U.S. can prevent Iran from closing Straits of Hormuz
The U.S. Navy is well prepared and ready to defend against Iranian attempts to close the Straits of Hormuz.
The greater number of tankers traveling at higher speeds and in more congested shipping lanes makes it increasingly difficult to identify and intercept them. This is especially true for submarines, which have a limited ability to identify surface ships and have only a small onboard supply of torpedoes and antiship missiles. If a submarine attacks a ship using just two torpedoes, it will have exhausted more than a tenth of its standard arsenal. Meanwhile, other potential targets nearby will disperse, forcing the submarine to relocate. A single conventional-power submarine (Iran has only three) facing no opposition could realistically expect to damage about half a dozen oil tankers in a busy sea-lane several hundred miles wide over the course of a month, disrupting at most a tiny fraction of the oil deliveries made during that period. Conventional-power submarines, moreover, are relatively slow and cannot catch modern tankers, which travel at 15-20 knots.
Iran has the capacity to attack the Strait of Hormuz from its shore, using coastal antiship missiles (such as Chinese Silkworm missiles), patrol boats, and short-range aircraft flying from nearby bases. It could also employ small, high-speed boats packed with high explosives to ram oil tankers and hostile naval vessels. But if it ever decided to target ships transporting oil from the Persian Gulf, it would have to interfere with the shipping of many neutral nations. As during the tanker war of the 1980s, a coalition of nations that have an interest in the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf would quickly form. The United States, with the support of other nations with capable navies and the Persian Gulf states, could neutralize Iran's attacking forces with a combination of actions at sea and attacks against command-and-control facilities, missile sites, ports, and airfields along the Iranian side of the strait. The virtually certain result would be a swift defeat of the Iranian interdiction effort.
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It would be challenging, though not impossible, for Iran to use its submarines for mine laying in the strait, due to several factors. First, the underwater geography of the strait neutralizes many of the characteristic advantages of submarines. Kilos require a minimum operating depth of 45 meters, and only in a few places is the water in the strait more than 80 meters deep, limiting the use of tactics such as diving for concealment or protection. Additionally, the high salt content of gulf waters and other factors create heat currents that disturb sonar. As a result, it is harder for submarines to use passive sonar to detect ships without revealing their own location. Submarines become hidden but irrelevant platforms, or useful platforms that are easier to find. Either way, antisubmarine warfare forces gain an advantage, and U.S. ASW patrols in the gulf would be likely to detect mine-laying activity by Iranian submarines. There is evidence Iran may have realized these problems and is planning to relocate its submarines to the Gulf of Oman.
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Above all, the scenario described here points to the critical importance of early detection of any Iranian mine laying in the Persian Gulf and especially the need to keep close tabs on Iranian submarine activity. Such surveillance depends not only on U.S. activities in the region but also on those of Iran’s gulf neighbors. If the United States wishes to continue to act as the guarantor of free passage in the strait, it needs to make these monitoring activities a clear part of a broader effort to discourage Iranian attempts at harassment or closure. It also may wish to convey to Iran that, precisely because of the potential length and complexity of the operations outlined in this article, a campaign to clear the Persian Gulf of Iranian mines could quickly become a war to clear the Iranian harbors and coast of most remnants of the country’s military.
Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz. Often cited as Tehran's knee-jerk answer -- along with projections of astronomic oil-price spikes because of the disruption of supplies from Persian Gulf producers -- this option is neither feasible nor advisable for Iran. The U.S. would quickly overwhelm any effort to close the Strait, and Iran would be risking U.S. attacks on its land-based military. Direct military conflict with Washington would turn a bad situation for Iran -- disruption of its nuclear program -- into a potential catastrophe for the regime. Prudent hedging by oil traders and consuming countries (though not their strong suit, historically) would minimize any price spike.
