In the last few days several Iranian officials have renewed threats that the Islamic Republic might block the waterway from the Persian Gulf into the Gulf of Oman known as the Strait of Hormuz.
But what exactly is it that makes this international sea-lane so important that the U.S. issued a barely veiled threat yesterday, saying that the US 5th Fleet will not tolerate any disruptions there.
The Strait of Hormuz is formed by the Musandam Peninsula which sticks out of the larger Arabian Peninsula like a wedge with its tip pointing roughly to the Northeast. The body of water to the West of the Strait is called Persian or Arabian Gulf (depending on who you ask), while to the East lies the Gulf of Oman, both extensions of the Indian Ocean.
By geostrategic coincidence, the countries sharing the Persian Gulf (Iran, Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq) in 2006 produced 28 percent of the world crude oil supply and hold an estimated 55 percent of the world crude oil reserves (728 billion barrels; one barrel = 159 liters).
In 2009, about a third of all seaborne traded oil and roughly 17 percent of all traded oil worldwide passed through this most important oil chokepoint (15.5 billion barrels/day). About 18 percent of the world demand in Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) also goes through the Strait.
In the same year an average of 26 crude oil tankers passed through the narrow waterway every day. In addition to that, a multitude of other vessels squeezes through the barely 34 kilometers wide gap between a bare rock off Oman’s Musandam Peninsula and the Iranian island of Larak Kuhi. In fact, the maritime traffic is so dense in these waters that two shipping lanes and a traffic separation zone between them have been created. Shipping lanes and separation zone are only three kilometers wide each.
The crucial question is: could Iran block that strategic waterway? In view of the massive upgrade in naval weaponry including midget submarines, fast missile patrol boats and various anti-ship missiles, the answer is clearly yes. But for how long and at what cost, that is a different matter.
The headquarter of the Iranian navy and a large naval base are located in Bandar Abbas, just north of the Strait of Hormuz, with the naval air base at Havadarya airport close by (see map). Another naval base is situated on the north shore of Larak Kuhi, but there are no port facilities. With all the assets in the area a minelaying operation and/or firing some anti-ship missiles at a few tankers would be easy and could effectively bring tanker traffic to a standstill.
But who would pay the price? International commentators have repeatedly stated today that the world has enough reserves for some time and that the oil markets are full. The blocking of the Strait of Hormuz would therefore hurt Iran and its oil-producing neighbours more than Europe or the Far East (the U.S. gets only a fraction of its oil from that region anyway.)
On top of stopping the country’s own flow of revenue, the Iranian navy would have to take on with what is still the mightiest warfleet on the seven seas: the US Navy. The 5th Fleet is based close by, in Bahrain, and has enough naval and air power to make short work of the Iranian fleet.
Threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz can therefore only be seen as the usual chest beating because the consequences of actually trying could well sweep the current regime out of power. And this is something the mullahs dread even more than American imperialists. — Johann Brandstatter