Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Hormuz Debacle

By Paul Iddon

The historical implications of Tehran's threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz.

Satellite image of the Strait.
The gunboat diplomacy between the United States and Iran has had some troubling developments over the past few days. In a response to the possibility of more sanctions on Iran over its nuclear activities threats have been made by the regime to close the Strait of Hormuz, equating it to being easier than “drinking a glass of water.” Vice-President Rahimi has also spoken some tough rhetoric stating that those imposing sanctions “will only drop their plots when we put them back in their place.”

The US Navy has in turn stated that it is “ready to counter malevolent actions to ensure freedom of navigation.” Certainly not an unprecedented nor over zealous statement when one considers that shortly after its inception the United States Navy undertook a military operation against the Barbary states of North Africa in order to curtail the pirating and harassment of international merchant shipping.

One however doesn't need to go back to the 19th century to draw a useful historical analogy of which one could learn about the present situation. Two instances from the late 20th century immediately spring to mind, those being the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis and the Tanker War period of the Iran Iraq War. In both cases the United States directly intervened with its naval forces under the pretext of safeguarding international shipping lanes. Whilst the 1996 instance in the Taiwan Strait saw a rather tense stand off it did not escalate into a shooting war between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China. When Iran begun mining the Persian Gulf in the latter years of the Iran Iraq War the US Navy conducted several military engagements against Iranian forces. Under the auspices of the Earnest Will deployment which was launched to effectively deploy warships to steam through any blockade zone that would hinder transit of the waterway the US Navy engaged Iranian warships and in the case of the Sahand destroyed them.

Talk of closing off the Strait has been prominent since the speedboat incident in January 2008 which saw erratic manoeuvres by small fast moving Revolutionary Guard surface vessels near US warships in international waters. This one tense incident saw oil prices rise to a then record high of $100 per barrel. Since then, talk of the possibility and likely consequences of an attack on Iran have seldom excluded the repercussions such an attack would have on the world price of oil if the Iranians were to go through with their threat of closing the Strait. Overlooked by many who focus on the damaging effects such action will have on the western economies is the fact that 50% of China's oil passes through this narrow 34 mile waterway.

The Persian Gulf is certainly a rough neighbourhood these days, where national pride on both sides of its shore is frequently challenged. Iran for instance has felt marginalized in what it considers to be effectively its own backyard, and is aghast and disgusted with its neighbours challenging the historically significant name of the gulf.

My colleague Nader Uskowi recently pointed out there is a strong possibility that if these gulf states feel threatened, now at a time when discontent is at a high among their respective populaces towards their respective governments then there is a plausible possibility and scenario that under the auspices of the GCC - and backed heavily by Saudi Arabia - the UAE may attempt to seize the disputed islands of Abu Musa and and the Greater and the Lesser Tunbs in the Persian Gulf. While such a costly and dangerous endeavor sounds somewhat far fetched (which it would be) I would wager it isn't in the least bit implausible. The Argentine junta for example in 1982 seized the Falkland Islands in a bid to a reassert national pride in a midst of a crippling economic depression and widespread public discontent. Their subsequent defeat at the hands of a large British Task Force led on to the juntas rapid decline, deterioration and dissolution.

Similarly, the Iranian regimes tough rhetoric with regards to the Hormuz issue may simply be a public affairs stunt, an attempt to curb the discontentment that comes with crippling sanctions and the accompanying economic hardship. The aim of such a stunt would be to give the regime the aura of being the authentic 'face' of an Iran struggling to reassert national pride. The very pride they have consistently trampled upon, the pride of a nation they have made a pariah through their policies, and the pride of a nation they are willing to sacrifice over their shady nuclear programme which has seen them engage themselves in an obsessive overproduction of enriched uranium, an obsessive compulsion of which they are seemingly going to risk a war in which to fight for, in the Iranian peoples name, at their risk and costly expense.


Anonymous said...

"an attempt to curb the discontentment that comes with crippling sanctions and the accompanying economic hardship"

Your error is that the vast majority of Iranians support the nuclear program, and so view these "crippling" sanctions as outrageous.

How would you respond if someone threatened to cripple you, Mr. Iddon?

Anonymous said...

How comes the international oil traders do not raise the oil prices now.

How come they are all against Iran.

I do nit understand this now our leaders have spoken but we take no action.

Anonymous said...

It's already raised. $100/barrel is not normal.

Paul Iddon said...

@ Anon 11:58 AM

When you say the vast majority of Iranians support the nuclear program you are referring to a civil nuclear program with no military aspects correct?

My point is that if the regime is pursuing the development of a nuclear weapon (which is the western justification for these sanctions) it is the Iranian people who will suffer the repercussions of the regimes actions. And furthermore will have been fed the same lies as the rest of the world.

This is not about Iran not being allowed to develop nuclear weapons whilst Israel and Pakistan are. This is about the regime in the Iranian peoples name saying one thing and doing quite another and exposing them to the risks that come from sanctions or military confrontation.

But yes, I see and understand where you are coming from.

Anonymous said...

Paul, much sabre rattling going on.

I believe that we may be witnessing a reflection of Iranian politics ahead of March parliamentary elections.

A conflict with its neighbors is great for spurring nationalist sentiments in a flagging regime.

It seems to me that the day Iran shuts down the Straits of Hormuz, would be the day that the mullahs decide to cut their own throats.

Looks like the US & West are going to also go after gasoline imports into Iran, these will be the toughest sanctions yet, if you want to import refined petro products to Iran, you will not do any business with the west.

Countries that import Iran's oil will be very much able to squeeze Iran on prices, this has already started.

