The European Union agreed this week to introduce a ban on Iranian oil imports to the EU. Iran’s response was unequivocal.
The strait “would definitely be closed if the sale of Iranian oil is violated in any way,” a member of Iran’s influential national security committee in parliament, Mohammad Ismail Kowsari, said on Monday.
Iran might be able to inflict substantial disruption on oil exports if it tries to carry out its threat to block the Strait of Hormuz, analysts say, but talk of a blockade which would be counter-productive is almost certainly a bluster.
Sanctions on Iran by the OECD states could push oil prices up 20-30 percent to $140 per barrel unless supplies from elsewhere make up for the shortfall, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on January 22. Saudi Arabia has promised to increase production if need be.
"[The Strait's closure] could trigger a much larger price spike including by limiting offsetting supplies from other producers in the region," the IMF said this week.
Blocking the strait would seem to be relatively simple. Iran’s largest naval bases are at the head of the Gulf, around 450 kilometers from the strait, which is just 45 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.
In 2008, Iran opened a base at Jask, right next to the strait. Iran’s Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said the opening of the base represented a new line of defense, blocking the entry of the “enemy” into the Gulf.
Iran is unlikely to attempt to take on Western nations in a direct fight, but will likely use “asymmetric” means of negating their naval strength, particularly mines, experts say.
Asymmetric warfare means fighting the enemy using dissimilar weapons and tactics to achieve military goals, such as al-Qaeda’s use of airliners as cruise missiles in the 9/11 attacks.
“In a straight-up fight, they would struggle, which is why they would plan to fight an asymmetric campaign,” said Christian Le Miere, a naval warfare specialist at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Iran has a range of assets to threaten shipping, of which submarines and mines are the most lethal, naval experts say.
“Their surface assets are generally limited but those fast missile boats do present a serious threat to merchant shipping, They would primarily use their fast boats and mines to threaten anything in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz,” Le Miere said.
Iran also has significant air and missile assets which would present a limited threat to naval forces.
“The air and missile capability presented by Iran can’t be ignored in any operational planning,” says Douglas Barrie, an air warfare analyst with the IISS.
“Iran has a credible inventory of anti-ship missiles, both sea and land-based, which also pose a threat. Some of these anti-ship missiles have also likely been integrated on aircraft and helicopters,” Barrie said.
Just how potent these missiles are was demonstrated in 2006, when Israel took on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
A Chinese-made YJ-82 missile Iran supplied to the Lebanese Hezbollah group hit an Israeli patrol boat in the Mediterranean Sea in 2006, killing several crew but not sinking it. Iran may have at least another 60 of these weapons, according to U.S. military analysts quoted by globalsecurity.org.
Israel said that after the attack its naval air defenses were hamstrung because of the threat of a “blue-on-blue” incident with friendly aircraft – an issue which would probably be of relevance to a naval coalition of friendly local forces and NATO nations in confronting Iran.
“Coalition navies have good anti-submarine warfare capabilities, but a submarine is never easy to detect,” says a former Royal Navy submarine officer on condition of anonymity, who served in diesel-electric boats like those possessed by Iran.
“All would depend on the skill with which the submarine is operated, the size of the area, the weather and water conditions, and the strength of the forces deployed to detect it,” he said.
“Much depends not on the submarine itself, but on the skills and experience of the captain and crew operating it,” he noted.
Just how skilled Iranian submariners are is unclear, IISS naval analyst Le Miere says. “They have been operating submarines for a fairly long time so a fairly decent level of capability can be assumed,” he says.
One indicator of how confident Iran feels in using its submarines is that it deployed them to the Red Sea for the first time last year, according to government officials quoted in Iran’s FARS news agency.
“They know the area because it’s their back yard, and are aware of the hydrography of the region, which they need to be,” Le Miere says. “But I’m not aware of any action or training they have undertaken against other submarines, or experience they may have in anti-submarine warfare. Some of their older boats are very noisy, which will make them easy to detect.”
