Rob L. Wagner

“Three Months at Most”: How Long Could Iran Close Straits of Hormuz?

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Iran’s relationship with Saudi Arabia – once seen as improving following President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 visit to Riyadh – has deteriorated to the point that the Saudis may consider military intervention by joining the U.S. to protect oil shipped in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran threatened to choke off oil transportation in the Gulf following the U.S. President Barack Obama’s tightening economic sanctions at the end of December and again this week when the European Union voted to gradually impose a ban on Iranian oil. Last week Chinese leader Wen Jiabao made a round of visits in the Gulf in a move seen by many observers as securing alternatives to Iranian oil.

Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal told Al-Arabiya television last week the Saudi government is taking Iran’s threats seriously.

“I personally don’t think Saudi Arabia will participate with the military, but it’s a direct threat to our national interests and a direct threat to our industrial installations on the coast,” Ali Al-Tawati, a Saudi military affairs analyst and professor at the College of Business Administration in Jeddah said. “That region is a most precious region with most of our resources coming from there.”

Tensions between the two countries increased when Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi promised that the kingdom could boost oil production by 2.7 million barrels per day (bpd) to make up for any shortfall caused by sanctions on Iran. The pledge elicited a veiled threat from Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who warned Saudis it “will create all possible problems later.”

Iran’s threats “could be interpreted by Saudi Arabia as an act of war,” Al-Tawati said.

Those concerns have been reflected in the international oil market in recent weeks, where the price of benchmark Brent crude has risen. Early Wednesday morning in London it was trading at $110.34 a barrel. In the third quarter of 2011, Saudi Arabia was the leading OPEC oil producer, delivering 9.34 million bpd, compared with Iran’s 3.53 million bpd.

The issue is not whether Iran is capable of closing the Strait to oil shipping, but how long it can maintain a full or partial blockade. Al-Tawati suspects three months at most. “The whole world will make a coalition to stop it,” he said. “Iran is trying to stop 40% of the oil production getting through. That’s an international threat.”

Al-Tawati said support for Iran from its Asian customers is unlikely as evidenced by Wen’s courting of Saudi Arabia to make its gas and oil wealth available to Chinese investors. China is Iran’s biggest oil customer, with the Islamic republic exporting 572 million bpd to China in December. Saudi Arabia delivered 1.12 million bpd to China during the same period.
“Most of the oil that goes to China, Korea and Eastern Asia is from the Gulf,” Al-Tawati said. “We sell most of our oil to the East. Japan is not going to support Iran, and neither will China nor Korea. If Iran wants to make an action that affects the whole world, it will need support and no one will support it.”

Ehsan Ahrari, professor of National Security and Strategy at the Joint and Combined Warfighting School at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, said he expects the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to join the U.S. to keep the strait open. “If not with the military, then 100% in support to the point of spending millions, of not billions, in assistance,” Ahrari said.

The question remains, however, whether Saudi Arabia and its GCC neighbors – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have the military might to defend themselves from Iranian aggression.

The GCC has the 40,000-strong Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) based in the Eastern Province city of Hafar Al-Batin. Last spring, the force sent 1,500 troops to help quell Shiite demonstrators and protect government installations in Bahrain. But the PSF has never been challenged in a full military operation since its founding in 1984. It did not participate in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, although the Royal Saudi Air Force flew sorties for coalition forces.

Yet GCC leaders have recently gone on a spending spree buying military hardware. Saudi Arabia has been the biggest spender, purchasing from the U.S. about $60 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, bunker-buster bombs and Patriot missiles. The Pentagon sold an estimated $3.5 billion worth of an anti-ballistic missiles and military technology to the UAE, while Kuwait is set to buy 200 Patriot missiles.

“Saudis do a very good job of exercising diplomacy, but in terms of acting as a military force, they don’t have the capability,” said Ahrari, adding that Saudi Arabia’s military doesn’t possess the skills to engage in combat. “I never understood that simply buying high tech equipment makes a military force. They must have the know-how and infrastructure to make it work.”

Al-Tawati disagreed, but acknowledged the PSF may not be prepared to defend Gulf interests. “It isn’t developed enough to work as a joint military action, but we need to develop it to take military action or reaction.”

Al-Tawati said Saudi Arabia possesses more technologically advanced weaponry than Iran and has the training to go with it. “We don’t usually buy weapons without training, support and the experts that come with the weapons. Al-Tawati pointed to Saudi Capt. Iyad Al-Shamarani, who shot down two Iraqi Mirage fighters during the Gulf War, as evidence of Saudi mettle and technical prowess in combat. The air battle effectively ended Iraq’s attempt at air superiority.

A Middle East analyst for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who asked not to be identified because Israel is not directly involved in the Gulf crisis, said that Israel may indirectly be affected by standoff between the GCC and Iran. Crucial to the current climate between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the Islamic Republic’s attempts to expand its influence to GCC countries, he said.

Saudis have long held that the deadly clashes between Shiites and Saudi security forces in the Eastern Province and demonstrations in Bahrain are products of Iranian meddling.

“Saudi Arabia’s primary concerns are to maintain the stability of the region and to contain Iran’s interference, which the Saudis perceive as a destabilizing factor and as a threat to the Saudi regime,” the Israeli government official said. “The Sunni-Shiite rift plays a role in this regional rivalry, and it has been escalated by Iran’s attempts to employ Arab Shiite sentiment for its regional policies.”

He added that continuing sanctions are taking a heavy toll of the Iranian economy. “An Iranian military adventure against the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Gulf states – and perhaps also attacking Israel – would worsen Iran’s diplomatic and economic difficulties,” he said.

He added Iran’s Islamist leadership will consider the implications of a military confrontation, “but you can never be sure about it when political rationale is mixed with an extremist religious viewpoint.”

While building a more comprehensive military force is vital to protect the GCC’s oil interests, alternatives to shipping oil through the Strait of Hormuz have largely been ignored. A 745-mile east-west pipeline connecting the Eastern Province’s Abqaiq oil processing facility to the Red Sea port of Yanbu is operating under capacity. Only 2.5 million bpd move through the pipeline although it has a capacity of twice that amount, according to the U.S.-based Global Equity Research.

The Saudi government has expanded the Yanbu facility as insurance against trouble at the Strait of Hormuz, but capacity remains stagnant.

“We can export 50 to 60% of our oil away from the Strait of Hormuz, and we lessen to a certain extent [disruption],” Al-Tawati said. “We need to invest in other alternatives. We need a resolution, and, in fact, we now need the United Nations Security Council to make a decision to discuss the issue because of the threat to close an international strait.”

This article was originally published by The Media Line.

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