Saturday, November 24, 2012

Iran's Hormuz Threat

Crisis in the Making

Since 2006, Iran's nuclear activities expanded despite the four sets of UN sanctions imposed because of its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment activities and accept the inspection of the UN inspectors and investigators.
During the past few days, Iran threatened to prevent the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz in the case of foreign sanctions on oil exports due to its nuclear program. Tensions between Iran and the West escalated during the last month when the International Agency for Atomic Energy of the United Nations issued a report accusing Tehran of designing a nuclear bomb.
Iran denies this and says it is only working hard to achieve nuclear capability for peaceful purposes. Three weeks ago, the EU foreign ministers decided to tighten sanctions on Iran. They talked about the possibility of imposing an embargo on Iranian oil exports to force it to halt its nuclear activities that might lead to building nuclear weapons. This prompted Iranian officials[1] to warn that Iran will not allow the passage of one drop of oil through the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions are imposed.
In turn, the U.S. State Department declared that the United States will ensure the free flow of oil.
The ministry spokesman Mark Toner noted that Iran’s threats are just another attempt to divert attention from the real issue, which is the continuation of non-respect of international nuclear obligations.

Beginning on Saturday, the Iranian navy proceeded with ten days exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and the adjacent waterways to show off its military force. Information from Iran also suggested that Iran is considering the possibility to hit Israel and U.S. interests in the Gulf in response to any military strike aimed at its nuclear facilities, an option of last resort as hinted by Washington and the Israeli state.


The Iranians claim that they chose the Strait of Hormuz to hold naval exercise because the strait is the entrance to the Persian Gulf and there are more than 15 million barrels of oil pass daily through the strait, therefore ensuring security in the Strait of Hormuz is the important to Iran and all countries of the region and the global system. It should be noted that 40 per cent of the world's oil transported by sea crosses the Strait of Hormuz, which is a narrow corridor that does not exceed 50 km in width 60 meters in depth.

They explain that the timing of the exercises has nothing to do with the current events in the region; the Iranian navy exercises, in part, are held within the framework of periodic military training of the Iranian armed forces. The current Iranian activity is covering a wider area than before, which reflects the size of Iran's power in weapon proliferation. In their maneuvers, Iranians used new weapons and covered a large area of the Iranian coast, which indicates that there is coordination between submarines and other naval and air pieces that provide coverage of any real operations.

Iranians also claim that the aim of these exercises is to mitigate any potential threat to Iran and not to attack anyone.

           Sources in the Gulf mentioned that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are prepared to compensate for Iranian oil in the case of implementing sanctions to stop Iran's oil exports to Europe. In response to those claims, the Iranian Oil Minister Rustam Ghasemi said that Saudi Arabia has promised not to replace Iranian oil in the case of the imposition of sanctions.
The delegations in the Gulf "OPEC" believe that the Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz hurt Iran, just like the major producing countries, which also used the most important shipping lane for oil exports in the world.


On Thursday, a U.S. naval strike force led by aircraft carrier "John Stennis," accompanied by a group of warships entered the Iranian Navy exercises zone in the Strait of Hormuz.
The aircraft carrier entered the strait after the leadership of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, stationed in the Persian Gulf, announced that would it will not allow Tehran to halt the traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. The leadership of the Fifth Fleet said:
"Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated"[2]. The U.S. naval forces announced that they will keep active presence in the region in order to impede or respond to destabilizing actions.

On the Iranian side, the official spokesman for the Iranian fleet Mahmoud Moussavi said on Thursday that the Iranian Navy is ready to resist foreign military navy pieces that try to access the exercises zone.



Dose Iran has the capability to close Hormuz Strait?


There is no doubt that Iran’s maneuver and threats have raised many questions about Tehran's real ability close to the Strait at all costs, especially after releasing a report by the security services and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, entitled: ‘How to close the Strait of Hormuz’.
Needless to say that Iran conducted naval maneuvers constantly, land and air, during which it tested new weapons, produced locally, including fighter jets and exploration planes, submarines and warships, tanks and radars, and missiles and smart bombs.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran proceeded to buy many elements of nuclear system and other weaponry starting with missiles and information technology. No one can confirm or deny whether Iran has been able to obtain nuclear warheads from the former USSR republics. Iran contacted hundreds of atomic scientists from these republics –Islamic ones as well as Ukraine- and spent hundreds of millions to buy everything that can be purchased from the advanced military hardware. Currently, Iran has an arsenal of missiles with a range above the Mediterranean like a rocket (Badr - 110) and Shehab-4 missile with a range 2500-4500 km and the Shahab-5, which has a range of 6,000 kilometers and Shahab-6 intercontinental where the range goes up to 10000 km, and the missile "Sejeel", the latest Iranian missile system, as well as a group of medium-range missiles with ranges between 1000 - 3000 km
Iran has different groups of air defense systems -Methaq 2 and Methaq 1- which are developed from the Chinese systems of "Q1 Vanguard". Iran also has (SAM-7 Gabriel) system and (Tor M-1) which are Russia systems to protect nuclear facilities from the risk of attacks.
What worries the United States and Israel the most is the possibility that Iran has purchased the missiles X-55 that are fitted with nuclear warheads from Ukraine in the era of President Viktor Yushchenko. The answer to this question will inevitably lead to the re-evaluation of the strategic position of the United States and Israel.

