Strait talking

The commentariat has been running amok this week talking about Iran. A series of events have got everyone all a-fluster with fears/arousals (delete as appropriate to your position on the liberal-armchair general spectrum) of war.

This was brought on by some naval exercises carried out by the Iranian Navy/IRGC Navy, accompanied by much rhetoric claiming that Iran could and would close the Strait of Hormuz if necessary. Closing the Strait of Hormuz, a strait as narrow as 54 km at its thinnest point, would shut in about 20 per cent of all oil traded in the world. A simple equation: 20 per cent less oil in the world = a whole lot of panic.

The Strait of Hormuz: like a clogged pore on the skin of the Middle East.

The exercises occurred as the US and EU tried to increase pressure on Iran through further sanctions, particularly (and ironically) on its oil industry. Now, Tehran’s not happy about that little scenario given that its currency, the rial, has taken what professional economic commentators like to call a ‘kicking‘ in recent weeks and the economy is starting to show some strains.

Hence, much discussion of the threat from Iran. But let’s look at this dispassionately. Iran has certainly been investing in the kinds of technologies, particularly anti-ship missiles (supplied by China, naturally), that would allow for somewhat effective asymmetric warfare. Combined with hundreds of small, sometimes fast boats, the Iranian/IRGC Navy could pose an irregular threat to shipping traffic and even unsuspecting assets of the US’ Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain.

That there is a C-802 missile supplied by China being fired during the recent exercises. But we didn't need to tell you that, did we?

But to close the Strait of Hormuz? That seems like a task too grand for Iran’s limited capabilities. The only feasible way for Iran to do so would be to mine it to kingdom come. Mines have extremely effective area denial capabilities, as even the threat of one mine is enough to disrupt shipping lanes. But it wouldn’t be long before mine-free lanes were created through the strait, and convoys offered to allow for tanker shipping. This would resemble the situation in the 1980s, when in the ‘tanker war‘ in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Iraq, US vessels convoyed and mineswept to protect oil tankers through the region. But the disruption then was modest, and now it would only be slightly worse. This is particularly the case as Iran relies on oil and gas for its economic wellbeing, and it’s unclear whether its exports could be diverted in sufficient quantities to its Gulf of Oman ports, which have no pipelines providing transportation. That is, for Iran to shut the Strait of Hormuz with extensive mining would be like shooting itself in the foot. And then stabbing itself in the kidneys.

Oh sure, the image looks cool, but there's a serious side to this sinking of a cargo ship carrying thousands of Hello Kitty toys to Kuwait. (Parts of the last sentence are untrue.)

Any other form of more robust strait closure would likely rely on an element of sea control that is simply lacking from a country with only four small frigates. To put the Iranian naval capabilities into context, the full-load displacement of the entire Iranian/IRGC Navy is about one third that of one of the US’ Nimitz class carriers, and half that of one of its Wasp class amphibious assault ships. The aerial and naval capabilities available to the US right now in the Gulf are sufficient to spank the living daylights out of the Iranians. A few small boats and missiles would get through, but they would be far from closing the strait.

No, much more interesting to the DLR right now is the clandestine war being waged around the nuclear programme. Well, we say clandestine war, we mean state-sponsored terrorism (yes, we know terrorism is a nebulous term, but how about we define it as the systematic use of violence against a civilian population or part thereof to achieve a political goal. Happy now?). But this terorrism is not sponsored by Iran. Quite the contrary. In fact, it’s most likely sponsored by Israel.

Exhibit A: another dead Iranian nuclear scientist, killed by a car bomb. Car bombs are favoured weapons for assassinations because they ensure the target is out in the open (not pesky infiltration of buildings with their security and cameras), they are specifically targeted against that individual and relatively contained (rather than a whole street full of people) and a car bomb can be remotely and clandestinely detonated, meaning the assassin doesn’t have to be sitting there with a rifle across his/her lap all afternoon. For all these reasons, the car bomb has been one of the weapons of choice for Mossad. And who would prefer to kill Iranian nuclear scientists more than the Israelis?

Look at that. Only one person dead, and they didn't even damage the bonnet of the car. That is a professional hit.

The assassination follows four similar attacks since January 2010 on employees in Iran’s nuclear industry, three of which killed their intended targets. Throw into the mix the Stuxnet virus, which was so sophisticated and specific that it’s highly unlikely it came from anyone but a developed state government with a desire to retard Iran’s nuclear programme (read Israel and the US), and a series of mysterious explosions at Iranian nuclear facilities, and there is a concerted campaign afoot to delay or prevent the Iranian programme from developing.

The US has denied support from its intelligence networks, and has even condemned the attack. But the possibility that it’s Israel is very strong. A US intel official even told ABC news that when the Obama administration asked Israel who was launching the campaign of assassinations, they apparently ‘just smile’ and deny it.

What with the sanctions and the exercises, there has definitely been a step up in activity surrounding the nuclear programme, which helps explain why Iran is moving some of its enrichment capabilities to a hardened base in a mountain (presumably with Dr Evil’s face chiselled into the rock). Tehran knows that Israel’s trigger finger is very itchy right now, and an air strike is a real possibility in 2012.

So, plenty of reasons to be afraid for Middle Eastern stability, but let’s not take the Iranian gunboat diplomacy at face value.

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