Analysis: Saber-rattling in Strait of Hormuz
An Iranian missile is launched during war games on April 25, 2010 in southern Iran, near the Strait of Hormuz.
December 28th, 2011
09:34 AM ET

Analysis: Saber-rattling in Strait of Hormuz

By Tim Lister, CNN

It is just 34 miles (55 kilometers) wide and dotted with islands and rocky outcrops, a channel that links the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean. Like many marine "chokepoints," the Strait of Hormuz has long commanded the attention of empires and their navies.

And in recent decades it has become even more critical: one-third of the oil carried by sea passes through Hormuz - that's some 15 million barrels every day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Now Iran's Vice-President is warning that the Islamic Republic could block the Strait if sanctions are imposed on its exports of crude. France, Britain and Germany have proposed such sanctions as punishment for Iran's lack of co-operation on its nuclear program.

To demonstrate its intent, Iran is holding a 10-day military exercise in an area from the eastern part of the Strait out into the Arabian Sea, with some elements playing the part of enemy forces. Western diplomats describe the maneuvers as further evidence of Iran's volatile behavior, following the occupation of the British embassy in Tehran. And it's not the first time Iran has used this vital sea lane in a high-stakes game of brinkmanship.

The Strait is thought to have been named for the Persian Hur-mogh, the date-palm found on the coast. It was mentioned in a first century mariners' account, The Periplus of the Erythtraean Sea, and down the ages was known for its pearls.

But as oil became the lubricant of the world economy, the Strait of Hormuz - and the sea lanes leading to it - became a geo-strategic flashpoint. So narrow is the Strait, with sea-lanes just two miles wide heading in and out of the Gulf, ships must pass through Iranian and Omani territorial waters. In addition, Iran and the United Arab Emirates dispute sovereignty over several islands close to the Strait.

Iran last tried to disrupt and sabotage Gulf shipping during its decade-long conflict with Iraq, when the Arab Gulf states were funding Saddam Hussein's war effort. When Iraq began attacking Iranian tankers in 1984, Iran responded by targeting vessels headed to and from Gulf ports. And it began a guerrilla war at sea - laying mines in shipping lanes.

That led the U.S. to provide military escorts for Kuwaiti shipping. In 1988, an Iranian mine damaged and nearly sank the USS Samuel B. Roberts, prompting U.S. President Ronald Reagan to order retaliatory strikes against Iranian oil platforms and naval vessels. Two platforms - Sirri and Sassan - were destroyed and an Iranian warship sunk in Operation Praying Mantis.

Since then, the U.S. has increased co-operation with the navies of Gulf Arab states and established the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.

But Iran's neighbors understand that their reliance on the Strait to transport oil and liquefied natural gas remains vulnerable. According to U.S. diplomatic cables, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in December 2009 that "Iraq would be the hardest hit" if tensions led Iran to try to blockade the Strait. Kuwaiti official have suggested building a 1,000-mile land pipeline to the Gulf of Oman to reduce reliance on the maritime route.

Today, after decades of sanctions, Iran does not have the naval power to block the Strait, and its ageing air force would be no match for U.S. and Gulf fighter jets. But military experts say Iran could wage "asymmetrical warfare" - involving mines and attacks by Revolutionary Guards' patrol boats. It has also developed a class of small submarines, three of which were launched last month, according to the Iranian naval commander quoted by the Fars news agency.

Even bellicose language from Iranian politicians has already caused jitters in oil markets. Earlier this month an Iranian legislator, Parviz Sarvari, warned: "Soon we will hold an exercise on closing the Strait of Hormuz. If the world wants to make the region insecure, we will make the world insecure."

Any attempt to interfere with shipping would be a double-edged sword for Tehran. Iran also relies on the Strait to export its crude and other products, and has to import most of its refined gasoline for lack of refining capacity. The U.S. State Department says there is "an element of bluster" in the Iranian threats.

Even so, analysts worry that the deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations could magnify the consequences of a collision or provocation in the Gulf. Shortly before retiring as Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen said: "If something happens, it's virtually assured that we won't get it right, that there will be miscalculations which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world."

Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, told CNN Monday that an incident in the Strait "could spark a wider war precisely because there's no communication, no diplomacy and no de-escalatory mechanisms between the United States and Iran."

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Topics: Analysis • Iran

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Iraq might indeed be hardest hit if Iran would block the passage of the Strait of Hormuz, as it only has access to the Persian Gulf and is surrounded by "unfriendly" neighbours – Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf States, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia could use the rails to transport their oil to Oman, which is on the Arabian Sea, far from Iranian threat. It's time for them to improve their infrastructure.

    December 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Pentagon press secretary George Little said that Iran conducts exercises on a fairly routine basis in the region, something Washingston has known about and warned against escalation by raising the tempeature on tensions, adding there were no sign that Iran was taking provocative steps. Sofar it is just rattling its sabre.

