Op-Ed: U.S. warns Iran that closing Strait of Hormuz will 'cross a line'
The U.S. has now formally told Iran that closure of the Straits of Hormuz, a major bottleneck point for Gulf shipping, will result in U.S. countermeasures. The possibilities exist for escalation, but so far “blunt” describes the dialogue.
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most strategically important water passages between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. The narrow passage falls with Iran to the north and the UAE to the south and it's strategically important because it's the only sea passage to the ocean used by oil-exporting nations in the Persian Gulf.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy
, nearly 17 million barrels of oil pass through here each day. That is roughly 35 percent of all seaborne-traded oil, or nearly 20 percent of oil traded worldwide.
With a political rift rising between Iran and the United States, Iran has threatened to close the waterway and now America is lashing back.
As the The New York Times reports
, "The officials declined to describe the unusual contact between the two governments, and whether there had been an Iranian reply. Senior Obama administration officials have said publicly that Iran would cross a “red line” if it made good on recent threats to close the strait, a strategically crucial waterway connecting the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, where 16 million barrels of oil — about a fifth of the world’s daily oil trade — flow through every day."
That does mean using force against force to reopen the Strait. Iran has a range of off-the-shelf and home-grown mines and various anti-shipping missiles which do represent a significant threat to both shipping and U.S. naval vessels. These weapons aren’t in the top bracket of modern firepower, but the mines can obstruct the Strait and the missiles are mobile and often hidden.
The U.S. naval capacity in the area is quite capable of dealing with these threats, but there’s a potential for a long drawn out, piecemeal series of military operations to do so. Chasing mines and finding mobile missile launchers could involve prolonged periods of combat. The Iranian threat isn’t empty. The mines could easily do major damage to civilian vessels, and big vulnerable tankers are definitely at risk.
In theory, this is Iran’s response to international sanctions. The other side of the equation for Iran is risk. A major confrontation with the U.S. could be an own goal. There’s no doubt that any confrontation would become progressively more one-sided and self-destructive from the Iranian point of view. Any conflict would also be at the modern equivalent of point blank range, or as one U.S. Navy officer said, “a knife fight in a phone booth”. That doesn’t actually reduce the effectiveness of U.S. standoff capabilities to systematically destroy hostile targets, but it does mean that the Iranian weapons can be used effectively as well.
The Iranian navy includes various small fast craft capable of firing missiles, although their role in any actual fight with an American fleet is unenviable. Their ability to deliver missiles involves getting through standard U.S. Navy anti-missile defence systems, and they’re not exactly designed to take hits from heavy duty naval weapons.
Closing the Strait is likely to be a remarkably stupid move, militarily, but it does also reiterate one very monotonous and very ugly fact- Iran is committed to its stated goals and largely ignoring international objections to its actions, as usual. There’s no real point in blocking the Strait. Iran gains nothing but the PR value of playing to its own crowd in the Middle East. The anti-Americans will love it, but everybody else will be grinding their teeth about the obstruction of their trade.
Let's just say that a strait jacket's value depends on who's wearing it.