Some who have operated with the United States Navy think it would have a hard time tracking Iran’s best submarines, their three stealthy Russian-made Kilo-class boats.
“I think anyone will have a hard time tracking subs in shallow seas, especially the USN which is a blue-water navy,” says a former Lynx anti-submarine helicopter pilot from a European navy on condition of anonymity.
“In brown (coastal) water, they are not so good,” he adds. “They are also not so good at hunting down smaller conventional subs,” he says (the U.S. Navy only operates large nuclear-powered submarines). “They had a Swedish Gotland class submarine on lease and based in the States for training, and a hard time detecting it,” he says.
While the Iranian submarines would be a threat because they could carry out traditional torpedo or missile attacks against shipping, their real value is as a covert mine-layer.
The mine threat is probably top of the list for the forces facing Iran.
Of the 19 U.S. warships sunk or damaged since World War Two, 15 were struck by mines, most recently in the Gulf during the first “Tanker War” of the early 1980s, when Iran and Iraq attacked each other’s shipping and those of their customers in a bid to choke off exports and cripple the enemy.
Information on Iran’s potential for mine warfare remains scarce, but Tehran used significant numbers of them in the 1980s Tanker War.
Then, Iran used relatively simple drifting mines, such as were used in World War Two. Today, it probably has access to far more sophisticated mines which can be left on the sea bed, ideal for deployment in the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf.
“There is a new generation of mines … that will cause us much more time and effort trying to find them,” said Capt. Robert Lineberry, commander of U.S. Mine Countermeasures Squadron 7, in an interview with Stars and Stripes in May 2011.
“It’s not just this little round spiky thing. Now they have mines that will bury, they have mines that don’t look like mines. It’s a big challenge.”
Exactly what kind of mine capability Iran has is unclear, but may well include advanced weapons, experts say. China’s advanced bottom-laid mines are capable of discriminating between different kinds of ships, and can be set to activate days or even months after deployment, or allow friendly forces to pass by safely.
No one in the West knows for sure if China has sold such mines to Iran, but given the number of mines Iran has bought, and its close contacts with China, it seems probable that some Chinese mine technology has reached Iran.
“Dealing with mines would be different, but even if the shipping lanes were closed for a short period, eventually narrow lanes would be cleared. Those would possibly be submarine-laid, which would be the best thing for the Iranians tactically,” Le Miere says.
Much depends on Iran’s intentions, and many doubt that Iran really intends to carry out its threat, but merely wants to remind the West that it could attempt to close the strait if provoked or attacked.
“It absolutely doesn’t want to because it would make no sense, and will mean war with the U.S., and it doesn’t want that,” says Sergei Demidenko of the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Studies and Analysis.
“It has no way of standing up to the U.S. Navy at sea and it’s well aware of that,” he says.
“European sanctions mean they lose about a quarter of their oil exports, which they can probably move elsewhere. A war in the Gulf would mean the loss of all their fleet and defense capability, the stability of their regime, their economic stability. It’s not worth it.”
The economic effects of a blockade would hurt Iran more than anyone else.
“Eighty-seven percent of Iranian imports and about ninety-nine percent of its exports are by sea, and so closure to the Strait will probably impact Iran more severely than any other single nation,” said Sabahat Khan, an analyst for the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, in his study Iranian Mining of the Straits of Hormuz.
A war could break out by accident however, due to the concentration of forces in the region and misunderstanding of motives by “the other side.”
An Iranian Air Force F-14 fighter aircraft crashed three minutes after take-off from Bandar Abbas on January 26, the cause was unknown according to Iranian media. A similar incident could spark a war if Iran suspected the aircraft was shot down by “the enemy.”
It is worth remembering that in 1992, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian airliner it mistook for an attacking fighter. Iraqi forces struck an American destroyer, the USS Stark, with an Exocet anti-ship missile by mistake in 1987.
Similar incidents might be all that is necessary to make Iran decide that the time has come to play its ultimate card.