No Straight Talk, Only Posturing Between US, Iran on Strait of Hormuz

Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz are getting a lot of play in the press the past few days. As the ten days of naval war games for Iran that began on Saturday have continued, Iran’s bluster has gotten stronger, as have the US responses.

Ironically, Iran’s stated purpose when it began the war games included the desire to “convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries” and yet, as can be seen in the video here, Iranian authorities are now saying that should their ability to export oil be curtailed through sanctions put in place by the US and European allies, they would close down the Strait of Hormuz, preventing exports by other countries in the region.

The impact of a real closure would be huge. Many of the numbers involved can be gleaned from this Bloomberg article published this morning. Iran’s oil exports amount to 3.6 million barrels a day, which means Iran only accounts for 23% of the 15.5 million barrels a day that pass through the Strait. It is believed that Saudi Arabia could produce an extra 2.5 million barrels a day in the event of sanctions halting Iran’s supply, and up to 200,000 more barrels a day could come from other countries in the region, so about 75% of Iran’s output probably could be replaced quickly.

However, with the Strait closed, the entire 15.5 million barrels a day could be disrupted. There is a pipeline being built by the United Arab Emirates that the Bloomberg article says will be ready “soon” and could bypass the Strait with 1.4 to 1.8 million barrels a day, but this would be only a very small fraction of the lost supply.

Even though such a closure would be seen as a direct response to the US and its European allies, the impact on China should not be overlooked. The CIA world factbook informs us that the US imports 10.3 million barrels a day and the EU imports 8.6 million, but China is next in line at 4.8 million barrels a day.  How would China respond to such a huge disruption of their supply, especially if it comes about through a series of disagreements where they have not been included in the discourse? The Bloomberg article linked above suggests that the oil passing through the Strait amounts to about a sixth of the world’s consumption, but if I am reading the CIA figures correctly, the amount going through the Strait is closer to a third of the oil that is imported throughout the world.

For a very detailed discussion of how Iran would go about closing the Strait, this article from Tyler Durden describes in great detail information from an Iranian publication that gives the nuts and bolts of how the closure would be enacted. As to whether they actually would be successful in such a move, that is an entirely different question. CNN describes Iran’s failed attempt to close the Strait during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s and notes that regional navies quickly began escorting tankers through the Strait. However, the potential Iranian approach for closure this time described by Durden looks much more broad than what took place nearly 30 years ago, so there really is no good precedent on which to base a forecast for the likelihood of success for a new attempt.

Strangely, both the US and Iran seem to be paying considerable attention to the fact that Iran apparently obtained video of a US aircraft carrier as it passed through the Strait. The US admits that the John C. Stennis passed through the Strait on Tuesday on a previously scheduled movement. I fail to understand how Iran can support its claim that obtaining this video demonstrates their “control over the moves by foreign forces” in the area or why the US would even find it necessary to respond to the announcement of the video. In fact, Fars News even states “It is not clear what information the Iranian military could gleam from the footage, but it displays Iran’s naval power in water.”

Let’s hope all parties involved here are able to continue the matter of the Strait as a strictly verbal battle rather than a physical one.


Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
27 replies
  1. ApacheTrout says:

    The Iranian threat to close down the Strait is laughable. The March 2012 elections in Iran are causing the peacocks to spread their tails and strut their stuff. With all the military hardware, bases, troops in the region, the U.S. military probably has more than 10 times the $ value of the 2010 Iranian military budget ($7 billion). They simply have no ability to block the Strait. Heck, the Saudis just closed on a 10-year $30 billion deal to buy American jets, which means that, in one year, they spend on jets less than 1/2 the entire Iranian military budget. Double heck, the Saudis themselves could probably prevent the Iranians from closing the Strait.

  2. Clark Hilldale says:

    @ApacheTrout: It might interest you to learn that the Strait of Hormuz is shallow and also the navigable lanes are fairly narrow.

    The nightmare scenario is that Iran scuttles several large tankers in the Strait.

    This is doable for them and quite a threat.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    It is odd how the MSM gives breathless coverage to purported Iranian behavior, but deems a massive, violent US military presence 10,000 miles from its homeland to be nothing much to talk about. It’s as if the US (and its supinely cooperative media) believes that oil, indeed the world’s resources, whether they be in East Timor, Chile, the Caucasus or the Polar seas, is its own and that everyone else is trespassing.

