Global Global Policy Studies & International Security

Should the World Be Worried about a War in the Strait of Hormuz?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has hinted at a possible intervention in the Strait of Hormuz if the U.S. continues threaten Iran’s crude oil exports. He said this during his European tour to salvage the nuclear deal, which is under pressure following the U.S. withdrawal. The leader’s words hinted at a possibility of another Middle Eastern conflict.

President Trump’s order on May 8 to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal has cast serious doubt on the longevity of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal was signed in 2015 between Iran and the permanent members of United Nations Security Council along with Germany (P5+1). The EU condemned the U.S. decision and European leaders have since been scrambling to ensure that Iran has sufficient economic incentive to stay with the deal.

Although Europe stands firmly with Iran, many believe that prospects for salvaging the deal are limited. Rouhani understands this. His vague but strong signaling of Iranian aggression could disrupt the Gulf region’s oil supply. To be precise, Iran will block the Strait of Hormuz to seal the global oil supply if they are not allowed to sell their oil. In that case, would U.S. forces consider offensive action that could muddle the Gulf waters and beyond?

The Strait of Hormuz

The Strait of Hormuz is the gateway to the Gulf oil fields and a pathway for oil ships. One-fifth of the world’s oil supply passes through the strait. Blocking it would spark severe shortages and sharp rises in the price of oil.

This is not the first time that Iranian leaders have used the Strait of Hormuz to pressure enemies. Hard-line politicians and military leaders in Iran routinely hint at shutting down the shipping lane if the U.S. or Israel tries to attack them.

Indeed, the Strait of Hormuz has so far provided a natural shield to Iran. Nobody has attacked the country, even when Iranian proxies aggressively undermine security all around the region. All parties, including the U.S., know that closing down the strait will trigger an unwelcome chain of events.

The power calculus

The U.S. has the largest defense budget in the world and military bases across the globe. A dozen are in the Middle East and there are 54,000 troops under the US Central Command (CENTCOM). American military installations and its regional footprint show an encircled Iran.

Two aircraft carriers, 20 ships and 100 aircraft, along with thousands of soldiers in the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, are poised to respond to any aggression in the Persian Gulf. The Fleet’s Area of Responsibility (AOR) includes 2.5 million square miles in the waters and three major choke points including the Strait of Hormuz.

The Iranian military is no match for U.S. forces. Its conventional units are inferior and reliant on dated weaponry and equipment. What is it that encourages Iran to be defiant? The answer could lie in their forward planning, resource mobilization abilities and heightened political will.

In the past few years, the Iranian army has conducted cross-training exercises and demonstrated its hybrid warfare capabilities. The Islamic republic has also purchased a series of Scud and No-Dong ballistic missiles from North Korea, using this technology to develop their own ‘Shahab’ series of missiles. Additionally, they have accelerated a next-generation intermediate-range missile program. Iran has the largest missile inventory in the Gulf region, which compensates for its conventional military shortcomings vis-a-vis stronger armies. Although Iranian missiles are infamous for their inaccuracy, evaluative studies show that they are efficient in retaliating against any offensive action.

Iran has been refurbishing its navy for quick response, upgrading Kilo-class submarines and outdated ships. It is also developing midget submarines, fast boats with guided missiles, and indigenous UAVs. Certain studies conclude that even U.S. warships would be challenged if surrounded by a swarm of fast, small, and missile-laden Iranian vessels.

The proximity factor favors Iran. It can continue to put pressure on U.S. and allied forces by mounting an offensive on the strait’s shipping lanes. Harassment of oil ships will likely become the order of the day, which would force the U.S. to prioritize surveillance and ensure security of commercial shipping lines.

The Balance Sheet 

Unambiguously, the U.S. has a clear edge over Iran in hard power parameters. However, the hybrid warfare capabilities, proximity, and military doctrine make Iran a tough opponent to contain. Moreover, even if the U.S. succeeds in regaining control of the strait, it may have to subsequently pour in extra efforts to defend the waterways.

An offensive against Iran is likely to help politically unify Iran. Currently, Iran is witnessing internal unrest with protests looming over rising inflation and unemployment rates. Such anti-government sentiment would give way to patriotism if the nation faced a serious external threat. The fact that Rouhani’s statement was widely welcomed by his political rivals and hardliners underscores the nation’s ability to rally behind the flag at a time of crisis.

Additionally, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), along with their external intelligence agency — Quds Forces — are effectively waging asymmetric wars across the region. Any offensive action against Iran would most likely trigger severe proxy wars and ballistic missile attacks, which would inflame an already unstable region. The U.S. is also busy with other conflicts around the Middle East.

Shutting down the Strait of Hormuz would undercut Iran’s regional aspirations, since its economic and naval activity depends upon the free movement of goods in these exact shipping lanes. A war with the U.S. would yield certain defeat and the disruption of oil supply would drain wealth from many other countries, including Iran’s trading partners — the EU, China, and India.

Therefore, confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz is unattractive, as it would prove damaging to both sides. It is important to stop the rhetoric from becoming action, which would endanger the world at large and create an endless security dilemma for the region.

A longer version of this article was originally published by the Centre for Public Policy Research in India. 

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