Given the forces arrayed against them, many analysts believe Tehran will ultimately keep the straits open -- not least to allow their own oil exports to flow -- whilst finding other ways to needle its foes. If they did wish to disrupt shipping, they could briefly close off areas of the Gulf through declaring "military exercise areas," "accidentally" release oil into the main channel or perhaps launch one-off and more deniable hit-and-run attacks. The rhetoric, however, looks almost certain to continue. "This isn't the first time we have heard these types of threats," said Alan Fraser, Middle East analyst for London-based risk consultancy AKE. "Closing of the Straits of Hormuz is the perfect issue to talk about because the stakes are potentially so high that nobody wants it to happen." Henry Smith, Middle East analyst at consultancy Control Risks, says he believes the only circumstances under which the Iranians would consider such action would be if the United States or Israel had already launched an overt military strike on nuclear facilities. "Then, I think it would happen pretty much automatically," he said. "The Iranians have been saying for a long time that is an option, and they would have little choice but to stick to that. But otherwise, I think it's very unlikely."
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Although it is impossible to be certain of Iranian intentions, it is far more likely that if Iran desires nuclear weapons, it is for the purpose of providing for its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities (or destroy itself ). Iran may be intransigent at the negotiating table and defiant in the face of sanctions, but it still acts to secure its own preservation. Iran’s leaders did not, for example, attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz despite issuing blustery warnings that they might do so after the EU announced its planned oil embargo in January. The Iranian regime clearly concluded that it did not want to provoke what would surely have been a swift and devastating American response to such a move.
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An operational fantasy? Not in the least. The United States did all this once before, in the incident I have already alluded to. In 1986-88, as the Iran-Iraq war threatened to spill over into the Gulf and interrupt vital oil traffic, the United States Navy stepped in, organizing convoys and re-flagging ships to protect them against vengeful Iranian attacks. When the Iranians tried to seize the offensive, U.S. vessels sank one Iranian frigate, crippled another, and destroyed several patrol boats. Teams of SEALS also shelled and seized Iranian oil platforms. The entire operation, the largest naval engagement since World War II, not only secured the Gulf; it also compelled Iraq and Iran to wind down their almost decade-long war. Although we made mistakes, including most grievously the accidental shooting-down of a civilian Iranian airliner, killing everyone on board, the world economic order was saved—the most important international obligation the United States faced then and faces today.
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Iran could also disrupt the flow of oil by closing the Straits of Hormuz or attacking Gulf platforms or shipping. As Edward Luttwak points out, "all of the offshore oil- and gas-production platforms in the gulf, all the traffic of oil and gas tankers originating from the jetties of the Arabian peninsula and Iraq, are within easy reach of the Iranian coast." However, this, too, seems improbable beyond a short duration, since oil accounts for 80 percent of the Iranian economy. Attacks on gcc oil facilities are a greater likelihood, since they would increase the value of Iranian oil, but if gcc states were not involved in or supporting the strikes against Iran, such attacks would have long-term detrimental consequences for Iran's relations with the gcc states.We should not be deterred by Iranian threats, but if military attacks were seriously considered, we would need to prepare for increased Iranian meddling in Iraq, more expensive oil for at least several months, greater and more overt Iranian support for terrorist organizations, attacks on friendly governments especially in the Middle East, the possibility of infiltration attacks in the United States, and the diplomatic gambit of the U.S. being referred to the un Security Council.
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In a study conducted for NPEC by energy researchers at Rice University, two key vulnerabilities in the Gulf oil production and distribution system in Saudi Arabia were identified. The first is an Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz. Such a threat, Rice analysts argue, could be significantly reduced by upgrading and complementing the trans-Saudi Arabian Petroline, which would allow 11 million barrels a day to be shipped to ports on the Red Sea. This could be done with technical upgrades to the trans-Saudi Arabian line and by bringing the Iraqi-Saudi pipeline (Ipsa–2) back on line. To do the latter would require an agreement with Baghdad. The cost of the entire project is estimated to be $600 million. Assuming the worst -- a complete closure of the Straits of Hormuz -- this bypass system is estimated to be capable of reducing the economic impact on the U.S. to a loss of only 1 percent of gross domestic product. This figure could be reduced even further if additional pipelines were built from Abu Dhabi to ports in Oman. There are a number of ways in which these projects could be financed. Given the high price of oil and the large revenue streams high prices are now generating, the best time to finance such construction is now.
Should Iran's rulers ever make good their threats to block the Straits of Hormuz, they could almost certainly achieve their aim within a matter of hours. But they could also find themselves sparking a punishing -- if perhaps short-lived -- regional conflict from which they could emerge the primary losers.
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