  4. Jim White says:

    @Clark Hilldale: Yeah, that would be a real mess, wouldn’t it? I keep wondering if they’re willing to take the heat that would generate from their neighbors, though. As the numbers show, this would create one hell of a bottleneck getting oil out of there.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    What would the US do if Russia, China or Iran threatened to close Caribbean sea lanes? Or staged an army or a missile battery in Cuba?

    The US isn’t the world’s policeman, responding to the community’s needs to prevent disorder and allow neighbors to live peaceably according to their own ways. It is putting up “No Trespassing” signs in other people backyards and then claiming self-defense when it marches in to put them back up, should any homeowner place them in the dustbin. Guatemalans, Chileans, Indonesians and Vietnamese would find that behavior familiar. Iranians have, too, since the days of the Kermit Roosevelt.

  6. ApacheTrout says:

    @Clark Hilldale: The bathymetry of the Strait interests me not one bit. This is bluster and should be treated as such. It’s also an attempt by the Administration and the media to make Iran into something menacing. We must fear the Iranians. The big bad scary Iranians. Ooooooooh.

  7. scribe says:

    @Jim White: Their neighbors would quickly figure out that by limiting the supply reaching the market, the Iranians would wind up making them all the richer on the small amounts actually getting out and being sold. And, as we’ve seen from the recent rise in gas prices from $2.50 or $2.75 a year ago, to $4 plus this year, receding slowly to $3.25 or so now, once those prices go up, they never go all the way back down.

    The neighbors would almost surely be of two minds on the sensibility of the Iranians fighting (on the one hand, it’s disruptive of their commerce and, on the other, it;’ll make them a lot more money), and likely be happy to sit back and watch the US do their fighting for them.

    As to the Chinese, they would – rightly – be able to step in and settle it and to throw their weight – financial and hacking – around to make sure the children in charge of the DoD and USG wisened up and knocked it off. A big step down for US superpower status, even a cusp event.

  8. Clark Hilldale says:

    @ApacheTrout: I understand that we are seeing a USG anti-Iran perception management operation.

    Your skepticism about the political merits of the U.S. position is sound.

    I only commented in order to point out that your notion that “they simply have no ability to block the Strait” is unfounded.

  9. scribe says:

    @Bob Schacht: Well, at its narrowest the strait is 54 km wide, with the shipping lanes in a 10 km wide band (3km wide inbound, 3km wide outbound, separated by 3 km median). The bathymetric map shows the shipping channels are under 75 meters deep and most of the rest of the straits area is under 50 or even under 25 meters deep.

    Wreck or scuttle or just anchor and disable a bunch of old tubs in the middle of that, and it will tie up shipping for quite a while.

  10. rugger9 says:

    Tankers would be a problem if scuttled, it’s how the Suez was shut down in the 50’s when Nasser was posturing. However, from my view the mining of the straits would be more of a problem, especially if it’s indiscriminate and top-shelf devices that potentially would be provided by interested parties to getting us knocked down a peg. Keep in mind that supertanker draft is why Valdez is used and not Anchorage for Prudhoe oil, as well as why many West Coast ports cannot handle the traffic. So, bypassing the shipping lanes will not be easy to do. All it takes is Boghammers.

    The fact of China’s importation rate would tend to theoretically limit the mischief the PRC gov’t would start there, but the same gov’t also is perfectly willing to socially engineer or restrict access for undesirable entities. I’d see the same process here to cover the shortfall, plus the USA would get blamed for being jerks as a bonus.

  11. MadDog says:

    I find it interesting how the Iranians are calibrating their threats. In this instance, they threaten to block the Strait of Hormuz if the West ratchets up their economic blockade.

    Note that the Iranians don’t threaten to block the Strait of Hormuz if Israel attacks their nuclear facilities.

    Different strokes for different folks.

    On the surface the Iranians seem to be calibrating their threats to both appeal to certain interests and to threaten other interests.

  12. jo6pac says:

    So a Carrier group, a bunch of super tankers, and what ever the Iran Navy is, Hell what could possible go wrong.
    I think I’ll top off my tank in the truck tomorrow.

  13. MadDog says:

    Tangentially related, CBS News broadcast a piece Tuesday evening by Bob Orr on the downed RQ-170 drone. Though CBS claims the video of the piece is here, it actually doesn’t play so I’ll summarize one of the points I found interesting.

