Escalating tensions with Iran highlight vulnerability of the Strait of Hormuz

If tensions are not diffused, an unwanted military confrontation could be triggered, drawing in the wider region.
Sunday 19/05/2019
Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. (Reuters)
Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. (Reuters)

Tensions between the United States and Iran are creating a growing possibility of the two rivals stumbling into a military conflict that, ostensibly, neither side has been seeking.

The US announcement to deploy an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force to the Middle East came against undisclosed American intelligence reports that Iran was plotting to attack US interests. A surprise visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Iraq — where 5,200 US troops are stationed — followed.

Amid the tensions, unknown saboteurs on May 13 attacked four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, using magnetic explosives off the coast of Oman close to the UAE emirate of Fujairah. Two days later, Houthi rebels allied to Iran used drones to attack two Saudi Aramco pumping stations on its East-West pipeline, which led to operations being suspended as a precautionary measure.

Within hours, the United States initiated an unexpected evacuation of its diplomatic staff out of Iraq and alerted its citizens and regional allies of a heightened threat level in the region.

Such fast-moving developments created alarm as to what might happen next. If tensions are not diffused, an unwanted military confrontation could be triggered, drawing in the wider region.

The targeting of commercial vessels and oil pipelines in the oil-rich Arab Gulf reignited debate around energy security and particularly about Iran’s possible intentions and capabilities to block the Strait of Hormuz.

The strait, which separates Iran from the northern tip of Oman, connects the Arab Gulf to the Arabian Sea. Crude exports from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran are mainly shipped out to the world via the waterway.

Approximately one-third of the world’s crude and by-products traded by sea along with all of Qatar’s liquefied natural gas exports, accounting for almost one-third of the global market, traverse the strait daily.

Being 33km wide at its narrowest point and with shipping lanes just 3km wide, the strait is considered the world’s most strategic maritime choke point. Its blockade could have immediate global ramifications for economic, political and social activity if the supply chain for the world’s largest source of fossil fuels was disrupted.

A partial or temporary blockade or even a credible threat to close the Strait of Hormuz would likely send global markets into a frenzy. Saudi, Emirati and, to a lesser extent, Iraqi pipelines that offer alternative routes bypassing the strait cannot cover the effect of any strategic supply disruption across all oil producers in the Arab Gulf.

For years, Iran has aimed to build the capabilities that would enable it — probably as a final resort — to blockade the Strait of Hormuz and, last July, Iranian President Hassan Rohani was seen to hint at disrupting regional oil flows as an Iranian response to tightening sanctions targeting its oil exports.

Iran’s oil exports have halved over the past year in the face of US sanctions and Washington has removed all waivers against them for customers of Iranian oil. The Iranian leadership may calculate it has less to lose by blockading the strait. Any decision to attempt such a high-stake and high-risk move cannot be taken lightly.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), rather than its regular navy, would be the lead force tasked with planning such operations and assigned the primary operational responsibility for blockading the strait if the command was issued.

The IRGC will have learnt from Iran’s as well as Iraq’s use of mines during the Iran-Iraq War and later from the liberation of Kuwait. During both conflicts, US naval hardware — the USS Roberts in 1988 and USS Tripoli in 1991 — was damaged along with other commercial vessels, even though the strait was never effectively closed.

Next time, however, the IRGC can be expected to pursue a more sophisticated three-pronged approach to closing the strait to maritime traffic. Making use of thousands of mines, midget submarines, anti-ship missiles deployed on coastal launch sites as well as on fast boats at sea, and ambush operations conducted by clandestine operatives and armed drones, the IRGC posits a sophisticated asymmetric warfare capability.

With US, British and French naval forces on standby alongside regional navies — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have undertaken extensive naval modernisation in recent years — it would be a challenging mission for Iran to close the strait.

Yet the threat remains a potent one simply because if Iranian forces can avoid interception for a few hours they could gain a potentially decisive advantage.