To answer the question on the possibility of Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz, if we go back to Iran-Iraq war, we find that Iran has not closed the Straits of Hormuz though it can militarily. Iran can lay mines in the paths of ships leading to impede traffic in the strait, and there are hundreds of tools and techniques that can disrupt traffic in the strait, but the most important question is whether Iran wants to do so??? Especially since the majority of Iran's oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.



To Do It or Not to Do It, That is the Question??

Threatened to be attacked at any time, Iran will sooner or later stop traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. This fact prompted the Arab countries to think seriously about finding alternative paths to oil exports. Any Iranian decision to close Hormuz Strait will force the entire world and specifically the United States to go to the UN Security Council in order to take appropriate steps including military solutions to open the strait

Iran may see itself in an advance position in the region that might permit it to escalate the tension with the United States to show that any threat to its vital interests would threaten the economic interests of the West as well. Iranian threats led to the rise in the price of Brent crude oil last week before falling back to previous levels later on. This will not have good effect on the global economy especially since the United States and the Western world as a whole is still suffering in the shadow of the financial and economic crisis. Yet, it seems the West is serious in imposing more sanctions on Iran and to put pressure on Tehran, as they stated that they will continue to impose sanctions even if Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.


Despite the escalation in fierce statements between the two sides, currently the United States does not want to be involved in a military confrontation with Iran especially that it has not yet exhausted all the options, the global economy is still fragile, and the United States has not yet healed all (physical and moral) wounds of the war in Iraq on the eve of completing its withdrawal from Iraq.

Iran in turn is also not willing to engage in a major war with the West, knowing that it will come out of it destroyed without being able to recover. Consequently, this loss might destabilize the regime and even cause it to fall, especially since the domestic situation is witnessing a new wave of unrest and tension under sanctions and the approaching date for legislative elections to be held in March next year. Iranians believe that as long as Iran have influence and presence in the region, for example, in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and its role in Syria through its support of the system, and its intervention to resolve the latest crisis in Iraq, it could affect the political outcomes without resorting military provocations that might escalate out of control and lead to violent confrontation, loss of its capabilities, and an unfavorable shift in the regional balance of power.


So what is Iran’s goal of from escalating its rhetoric and defiance of the West? And is it really serious in its threats and able to engage in even a limited military confrontation that could turn into a devastating war with the great power that possesses an arsenal of conventional and nonconventional weapons? This is unlikely at present at least.
It seems that Iran’s threats and maneuvers are related to its desire to show that it holds many files in the region –starting with Iraq and not necessarily ending in Lebanon-. Iran wants to be acknowledged as a regional power more than it wants to close Hormuz strait.  Iran is aware of the
seriousness of going to war against the United States, therefore Iran would not risk all the gains of previous years, on the contrary it will use its control over the Strait of Hormuz as a leverage to gain time in the hope of achieving its dream of greater access to nuclear power.


With the increasing political pressure and economic sanctions, Tehran knows that it is not a good time to fight especially a strong enemy such as the United States. Also, it is not good for the West if Iran continues its nuclear activities in defiance of sanctions as stated in the words of President Ahmadinejad and become closer to making a nuclear bomb. But most importantly, it is not a good time for the United States to back down. In the shadow of the reduced U.S. influence due to its withdrawal from Iraq, its failure in containing Hezbollah in Lebanon, its slow responds to the Arab Spring, its stumbling in Syria, and the reduced U.S. interest in the region, Iran is waiting to take advantage of this situation and fill the gap in order to prove to the Middle East countries that it is the regional super power.

The United States must not yield to the Iranian threats because it will further reduce its influence in the Middle East and show the U.S as weak and incapable of protecting its interests or its allies while confirming the position of Iran as a rising power in the region. But direct confrontations are not the solution either. Regional war in the current economic and political circumstances of the Middle East and the whole world in general will have devastating effect on all parties.

Therefore, it is necessary for all countries affected by closing the Strait to participate in the action against Iran. There is no room for unilateral role in this crisis especially that the United States should not bear the costs alone –not economically or physically-. While letting the United States maintain military deterrence in the Gulf, other countries should engage in diplomatic negotiations with Iran to force it to back down. Not interfering directly in negotiations with Iran will help the United States save what is left of its influence in the region and keep Iran’s fears of its military power?


[1] The first Vice-President of Iran, Mohammad Reza Rahimi
[2] Parisa Hafezi and Humeyra Pamuk, “U.S. Fifth Fleet says won't allow Hormuz disruption”, the Chicago Tribune, December 29, 2011 <,0,5241805.story>

No comments:

Post a Comment