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Iran's threats over Strait of Hormuz? Understandable, but not easy

Iran has issued two threats that it could close the Strait of Hormuz, reminding the world how it could spike oil prices if the US or Israel attacks. But it wouldn't be easy. 

By Staff writer / December 28, 2011

Strait of Hormuz easily closed: Iranian submarines and warships participate in navy drill in the Sea of Oman Wednesday. Iran's navy chief warned that his country can easily close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the passageway through which a sixth of the world's oil flows.

Mohammad Ali Marizad/Young Journalists Club/AP

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The boasting from an Iranian admiral today that it would be "easy" to close the Strait of Hormuz – the chokepoint for much of the world's oil tankers heading for the Red Sea and Europe and east towards Asia – should be treated as just that.

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"Closing the Strait of Hormuz is very easy for Iranian naval forces," Iran's navy chief Habibollah Sayyari told state-run propaganda channel Press TV. "Iran has comprehensive control over the strategic waterway." His comments followed similar words from Vice President Reza Rohimi yesterday, and an announcement a few weeks ago that the Iranian navy would be conducting military exercises to simulate shutting the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of world's sea-borne oil passes. 

How serious is this? Sure, the price of oil jumped (traders love the market action, and you have to wonder if the Iranian government had bought oil futures before their state media started hyping this story). But prices are settling back as fear and panic are being replaced with reasoned reflection: A threat to do something isn't a promise that it will happen. A threat is often, as in this case, a way to send a strategic message. Iran is responding to the bellicose rhetoric that's emanated from the US and Israel in recent weeks by saying "we can make you suffer if provoked."

Could they? Sure. Iranian moves to close the Strait, perhaps by sinking a tanker, would cause oil prices to skyrocket, increase the threat of a broader regional war, and create weeks of uncertainty. It's one of the reasons that a war between the US and Iran, started by either party, seems unlikely. Both economies would be badly damaged.

But if it comes to war could they "close" the Strait? Not for very long.

The US 5th Fleet would stand opposed, as would a number of European powers, whose own faltering economies would topple into outright depression were flows of Gulf oil to the Mediterranean stopped. 

Easy? No. "Comprehensive control?" No. Iran spends about $8 billion a year on its military, or about an 80th of US spending. Even European military spending dwarfs Iran's. If France, Germany, and the UK's military expenditures are combined, they spend about 20 times what Iran does. While the publics of the US and Europe may be war-weary, closing the Strait of Hormuz would be an economic catastrophe that would see a massive amount of naval force brought to bear on Iran – and probably consideration of missile attacks on political and military leaders ashore. Iran's leaders know all this, whatever bluster to the contrary. 

During the so-called Tanker War between the Iranians and Iraqis during the 1980s, shipping in the Strait was severely threatened by both sides. Both countries sought to deprive the other of oil revenue, and attacked the boats of neutral parties as well as their direct enemies. All of that drove up the price of oil and shipping insurance, but didn't ever close the Strait of Hormuz. Eventually, the US Navy began escorting ships through the Strait, concerned about the global price of oil.

None of this is to say that all the war talk on both sides isn't frightening, or a reason for concern. And it's not to say that Iran couldn't do substantial damage to tanker traffic through the Strait if it comes to war. But the Islamic Republic simply does not have its hands on the spigot for 40 percent of the world's tanker oil, no matter how much it wishes that it did.

(The first paragraph of this article was changed after posting to clarify the Red Sea's importance to oil traffic),

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