Iran risks crippling retaliation, nuclear site attack if it carries out threat to close trade route
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
In recent weeks, a growing number of senior Iranian military
and civilian officials have warned that Tehran could use force to close the
54km entrance to the Gulf if Western states impose sanctions that paralyse
their oil exports.
In 10 days of highly publicised military exercises, state
television showed truck-mounted missiles blasting towards international waters,
fast gunboats practising attacks and helicopters deploying divers and naval
Few believe Tehran could keep the straits closed for long - perhaps
no more than a handful of days - but that alone would still temporarily block
shipment of a fifth of all traded global oil, sending prices rocketing and
severely denting hopes of global economic recovery.
But such action would swiftly trigger retaliation from the
United States and others that could leave the Islamic republic militarily and
"They can cause a great deal of mischief... but it
depends how much pain they are willing to accept," says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor
of national security studies at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island.
He said he believed Tehran would only take such action as a
last resort: "They are much more likely to threaten than to act."
The true purpose of its recent sabre-rattling, many analysts
suspect, may be more a mixture of deterring foreign powers from new sanctions
and distracting voters from rising domestic woes ahead of legislative elections
With the United States signing new sanctions into law on New
Year's Eve - although they will not enter force until the middle of the year - and
the European Union considering similar steps, few expect the pressure on Tehran
to let up.
"This is probably less a genuine military threat than a
bid to put economic pressure back on the West and split Western powers over
sanctions that threaten Iran's oil economy," says Henry Wilkinson, head of
intelligence and analysis at London security consultants Janusian.
"Iran now does not have much to lose by making such a
threat and a lot to gain."
But many fear the more Iran is pushed into a corner, the
greater the risk of miscalculation.
Its ruling establishment is also widely seen as deeply
divided, with some elements - particularly the well-equipped and hardline
Revolutionary Guard - much keener on confrontation than others.
"I cannot see strategic sense in closing the straits,
but then I do not understand the Iranian version of the 'rational actor',"
said one senior Western naval officer on condition of anonymity.
"[But] one can be pretty certain that they will
misjudge the Western reaction... They clearly find us as hard to read as we
The capability to wreak at least temporary chaos, however,
is unquestionably there.
The US Fifth Fleet always keeps one or two aircraft carrier
battle groups either in the Gulf or within striking distance in the Indian
Keenly aware of conventional US military dominance in the
region, Iran has adopted what strategists describe as an "asymmetric"
Missiles mounted on civilian trucks can be concealed around
the coastline, tiny civilian dhows and fishing vessels can be used to lay
mines, and midget submarines can be hidden in the shallows to launch more
sophisticated "smart mines" and homing torpedoes.
Iran is also believed to have built up fleets of perhaps
hundreds of small fast attack craft including tiny suicide speedboats, learning
from the example of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels who used such methods in a
war with the government.
At worst, its forces could strike simultaneously at multiple
ships passing out of the Gulf, leaving a string of burning tankers and perhaps
also Western warships.
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But a more likely initial scenario, many experts believe, is
that it would simply declare a blockade, perhaps fire warning shots at ships
and announce it had laid a minefield.
"All the Iranians have to do is say they mined the
straight and all tanker traffic would cease immediately," says Jon
Rosamund, head of the maritime desk at specialist publishers and consultancy
US and other military forces would find themselves swiftly
pushed by shippers and consumers to force a route through with minesweepers and
other warships - effectively daring Tehran to fire or be revealed to have made
an empty threat.
During the so-called "tanker war" of the
mid-1980s, Gulf waters were periodically mined as Iran and Iraq attacked each
other's oil shipments.
US, British and other foreign forces responded by escorting
other nations' tankers - as well as conducting limited strikes on Iranian
This time, retaliation could go much further. In closing the
straits, Tehran would have committed an act of war and that might prove simply
too tempting an opportunity for its foes to pass up.
"We might well take the opportunity to take out their
entire defence system," said veteran former US intelligence official
Anthony Cordesman, now Burke Chair of Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington DC.
"You'd almost certainly also see serious strikes on
their nuclear facilities. Once the Iranians have initiated hostilities, there
is no set level at which you have to stop escalation."
Whilst in theory it would be possible to push heavily
protected convoys through the straits even in the face of Iranian attack, few
believe shippers or insurers would have the appetite for the level of
casualties that could involve.
Instead, they would probably hold back until Tehran's
military had been sufficiently degraded. That, Western military officers
confidently say, would only be a matter of time.
"Anti-ship cruise missiles are mobile, yet can... be
found and destroyed," said one US naval officer with considerable
experience in the region, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Submarines are short-duration threats -- they
eventually have to come to port for resupply and when they do they will be
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 - while 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
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."
For many long-term watchers of the region, the real risk
remains that in playing largely to domestic audiences, policymakers in
Washington, Tel Aviv and Tehran inadvertently spark something much worse than
they ever intended.
"Both sides are talking tough," said Farhang
Jahanpour, associate fellow at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford
University. "Unfortunately it can very easily get out of hand and cause a
conflagration. I blame hardliners on both sides. They are playing a very
dangerous game of chicken."
They could undoubtedly cause some problems, which even if temporary, would spark significant global repercussions and completely reverse the frequent safe haven claims that are issued.
The cost of shipping and insurance would escalate, and the dependency on the US Fifth Fleet and their allies, the UK for one, tto maintain a secure channel would be absolute, bearing in mind rising Iranian influence in Iraq.
Just the threat of closure in isolation, is having its effect on asset values and business in the region on a daily basis, putting the fundamental issue to bed would occupy an enormous volume of resource for quite some time.