    In the piece, CBS reported that the Iranians would not be able to extract any valuable intelligence about the task the RQ-170 drone was undertaking because the RQ-170 drone was streaming real-time video back to the US and was not recording its video.

    The previous spin by the US government had us doing stuff like “sniffing” the air for nuclear material over Iran or long-term surveillance of Iranian targets to gather “pattern of life” intelligence.

    What I found interesting about that US admission (or spin) was trying to figure out just what could possibly be of interest to the US in a “real-time” operation.

    Real-time seems to me to mean that someone in the US was watching this in real-time, but for what, I can’t figure out. There doesn’t seem to be anything real-time that comes to mind that would justify the repeated flights into Iranian territory of a purportedly highly valuable and highly classified stealthy RQ-170 drone.

    What on earth would we want to be watching in real-time in Iran?

    And doesn’t the purported US assertion that it was real-time surveillance suggest that if “something happened” in real-time, that the US would do something in response in real-time?

    With that I’ll throw open the floor for any and all suggestions.

  14. Bob Schacht says:


    What would the US do if Russia, China or Iran threatened to close Caribbean sea lanes? Or staged an army or a missile battery in Cuba?

    Um, wasn’t the latter part of this called the “Cuban missile crisis”?

    Bob in AZ

  15. MadDog says:

    @Jim White: Heh! That’s a better possibility than the previous BS the US was selling.

    An additional item that was implied by the CBS report is that the RQ-170 was already in Iran territory when the US lost control. Previous news reports implied that it was still in Afghanistan airspace when control was lost.

  16. P J Evans says:

    @Bob Schacht:
    And remembering that time – I saw a building in an industrial area last Friday morning with a sign up that said a bomb-shelter place was going to be coming soon. As I remember, bomb shelters were popular with the same kind of people who are now tea-partiers, and they wouldn’t have been effective back then, either.

  17. MadDog says:

    From an NYT article this evening:

    Clock Ticking for West to Act on Iranian Nuclear Program

    The writer, John Vinocur, presents his analysis of the various pieces/parts in motion including the dynamics of a Presidential campaign. While one may not agree with his premises or conclusions, the piece is still worth the read. The final paragraph is this:

    “…With the end of 2011, the United States no longer holds responsibility for policing Iraqi airspace. Iraq has no replacement aircraft for now, and the shortest route for long-range Israeli F15Is to attack Iran’s nuclear sites will be wide open to them beginning Sunday.”

  18. rugger9 says:

    @Jim White: #18
    Was it armed? I don’t remember seeing that as part of the discussion. So, if it was streaming real-time, it was to target something either for ELINT or for destruction [sometime], not a lot of other uses otherwise unless it has sniffer technology. In that case the RQ-170 would have to get close enough to get what it needed, and we’d lose our detection gear [which makes this improbable to me, we’d destroy something THAT useful on the ground to prevent reverse engineering]. What’s in the area to look at?

  19. Bob Schacht says:

    @MadDog: That final paragraph overlooks the fact that Israel would have to fly over either Syria or Jordan first. However, I’m sure the Jordanians will oblige, providing they get to complain afterwards.

    Bob in AZ

  20. rugger9 says:

    @bmaz: #23
    I didn’t think so, but what were we looking at, noting that there have been no claims by the WH for stuff in the area?

  21. Jim White says:

    And yes, the Chinese are paying attention:

    Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun visited Iran for talks, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, during growing tensions over Tehran’s threat to choke off Middle Eastern oil shipments in retaliation against proposed Western sanctions.


    “China hopes that peace and stability can be maintained in the strait,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a briefing on Thursday in answer to a question about escalating tensions that have pushed up oil prices.

    China has driven global oil demand growth for a decade and has increasingly relied on shipments from the Middle East. China bought 547,000 barrels per day of crude from Iran through to October this year, up from 426,000 barrels per day for all of 2010. Only Saudi Arabia and Angola sell more than Iran to China.

  22. Jim White says:

    @rugger9: I’m thinking that the “accidents” have on-ground personnel who trigger them. Real-time surveillance info could determine just when to pull the trigger on an event without requiring the operative to spend extensive amounts of time onsite waiting for the proper high-value target to arrive.

Comments are closed.