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As the pressure increases, Iran threatens to close strategic Strait of Hormuz

Dr.Fariborz Saremi

With Iran torn by political turmoil over the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Persian Gulf and its energy riches are once again in the eye of the storm and the focus is on the Strait of Hormuz, the only gateway to the Persian Gulf and arguably the world's most strategic choke point.

Iran's leaders have repeatedly warned over the last two years that if the United States or Israel launch military strikes against the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and other strategic targets, they would seek to close the narrow strait and cut off oil supplies to Asia, Europe and the U.S.   

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, declared as long ago as 2006, that if the U.S. or Israel attacked Iran then "definitely the shipment of energy from this region will be seriously jeopardised".

There have been several confrontations in the Persian Gulf, particularly since the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003. Incidents in the Persian Gulf can escalate quickly in ways that neither Iran nor its potential opponents intend.

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In recent months, Britain's Royal Navy has reinforced its mine warfare flotilla attached to the U.S.-led naval armada in the Persian Gulf.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has deployed surface to-air and anti-ship missile batteries along Iran's southern coastline of the Gulf. The Strait is a 180 km-long horseshoe-shaped waterway between Iran on the northern shore and Oman and the UAE on the southern coast. It is one of the world's most strategic bodies of water. Some 40 percent of the world's oil supplies passes through it. On a typical day, around 15 tankers carrying up to 17m barrels of oil and oil products, along with dozens of freighters, pass through the Strait of Hormuz-two fifths of the world's oil supply.

This comprises most of the oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Iran. Going the other way, the GCC states import most of their food and consumer goods through the strait and a prolonged shutdown would cause serious economic and social disruption. If this choke-point was closed for an extended period, the economies of the Middle East would suffer significantly and this would generate severe economic dislocation around the world.

Millions of guest workers in the Persian Gulf states from developing countries could also be left unemployed, leading to greater poverty in South Asia and East Asia.

This would send oil prices soaring once again from the current level of $65-$70 per barrel to the peak of over $150 it hit in 2007-08. The U.S. Energy information Administration estimates that if the Strait were closed, only about 3m barrels of oil per day could realistically be redirected through Saudi Arabia through a trans-Arabian pipeline to the Red Sea port of Yanbu on the kingdom's west coast. But there would be no other way to transport the 31mm tonnes a year of LNG-18 percent of world consumption — the Qatar and the UAE export.

Iran does not have to seal the strait entirely to provoke U.S. intervention, and once that intervention begins, the potential for military escalation is high. Iran depends on the waterway not only to export its own oil, but to import the refined products it is unable to produce itself. Denied those imports, its economy would soon collapse. Over the last 18 months, Tehran's naval forces have conducted repeated exercises simulating the takeover of the Strait, which is patrolled by the U.S. Fifth fleet and allied warships from a dozen nations. By conservative estimate, Iran has several hundred Chinese made C-801 anti-ship cruise missiles deployed along the eastern shore of the waterway, on islands in the Strait, or aboard warships. There is also a major Iranian naval base at Bandar Abbas, which dominates the bend in the Strait, and this would undoubtedly be used for anti-ship operations if fighting erupts.

In October 2008, Tehran announced that it planned to construct a new military base at Jask on Iran's south-western coast of the Gulf of Oman.

The IRGC's naval wing has bases on a strong of flyspeck islands-Abu Musa, Larak and Sirri, in the southern Gulf. Other forces are deployed on the larger island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf end of the Strait of Hormuz.

At its narrowest point, the waterway is 55 Km wide. But the two deep-water channels for incoming and outgoing vessels are much slimmer, each 3.2 Km-wide median between them. This makes the strait an ideal place to use anti-ship missiles because naval or civilian vessels would have little room for evasive action. The missiles short range also minimises the prospect of U.S. or coalition warships being able to shoot them down before they reach their targets. However the U.S. and allied forces would be able to spot any launches when Iran switches on its radars and is likely to have overwhelmingly air superiority that would presumably be able to locate and destroy missile batteries quickly once the fighting started. The Islamic Republic of Iran is reported to have 300 older, subsonic anti-ship missiles such as the CSS-N-2 Silkworm and the CSS-N-3 Seersucker, deployed in 12 batteries at Bandar Abbas. These are more vulnerable to U.S. countermeasures, but still pose a major threat to unprotected merchant vessels that could be sunk in the shallow Strait of Hormuz to block it.

In recent months, small swarms of Iranian craft have harassed U.S. warships in the waterway at least twice in what could have been practice runs for hit-and-run operations, a component of Iran and its IRGC strategy of asymmetric warfare against the superior coalition forces.

Iran has three frigates and 20 fast-attack craft, French built Kaman-class vessels and Chinese-supplied Huodong boats, capable of mounting such attacks, but these would be highly vulnerable to U.S. naval and airborne weapons systems. In the opening phase of the Hizbullah-Israeli war in July 2006 the Lebanese fighters sank a Cambodian freighter and crippled an Israeli missile corvette, the Hanit, off the Lebanese coast with Chinese-made C-802 missiles supplied by Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran used mine warfare against tankers carrying Arab oil during the 1980-88 war and damaged half a dozen vessels. One was a U.S. warship, the destroyer Samuel B.Roberts which came close to sinking after hitting a mine in 1988.

Fear of renewed mine warfare has prompted the Arab states around the Persian Gulf to acquire minesweepers. The UAE navy signed a contract with Germany in 2007 to purchase two surplus Type 332 Frankenthal minehunters.

The experience of past mine-warfare campaigns suggests that it could take many weeks, even months, to restore the full flow of commerce, and more time still for the oil markets to be convinced that stability had returned.

Dr.Fariborz Saremi is a political and military analyst living in Germany. He is the spokesperson for the Azadegan Foundation in Germany and a member of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) based in Washington, DC..

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