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Closing Hormuz 'not so easy for Iran'

Washington, December 29, 2011

Iran's navy chief boasts that closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil traffic would be 'easier than drinking a glass of water.' Hardly, US analysts say.

Iran's navy does not have the size for a sustained physical blockade of the Strait, but does have mine-laying and missile capability to wreak some havoc, analysts said.

'It wouldn't be a cakewalk' for Iran, said Caitlin Talmadge, a George Washington University professor who has written about the Strait of Hormuz. 'If Tehran really wanted to cause trouble, it could.'     

But the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet is nearby and keeping a close eye on Iran's activities in the Strait. Mine-laying or missile activity would not go undetected and would likely generate a US response.

The Fifth Fleet said on Wednesday that 'any disruption will not be tolerated.' That came after Iran's navy chief said closing the Strait of Hormuz 'is really easy... or as Iranians say, it will be easier than drinking a glass of water.'     

Iran's threat followed European Union foreign ministers' decision to tighten sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and leave the door open to the possibility of an oil embargo, and moves by the United States to expand sanctions as well.

Iranian saber-rattling about closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipping is not new, and the waterway, which is 21 miles (34 km) wide at its narrowest point, has yet to be cut off to traffic. But the context for this week's threats from Iran is new.
 The oil exporter appears to be feeling even more threatened by the West over possible oil-related sanctions.

'We're in the game of threats. If you're going to cut them out of the oil market, they have no interest in the flow of oil from the region,' Vali Nasr, a Tufts University professor, said.     

Iran's message is: 'If we are not allowed to play in the game, we have no interest in allowing anybody else to play,' said Nasr, a former State Department adviser.

Iran would not be able to sustain a line of ships to block the Strait because it mainly has smaller boats that do not have the ability to stay in open waters in a coordinated formation for days, analysts said.

It could not duplicate the blockade action taken by US
naval vessels during the Cuban missile crisis, for example. Iran can harass oil tankers and western warships with missiles, laying mines and possible suicide attacks with small boats, or try to attack a Gulf export facility, analysts said.

But it is not easy to sink an oil supertanker, which is much bigger and more resilient than a warship, analysts said.

Iran has 23 submarines and more than 100 patrol and coastal combat boats. The Fifth Fleet has more than 20 ships.

Oil tankers can find work-arounds to Iranian activity in the Strait by sending smaller vessels that could travel closer to the Oman coastline. But hostilities can raise the cost of insurance and transportation costs.    

Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby said: 'Efforts to increase tension in that part of the world are unhelpful and counter-productive. For our part, we are comfortable that we have in the region sufficient capabilities to honor our commitments to our friends and partners, as well as the international community.'   

'The expectation is that the US military could address any Iranian threat relatively quickly,' Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said. But just making the threats alone can economically benefit Iran through higher oil prices by unnerving oil markets, analysts say. - Reuters




Tags: Bahrain | Oil | Iran | US | blockade | Strait of Hormuz |

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