will responded by threat . . . We will not relinquish our strategic moves if Iran’s vital interests are undermined by any means,” said Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Brigadier General Hossein Salami. U.S. Fifth Fleet announced it would not permit Iran to stop passage in through the Strait of Hormuz. With over 80% of the Persian economy based on oil revenue, Iran reacted harshly to new rounds of sanctions. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s biggest oil producer, promised to make up any difference in world oil supplies should the West embargo Iranian oil. Iran’s threats aim at stopping EU and U.S. sanctions are designed to stop Iran from enriching uranium. Iran’s refusal to stop enriching uranium has ratcheted up talk of U.S. and Israeli military intervention.
Heading on a collision course, a U.S. aircraft carrier entered the Gulf of Oman to respond to Iranian threats. Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz occurred in 2008 and 2010, in response to possible military strikes by the U.S. and Israel on Iran’s nuclear enrichment sites. While the U.S. Fifth Fleet consists of 20-plus ships and some 15,000 sailors, Iran’s al-Quds speedboats, submarines and missliescould present some real problems. Any Iranian attack on a U.S. aircraft carrier or any other vessel would be considered an act of war by the White House. Tensions with Iran have escalated since the U.N. report confirmed a military side to Iran’s nuclear program. While no one knows for sure when or if Iran will have the bomb, the U.S. and Israel aren’t willing to play wait-and-see. With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats against Israel, there’s heightened urgency.
Threats to block the Strait of Hormuz are designed to deter the EU and U.S. from tightening international sanctions. Restricting Iran’s oil sales would have devastating effects on Iran’s economy, whose oil revenues account for about 80% of all income. Most experts agree that Iran could disrupt traffic through the Persian Gulf but only for a short time. “It wouldn’t be a cakewalk,” for U.S. forces to push back the Iranians to close the strait, said Jonathan Rue, a research fellow at the Washington-based Institute of War. “Their capabilities are not great and ours overwhelmingly outmatch theirs,” believing that any Iranian blockade would backfire. Iran also receives vital supplies, including refined gasoline, through the strait, something that would be disrupted by any naval operation. Before Iran decides to act unilaterally, they should consider all the consequences.
Rand Corp. analyst Alireza Nader believes that closing the strait would be far more costly to Iran than the West. “It could harass shipping, stopping and searching ships. We could see those kind of provocative steps,” said Nader, convinced that Iran will back down. Calling any blockade “economic self-sabotage,” Nader sees Iran’s threats as idle bluster. He sees the costs of a blockade far worst on Iran than any expected benefits. “A full shutdown would really be the worse case for Iran. That’s their last bullet,” said Oliver Jakob of Switzerland-based oil monitor Petromatrix. Any blockade would disrupt Iran’s 2.5 million barrels a day of oil exports, crippling its already shaky economy. New sanctions promise to restrict business with Iran’s Central Bank, preventing countries from petroleum transactions. Iran would face immediate shortages and lost revenue.
Iran faces some tough sledding trying to ignore U.N. attempts to rein-in its uranium enrichment program. Regardless of Iranian denials, the IAEA believes Tehran seeks to weaponize its enriched uranium, causing problems for the U.S., Israel and other Persian Gulf countries. Blockading the Persian Gulf would be no doubt met with swift and immediate retaliation. Any altercation would cause Iran’s currency, the Riyal, now trading at 15,200 to one U.S. dollar, to collapse. It’s lost 33% of its value in the last year. Pushing the situation to the brink, Tehran’s Mullah-based government must decide what’s more important: Insisting on uranium enrichment or a devastating war with the U.S. With U.S. troops now out of Iraq and waiting patiently in Kuwait, the Iranians are pushing their luck. Threatening to blockade the Strait of Hormuz now looks like a real bad plan.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.