Iranians playing with fire in the Gulf
In an act of precarious defiance, the deputy commander of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps threatened to bar access to the strategic Strait of Hormuz to the United States and its allies if they “threaten” the Islamic Republic.
The narrow strait that lies between Iran on one side and Oman’s Musandam peninsula on the other provides the only sea passage to the open ocean from the Arabian Gulf. It is one of the world’s most strategically important choke points.
At its narrowest, the strait has a width of 54km, making it relatively simple to block. Crippling one or two supertankers, of which there are no shortages going through the busy strait on a daily basis, would close the passage to all shipping.
Blocking the strait would create an oil shortage for parts of the world, diplomatic imbroglio and military enmeshment, with potentially grave consequences.
On the oil front, with Hormuz closed, there would be an immediate fuel shortage. It is estimated that about 20% of the world’s petroleum passes through the strait.
The closing of Hormuz would have serious consequences for Saudi Arabia, whose super tankers need the Hormuz outlet to ferry the country’s oil and liquefied natural gas from port terminals in Eastern province, as well as for other Gulf Cooperation Council members.
Such action would create a scurry on the diplomatic front, as politicians and diplomats at all levels would try to reach a peaceful solution.
The United States would certainly intervene, as it has in the past to protect its US Navy 5th Fleet, which has its home port in Bahrain and is deployed mainly to protect international shipping in the region.
There is a memorable precedent of a similar situation pitting the US military against the Iranians when, in 1987-88, the US Navy set out to escort as many tankers and supertankers as it could, frequently engaging the Iranians who tried to attack the vessels.
But that was nearly 30 years ago. Today the region is very different and much more volatile. Following the uprisings of the “Arab spring”, it is much more explosive with several conflicts percolating.
Given the harsh realities associated with the closure of such a strategically important waterway, it is unlikely that the Iranians would actually go through with their threat to bar US ships from the strait.
However, the danger may come because hotheads in Iran, egged on by the country’s military successes in Syria and political achievements on the nuclear negotiation front, could be blinded and misguided by those limited accomplishments.
Iranian state media quoted Brigadier-General Hossein Salami, the acting commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as saying: “If the Americans and their regional allies want to pass through the Strait of Hormuz and threaten us, we will not allow any entry.”
Earlier Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticised US military drills in the Gulf.
The last time the United States confronted the Iranians in the Gulf, the situation was contained but with conflicts raging in Yemen, Iraq and Syria and with jihadists creating potential trouble in the rest of the region, there are good chances for any Iranian-US conflict to escalate to very dangerous levels.