Irans leadership should keep quiet, the more they talk the more they hurt their people, I doubt the care though.

Anonymous said...

I think this says alot about Iran and how the Iranian regime cannot be trusted. There is a big difference when Israel has had nuclear weapons for decades and most of the middle east is fine with this. It's a different story when a state sponsored terrorist regime like Iran wants nukes and continues to sponsor terrorism and hate throughout the middle east. This will not be accepted.

Anonymous said...

2011 1:19 PM

Well said indeed!


Anonymous said...

Paul, actually multiple public opinion polls show a majority of Iranians supporting a military dimension to to their nuclear program.

It's getting a little silly you stating how Iranians feel, without the use of public opinion polls performed by means of a scientifically applied methodology. Which makes you wrong most of the time, I'm sorry to say.

Paul Iddon said...

Anon 1:48 PM

Thank you for that,

I'm sorry to say that regardless of whether or not the majority of Iran's populace support such a military dimension to their nuclear program (the "if Israel and Pakistan can build nuclear weapons then we should be allowed to" argument) the regime has stated numerous times that its nuclear weapons program is for peaceful civil purposes. That's the official line being taken in the Iranian peoples name. So if there is a military dimension the regime will have lied about it, not only to the United Nations and the IAEA but to their own people. That's my point, is it really that difficult for you to comprehend this rather salient fact?

It's getting a little silly you referring to these polls week in and week out, 9 out of 10 times they have nothing to do with regards to the context of the discussion, offer little substance to the discussion at hand or the point raised and frankly throwing them around as if they constitute a blanket rebuttal regardless of the topic under discussion is also somewhat arrogant, as is consistently abstaining to respond to my rebuttals and waiting for the next week to reiterate the exact same point!

Lastly, please stop commenting Anonymously, I think everyone here knows who you are!


Unknown said...

If anyone is wondering what would Iran do if it had nuclear weapons, here is a great glimse.
Based on recent events it's easy to imagine that if Iran had nuclear weapons today they would threaten to bomb someone (israel, saudi Arabia, or the US naval base in Bahrain, etc.) with a nuclear weapon if the west imposed more sanction, just like Iran now says they will close the straight of Hormuz if oil sanctions are imposed.
In both cases the regime is demonstrating that it is not using its distractive capabilities as a deterant but rather as a tool to bully its opponents. In both cases the regime scares me, and others I'm sure, but not seeming to give a damn about the consequences.
The self procliamed "mad dog policy" of Israel in Gaza pales by comparison to the Iranian "rabid dog" policy in dealing with the west and it's neighbors.

Paul Iddon said...

@ Jabbar Fazeli, MD

My sentiments exactly, thank you for your comment sir!

Anonymous said...

What the hell? Paul Iddon is some punk Irish kid? Get the hell of this site!

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 7:39 PM

Yes , he was molested by irish priests during his childhood.

Anonymous said...

There exist no proof that Iran is workin on building nuclear warheads. That's why a potential oil embargoe along with previous sanctions are an illegal and unjust act (remember the fake US scenario that Iran was planning to murder the Saudi ambassador)-- it was dismissed as a hoax worldwide!

Yet the US somehow managed to pressure the UN security council to pass additional sanctions on Iran! Doesn't anybody see the moral perversion in all of this?

Iran has been fully compliant with the IAEA, everything has been transparent and Iran has even been cooperating beyond the rules and regulations as outlined in the NPT. Iran's nuclear energy program is for civilian peaceful purposes and is being constantly monitored by the Atomic watchdog of the IAEA.

Everybody knows that the latest report from the IAEA is a hoax; it's purely faith based analysis coupled with vague hints/guesses (dual use technology) - not substantiated facts. The things that were stated in that report are old findings dating as far back as 2003 (inconclusive), that are brought to light, repackaged and labeled as "new proof".

Anonymous said...

@ Dr. Jabbar Fazeli.

Sir, I am glad youre not my Doctor.
Doctors are suppose to be analytical and use critical thinking to their advantage.
You are apparently not good at either!

B.M.A said...


with due respect, you have thrown yourself too far from your tradition of a cool headed Teacher! just where are going ? IT IS VERY REFRESHING TO TO SEE you ANSWER A HAUGHTY COMMENT WITH SOME WISE WORDS AND LOGICAL INSIGHT-i wish you hold on to this personal tradition-just a wish![i am not the Anon]THANKS.

Anonymous said...

December 30, 2011 1:49 AM

There exist no proof that:

You have been brain-washed by the current regime of mullahs in Iran!

You are a mushroom!

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:48 AM

You are a mushroom for believing West's claims about Iran's nuclear program.

Anonymous said...

I see that Iran is begging the western powers to return and renew the nuclear talks / follow their master Russia's plan......hopefully the muslim coward Obama does not fall for this bunch of lies/tricks by the Iranians and their Chinese and Russian masters!

The USA has every right to discontinue doing business with those companies that trade with Iran.

Let China trade oil in Rial/Renminbi in the Iranian oil Iranian oil bourse!

The western powers should not do business with the worls leading terrorist state!

Paul Iddon said...

@ B.M.A

No I hadn't suspected it was you, but thank you for your warm words, much appreciated :)

And just on another note, in the comment you referred to I mistakenly mistyped:

'the regime has stated numerous times that its nuclear weapons program is for peaceful civil purposes'

Correction: I meant to just say 'its nuclear program is for peaceful civil purposes', not 'its nuclear weapons program is for peaceful civil purposes'.

Apologies for any confusion or misunderstanding.