The Dire Strait

By John Damien 

03/07/07 "ICH" — — The most valuable piece of real estate in the world is not to be found in New York, London or Tokyo.  The world’s most valuable real estate is comprised of two imaginary boxes.  These boxes are two miles wide and twenty five miles long.  They are the international shipping lanes at the apex of the Strait of Hormuz.  Each day, tankers carrying 16 million barrels of oil worth $800 million pass through these boxes. If oil is the blood supply of the industrial economy, the Strait of Hormuz is the jugular.  In any conflict between the US and Iran, control of those shipping lanes will instantly become the focus of the entire conflict.  The main job of the US Navy would be to ensure the Strait remains open.  That implies pre-emptive action against any Iranian facility or emplacement capable of launching anti-ship missiles against targets in the area of the Strait. 

The use by Iran of "the oil weapon" has been widely discussed and examined.  What has attracted less attention is the ability of the Untied States to use the oil weapon against Iran.  By occupying three key islands on the Gulf approaches to the Strait, the US could deny passage to any ship it pleases.  America could thus close Iran’s only major route for oil exports, while ensuring safe passage for the rest.  Although 20% of the world’s oil trade passes through the Strait, Iran accounts for only 2.5 million bbl/day of world exports, or just over 15% of the traffic in the Strait.  Because of their disputed legal status, it would be possible to extend a US presence indefinitely. Occupation of these islands could thus deliver to the US a strategic coup great enough to justify a war with Iran in the first place.  The US has two Marine Expeditionary groups in the area capable of such an operation.  

It is no secret that the US Government wants regime change in Tehran.  Their problem is the inability of us military, economic or diplomatic power to deliver.  As discussed in a previous article, there are urgent reasons for the US to escalate the war to Iran that have nothing to do with regime change.  However, for a lasting strategic re-alignment in the region, regime change is highly desirable.  One must assume that even the most hawkish agitators in Washington and Jerusalem don’t believe bombing alone will bring down the Iranian government.  The only feasible means of damaging the political stability of the clerical regime is by attacking the Iranian economy.  Despite the oil money flowing into the country, the economy is shaky.  Unemployment and economic dissatisfaction run high.  This represents the only significant point of contention between the regime and its citizens.  A blockade of Iranian oil exports would bring the fragile economy to its knees in a matter of weeks.  If, and its a big if, the citizens of Iran blame their government for the economic ruin, there is a possibility of regime change.  

Stopping Iranian oil exports is an easy thing to do militarily.  One simply destroys the export facilities.  Unfortunately, it could take years to rebuild those facilities.  If a new government were to take power in Tehran, a lack of ability to export oil would become acutely inconvenient for everyone.  Better to find a way that allows the US to turn the exports on and off at will.  Interdicting Iranian bound tankers would be ideal as virtually all Iranian oil exports pass through the Straits.  200 Marines and 10 Blackhawk Helicopters would be sufficient to impose US directives on all the traffic in the area.  However, parking an aircraft carrier in the Strait would be inviting disaster.  No nearby bases are available because of the political problems a US presence would bring.  Occupying several key islands astride the shipping lanes themselves would be ideal.  

Three such islands exist.  Tunb al Sughra, Tunb al Kubra and Abu Musa are small islands astride the shipping lanes on the Gulf side of the Strait.  Abu Musa rises to a height of 100m, giving an excellent view from Bandar-e Lengeh on the Iranian coast to Dubai in the south.  Abu Musa and al Kubra have airstrips.  The islands are claimed by both the UAE and Iran.  Iran has occupied the islands since the 1970’s.  The issue is an ongoing concern of both UAE and the Gulf Cooperation Council.  The UAE has taken the matter to the World Court and the UN.  The GCC included a statement on the islands in the communiqués of its December 2006 summit.  Iranian occupation of the islands is therefore disputed at best and illegal at worst.  That legal uncertainty presents an opportunity to the United States.  In a wider war between the US and Iran, the US would undertake operations against a series of Iranian islands and mainland locations in any conflict over the Strait.  The US Navy and Marines would have to flush out possibly thousands of anti-ship missiles stored in the surrounding area.  Those operations would involve landings by Marines and special forces.  But they couldn’t stay, and they wouldn’t want to.  However, in the case of the Tunb islands, it can stay if the UAE invites it to do so.  There are no hostile locals to police and none of the complications found in Iraq.  If imperial dreams still haunt the sleep of George Bush, then permanent US control of the Strait of Hormuz is in the cards.

John Damien lives in Toronto and can be reached at john.damien@rogers.com

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