Dire Straights

Iran threatens to close off oil lifeline of Hormuz

Iranian Navy Commander Habibulah Sayari  (photo credit: Reuters)
Iranian Navy Commander Habibulah Sayari
(photo credit: Reuters)
The history books tell us that more than one war has been started by mishaps and minor skirmishes at sea. A half century ago, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was triggered by the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Today, the world stands poised on the brink of a potentially deadlier conflict, as the international standoff with Iran over its renegade nuclear program has raised tensions in the Persian Gulf, with Teheran openly threatening to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz if sanctions are imposed on its crude oil exports.
Given the current combustible climate, even the slightest accident at sea could trigger a regional conflagration with global consequences.
The bold threats indicate that Iran, long suspected of building a nuclear weapons program in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, is growing desperate in the face of ever tightening global sanctions. After several rounds of sanctions that barely bothered Iranian leaders, it appears the latest moves are starting to bite.
In early January, US President Barak Obama signed into law new measures making it illegal for American companies, banks and individuals to have any dealings with Iran’s Central Bank, the main conduit for revenues from Iranian oil exports. The measure was meant to hamstring Iran’s petrol sales, which provide for nearly 80 percent of the annual state budget.
The European Union, along with South Korea, India, Japan, Australia and other large importers of Iranian crude, also have started quietly trimming back their purchases, prompting countries like China to demand large discounts, which is eating further into Teheran’s profits and driving its already weak economy into a freefall.
The official currency, the rial, lost nearly half its value against the US dollar over recent months, while the rising price of bread on the streets stirred popular anger among an already tense populace. Protests have broken out in several Iranian cities over various economic issues, sparking hopes that the Arab Spring will spill over the borders and reignite the Iranian uprising of 2009.
In addition, the simmering rift between Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his increasingly disloyal protégé, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has publicly surfaced – a dispute largely centered on the degree to which the regime should defy the West. Scholars say that Ahmadinejad belongs to a militant Shi’ite faction called the “Twelvers,” who are anxious to hasten the promised appearance of the 13th Imam by triggering a massive global conflict.
There was no holding back on that defiance in late December when Iranian officials lashed out in anticipation of the oil trading sanctions by brashly threatening to close down the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which up to 40% of the world’s daily oil supply passes.
At the same time, Iran carried out a 10-day, wide-ranging naval exercise in the vicinity, during which it test fired long-range anti-ship missiles. When the super-carrier USS John C. Stennis and its escort vessels then exited the Gulf through the contested channel, the Iranian military boasted that Washington had been intimidated by the exercise.
“I advise, recommend and warn them over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf, because we are not in the habit of warning more than once,” insisted Iranian army chief Ataollah Salehi.
The Pentagon dismissed the warning and declared it would continue to operate in the Gulf, as it had “for decades.” The Obama administration added that the threats by Iran were a sign of weakness and desperation.
Still, world oil markets were badly spooked, with prices jumping to over $100 a barrel and refusing to fall.
Reports indicate that the US has since used a secret diplomatic channel to tell Khamenei that closing the Strait of Hormuz would constitute crossing a “red line.” US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also openly vowed that Washington would act to stop Iran from either blocking the strait or moving to build a nuclear bomb.
The US top brass acknowledged that Iran had “invested in capabilities that could, in fact, for a period of time block the Strait of Hormuz,” but that the American military also has invested in capabilities to defeat such a move.
The United Kingdom also announced it is sending its most powerful naval vessel to the Gulf to counter any potential Iranian attempt to close Hormuz, adding that the destroyer’s highly sophisticated systems are capable of shooting down “any missile in Iran’s armory.”
Nonetheless, Iran’s threats to shut down the waterway “should not be underestimated,” assessed Nathan Freier, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Iranian military and paramilitary forces boast just enough of the right kinds of missiles (cruise and ballistic), surface and subsurface naval attack craft, mines and minelayers, and air defenses to complicate military planning and threaten secure passage.”
Other analysts disagreed, however, with many pointing out that Iran also needed to keep the Strait open to export its own oil and liquefied natural gas. The skeptics argued that Iranian officers must all know that, despite their white-hot rhetoric, the US and its regional allies could quickly destroy Iran’s military capabilities. Some speculated that Iran was merely rattling its saber to drive up the price of oil in an effort to compensate for its lost business.
Offering a window inside the current thinking of the Obama administration, former White House adviser Dennis Ross recently told the Bloomberg news agency that no one should doubt the president’s readiness to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, if sanctions and diplomacy fail.
Asked if Obama would sooner “contain” a nuclear-armed Iran than launch preemptive military strikes, Ross responded that the Obama administration considers the risks of permitting a nuclear-armed Iran to be greater than the risks of military action.
“There are consequences if you act militarily, and there’s big consequences if you don’t act,” he stated.
Ross added that the analogy to Soviet containment does not translate well to the situation in the Mideast. Countries in the region, he said, lack equivalent Cold War-era “ground-rules,” lines of communication, and a protected second-strike nuclear capability, which deterred a surprise attack during USSoviet tensions.
“You have all sorts of local triggers for conflict,” cautioned Ross. “The potential for a miscalculation or a nuclear war through inadvertence is simply too high.”
Ross added that Iran’s recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz were likely “bluster,” aimed mainly at a domestic audience.
Some of the tensions in the maritime bottleneck may be relieved soon, as the United Arab Emirates claimed last month that it has completed a 225- mile land-based pipeline which bypasses the Strait of Hormuz and will be operational by June. The pipeline will have the capacity to pump 1.5 million barrels of oil per day from fields in Abu Dhabi to the Gulf of Oman, easing but not ending the concerns over a military disruption.
The threats over Hormuz came just as a top Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in early January when his car was bombed by passing motor-bikers.
He was the fourth atomic expert targeted in covert operations inside Iran since 2007.
Meanwhile, Iran announced it has begun enriching uranium at its new underground facility of Fordow, which has centrifuges capable of producing weapons-grade fissile material. The site could force Western leaders to speed up their plans for countering Iran, as even Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has admitted that the fortress, built inside a mountain, is immune to conventional military strikes.
In a succinct description of the critical stage we have reached, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz said in mid-January that “2012 will be a critical year in the connection between Iran gaining nuclear power, changes in leadership, continuing pressure from the international community and events that happen unnaturally.”
The trigger for an escalated conflict could be a simple, unintentional and even humane act on the high seas, such as when the US Navy just rescued several Iranian fishermen aboard a floundering boat in Gulf waters that the Iranian high command had just ordered the Americans to vacate. The rescue operation could have easily been misinterpreted.
Meantime, the Revolutionary Guards Corps plans to hold another set of provocative naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz in February.