Showdown in the Strait of Hormuz

If Iran decided to move to close the Strait.

The crisis in the Middle East continues to intensify, and there is a growing probability of armed conflict with Iran in the near future. With its growing international isolation and continued drive toward nuclear weapon capability, the likelihood of Iran initiating hostilities is also a very real possibility.

A fulcrum of confrontation between Iran and the West is the Strait of Hormuz. On January 9, 2012, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, Iran's defense minister, stated that Iran has the ability to block the Strait if it deemed it necessary. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, Defense Intelligence Agency director, stated that "Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz." Recent Iranian military exercises have emphasized sea denial of the waterway. In response, U.S., British and French warships have transited the Strait to and from the Persian Gulf to assert freedom of navigation. In January, the U.S. Navy reported four cases of harassment of its warships by Iranian naval vessels in the Gulf. Two U.S. carrier strike groups are deployed in the region, and a buildup of U.S. forces is underway.

The importance of Hormuz to global stability is paramount. According to a report from, almost 25 percent of the world's oil supply transits the Strait daily--some 16.5-17 million barrels according to 2006 estimates--approximately 40 percent of all seaborne traded oil. Over 75 percent of Japan's oil is carried through this waterway. By 2020, it is estimated that daily traffic will increase to some 30-34 million barrels.

Another thing about the Strait: it's narrow, between 34-40 miles wide. Furthermore, there are just two 2-mile wide channels, one each for inbound and outbound traffic. Also, this traffic consists mostly of supertankers carrying over two million barrels each, meaning that fewer ships with more oil are carrying this supply.

If Hormuz were closed, as much as one-fifth of the world's oil supply would be lost (assuming maximum output through pipelines from Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea, Turkey (through Iraq). and, possibly, Lebanon.) For the United States alone, this would have severe effects. According to a GAO report of October 5, 2006, such an occurrence could cause oil prices to increase $175 per barrel. Globally, the effects in such regions as Western Europe and East Asia would be even worse.

If Iran decided to move to close the Strait, it would have a variety of forces at its disposal. Its navy has three Russian-built Kilo-class submarines along with several midget submarines capable of laying mines, ideal for use in the Strait. Its surface forces include four guided-missile frigates and some 150 coastal combatants (another 50 are manned by the Revolutionary Guard Corps.) About 25-30 of these small vessels are equipped with the Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missile, with a range of 60 kilometers. In addition to ships, there are some 60 C-802s deployed on Qeshm Island, covering the Strait, along                     with large numbers of other anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles there and on other small islands just to the west. Iran also has some 3,000 mines, including around 100 EM53's, which are rocket-propelled and only strike when activated. There is also Iran's air force, which fields about 50 F-14 Tomcat and MiG-29 fighters and 24 Su-24 strike aircraft, with some 200 other attack jets. Among the weapons they carry are C-801K anti-ship missiles, similar in capability to the C-802.

Given that Iran would most likely initiate hostilities, it would have considerable advantages over U.S. and Western forces. It could opt to mine and blockade the Strait,  then, knowing this to be a "red line" for the West, launch an attack on U.S. ships in the vicinity. Its Kilo subs deployed in the Arabian Sea would attack U.S. carrier groups, which could also be hit by strike aircraft. These could cause significant damage. Once U.S. forces cleared the approaches to Hormuz, they would have to fight their way into the Gulf. They would run a gauntlet of anti-ship missiles and mines, which could be used in swarms to sink or cripple American vessels. Western naval units in the Gulf could come under attack by additional small craft, along with Iran's force of frigates and strike aircraft. Moreover, if Iran wanted to, it could conduct an airborne and amphibious assault on Hormuz, which is controlled by Oman. This would place Iranian forces on both sides of the Strait, equipped with missiles, and would require U.S. ground forces to be landed to clear them out (similar assaults would have to be made on Qeshm and the other nearby Iranian islands for the same purpose.)

All of this would result in considerable losses in men, aircraft and ships, if the fighting was limited to the vicinity of Hormuz. However, it is unlikely that Iran would do so. It would likely initiate general hostilities throughout the Gulf, using its own forces and proxies to attack Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies (along with attacks on Israel.) As a result, Persian Gulf oil supplies would be severely disrupted. As the GAO report of October 2006 noted, an Iranian embargo alone could cause up to $200 billion in GDP damage to the U.S. economy, while loss of Saudi oil could cause a staggering $832 billion worth. The impact on the global economy would, to say the least, be cataclysmic.

Nor is this the only way Iran could deny the Strait. Iran could wage a war of attrition, mining parts of the channels or launching hit-and-run attacks with missile-armed speedboats against tankers. This would avoid all-out war with the West, while wearing down its resolve to confront Iran on its nuclear program, since oil prices would be forced up.

It is therefore incumbent upon the West, especially the United States, to maintain the utmost vigilance in the region, and to ensure that not only the means, but the stated will, to use force if Iran should block this vital waterway is in no doubt.

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Tags: Iran, Israel, War, U.S.