      December 28, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    It appears that the right-wing thugs in Washinton are again hunting for a excuse to start a war with Iran, the reason being that Iran has the 4th biigest oil reserves in the world. That's the very reason that we went to war with Iraq and don't buy into all that right-wing mumbo-jumbo that we went over there to "help the people"!!!

    December 28, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Reply
    • John R Viner

      Actually if you read the story, its Iran that's being stupid here. Their entire state is based on a theocracy which brands the U.S. as 'The Great Satan' and views our destruction as a religious cause.

      I would rather nuke the place and then sow it with salt...the whole bloody Middle East, then maybe the world would be a little more quieter. That area of the world has been fighting for thousands of years, since the beginning of recorded human history.

      Its just bad luck that part of the world is sitting on massive and easily tapped oil reserves. Autocrats plus money, equals much misery...loooking forward to the day when all that wealth is gone and the Middle East becomes another poverty stricken Africa with no real influence in world affairs.

      So drill baby drill!
      IN the Middle East :)

      Then everyone goes to renewable energy and we leave the Jews and the Arabs to kill each other off.

      December 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Reply
      • John R Viner

        Hmm...that sounded pretty racist didn't it?
        I just despise all the bigotry and hatred in that part of the world. I hate Israel, and I hate the violent ideologies with high tech weapons intent on spreading themselves like a cancer and making war on each other and us.

        That whole part of the world is a clump of xenophobic fools who hate everyone including themselves. The human race would be much better off if that part of the world and all its violent ideologies were wiped out.

        December 28, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
      • Yiannis

        OMG dude! What's wrong with you? I NEVER comment on articles but your remarks are shocking! What's all this talk about nuking people and all these racist remarks about Jews and Arabs killing each other? Who do you think you are? You sound a lot like Ahmadinejad; maybe you two could be good pals... BTW one of the main reasons that this region is so messed-up is because we like to drive our huge pickup trucks around and use oil imprudently… what do you think?

        December 29, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
    • molly cruz

      So, you don't like the idea of attacking Iran? Neither do I. What's more; I refuse to contribute. I've decided if we do any more adventurous fighting there, I will not pay my income taxes in any year in which such a war is being pursued. I suggest to all that sympathize to do exactly the same. Tuck it away, give it to charity and enclose the receipt, but simply don't sent that check. That's all Washington understands; all they are about, all that may influence the decision. I don't care who's president, money talks.

      December 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Reply
      • George Patton

        Thank you, molly cruz. I couldn't agree more. It's the worthless politicians in Washington who want yet another war so they can get the peoples' minds off the failing economy and get themselves reelected to office!

        December 28, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  3. John R Viner

    Look, for the last 240+ years numerous nations have thought they could 'scare' the U.S. into submission. The last fool to try that, the late and un-lamented Bin Laden, shot dead by the U.S. by the way, keep getting us into wars we could do without. We then have to go in, destroy their countries, and then reap up a huge butcher's bill. Iran seems intent on this course of action. Could we perhaps bill Iran for the war right now and have them pay us for butchering them? I'm tired of wars, but morons like this keep getting the U.S. into them. Why is the world so full of stupid people who think the U.S. is a nation of cowards?? What do we look like? The French =p

    December 28, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Reply
    • Ttriac

      The US is on the fast track to becoming the evil empire like the USSR, im sure u feel pride and power when your military bombs countries that cant defend themselves. America has been at war with the people of Iran ever since u installed the Shah and ousted their democratic govt then u funded Saddam and gave him weapons to fight a devasating war on Iran after the Shah was deposed in an uprsisng. Iran would be crazy not to want nukes, its a matter of national security, u have bases in every single country bordering Iran and carrier groups in the Persian gulf. Is it inconvenient for u too pay 10 cents on the dollar for the deaths of thousands? Im sure your victims are very sorry for having to charge u for killing them i know its an expensive for of entertainment. U no u used to be the envy of the world, u used to have moral authority. What the hell happened to u ppl.

      December 29, 2011 at 3:58 am | Reply
      • Marine5484

        Thank you, Ttriac. I couldn't agree more. Yes, this country is indeed every bit as morally bankrupt as it is financially! Moreover, the policy of bombing countries that cannot defend themselves is utterly repulsive!

        December 29, 2011 at 10:38 am |
      • Gia

        You didn't give us full credit, we sold weapons to both sides. Get Money!

        December 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  4. Hahahahahahahaha

    Is that a V2? Hahahahahahahahaha.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
  5. cwmaster

    Quick Poll: War with Iran just around the corner?

    to answer the poll just follow the link:

    http://graph.me/p2458292/q

    December 30, 2011 at 8:46 am | Reply

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