Thursday, December 15, 2011

Post #117 - Walking the Strait and Narrows

STRATFOR, an international business intelligence firm, helpfully reminds us that the strategic importance of Iran lies in more than just its nuclear ambitions, its own fossil fuel resources, its influence on Iraqi politics  or its opposition to Israel.  In an article entitled “Iran and the Strait of Hormuz, Part 1: A Strategy of Deterrence,” first published in October 2009, and redistributed recently, they note that “the international community has a much greater strategic interest in ensuring the flow of oil through the Iranian-controlled Strait of Hormuz,” than in those other issues which command media attention; here are some excerpts [my added graphics]:

Map from
“It has often been said that Iran’s ‘real nuclear option’ is its ability to close — or at least try to close — the Strait of Hormuz, which facilitates the movement of 90 percent of the Persian Gulf’s oil exports (40 percent of the global seaborne oil trade) as well as all of the gulf’s liquefied natural gas exports)…

“Iran actually has a broad range of military options for lashing out at energy exports in the strait, and this is not a new development… But… Iran has never exercised the full measure of its capability to close the Strait of Hormuz to maritime commerce…

“…By holding the strait at risk, Tehran expands the consequences of any military action against it to include playing havoc with global oil prices. Insofar as Iran has avoided military action to date, this strategy of deterrence to this point can be deemed a success.

“Yet the strategy has several weaknesses. For one, it can only discourage an attack, not directly prevent one. By the time an attack against Iran begins, Tehran’s military strategy has failed. Trying to close the strait after military strikes have begun cannot stop those strikes — it can only serve as a punitive measure. At best, an Iranian concession to stop its actions in the strait could serve as a card on the table in negotiating a cease-fire. But creating trouble in the strait is a hard sell internationally as a “defensive” measure. With the world just starting to recover from the global economic crisis, a move by Iran to close the strait could unite the world against Iran — perhaps more strongly than was the case against Iraq following Desert Storm in 1991.

“Another weakness has to do with one of the classic problems of nuclear deterrence — the military incentive to strike first. In this case, the United States would very much want to leverage the element of surprise, catching and hitting as many targets as possible — not just the nuclear program but also Iran’s offensive and defensive military capabilities — where it expects those targets to be. The flip side, of course, is that Iran also needs the element of surprise. Because high-priority targets in any U.S. airstrike would include Iran’s capabilities to retaliate directly — its anti-ship missile sites, its mine warfare facilities, its ballistic missile arsenal — any retaliation by Iran after an American strike begins would be degraded, perhaps considerably, depending on the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence (Iran presents considerable intelligence problems for the United States).

“As a result, while Iran’s deterrence strategy has thus far delayed conflict, a line can be crossed that puts everything on its head. Instead of delaying matters further, each side will have more incentive to act aggressively in order to pre-empt the other. And the problem is not simply that this line exists. The line is defined for each side by its subjective, fallible perceptions of the other’s intentions, leaving considerable room for miscalculation… and factoring in the Israeli wild card — the risks of miscalculation on all sides are very high.

“Connecting the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and the world’s oceans, the navigable waters of the Strait of Hormuz are roughly 20 miles wide at their narrowest point. Commercial and naval maritime traffic, which includes 16 or 17 million barrels of crude oil aboard some 15 tankers per day, transits two designated shipping lanes inside Omani waters. Each lane (one into the Gulf, one out) is two miles wide and is separated by a two mile-wide buffer… The importance of this waterway to both American military and economic interests is difficult to overstate.

Kaman-class boat, in background
“Well aware of its qualitative weaknesses vis-a-vis the U.S. Navy, Iran has a number of more asymmetric options. The most ‘conventional’ of these are its fast attack missile boats, particularly 10 French-built Kaman guided missile patrol craft (Iran has begun to build copies domestically, though the first three appear to have been built in the Caspian). Smaller than a corvette, each of these boats has a medium-caliber naval gun and two to four anti-ship missiles. These very vessels comprised some of the most active Iranian naval units in the Iran-Iraq War. Although the U.S.-built Harpoon anti-ship missiles with which they were originally equipped appear to have all been expended during that conflict, the missile boats have reportedly been equipped with Chinese-built C-802 anti-ship missiles, which are based on the U.S. Harpoon and French Exocet designs. Employed in a surprise strike, these missile boats could score some early hits on traffic in the strait…Iran, [moreover], has other asymmetrical tricks up its sleeve.”

[STRATFOR added to this analysis in subsequent pieces on the boats, missiles and mines Iran has in its arsenal.]

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