The Straits: Iran laughs to the bank despite sanctions
by Micah D. Halpern
THE Iranians are laughing at the US. Not chuckling, real belly laughing. They are laughing because the US has fallen right into the trap that they, the Iranians, laid out. And that was their plan.
Laughter is the only response Iran can have to the collision in the Iranian-controlled Straits of Hormuz between the USS Porter, a missile destroyer, and a Japanese oil tanker flying a Panamanian flag, earlier this month.
Photos that have been released show the extent of the damage. The collision left a humongous hole in the side of the destroyer.
The good news, as the US Navy was quick to announce, is that no one was hurt on either vessel and that no oil escaped into the sea.
The Straits of Hormuz is a narrow water passage with major responsibilities. On any given day 20-30 per cent of the entire world's oil supply passes through those waters. The straits are by no means international waters; they are controlled mutually by Oman and Iran.
For months the Iranians have murmured about and hinted that they would shut the straits. If they were to make good on their muted intentions, it would have a devastating impact on the price of oil. And actually, almost every time the Iranians do hint at closing the straits, the price of oil shoots up. That price increase bolsters the impact of the sanctions against them. The higher the cost of oil, the less Iran must sell to make their budget.
The way the Iranians have it figured, sanctions work for them, not against them. The US hasn't figured it out yet.
Instead, to protect the world's oil interests and the price of oil, the US has dispatched the 5th and 6th fleets to the tiny, narrow Straits of Hormuz.
In total the US now has four carrier fleets over there and the French have their ship called the Charles de Gaulle. The US also has the USS Lincoln, the Eisenhower, the Enterprise and the John Stennis. All but the Enterprise are Nimitz-class supercarriers, which means they each have 90 planes on them. The numbers for the US are staggering. For the Iranians, they are laughable.
And there's more. The US also has also deployed a slew of underwater minesweepers and submarines to try to gain some advantage over the Iranians. The ramming of the Japanese tanker shows just how hard that is to accomplish.
Iran's subs are tiny. They utilize rubber speedboats with high-calibre machineguns and rocket launchers. They swarm around and then they disappear. They are on and off the radar all the time and run circles around the big guns of the West. They are made for waters such as the Straits of Hormuz.
The West, on the other hand, is unfamiliar with those waters and those waters are very dangerous. At the narrowest point the Straits of Hormuz is only 21 nautical miles wide. And only six of those miles are wide and deep enough for a ship or tanker to sail through. The straits are divided into three sections. The centre section is a two-mile buffer to prevent collisions. Each side section has two, one-mile-wide lanes for travel in each direction.
Iran knows that the more ships clogging the waters, the more collisions there will be. And when the ships have no direction but are there, sitting, watching, waiting, collisions are even more likely. They remember how several years ago a US nuclear submarine called the USS Hartford rammed into another US ship called the USS New Orleans, an amphibious craft. The New Orleans is almost the size of an aircraft carrier. It was hard to miss.
The damage from that collision was extensive. The commanders of the ships were relieved from duty. The ship, the New Orleans, sustained $US2.3 million in damages.
The nuclear submarine, the Hartford, was damaged to the tune of nearly $US103m. That recollection is making the Iranians laugh even louder.
Iran rattles the sabre, tensions rise and so does the cost of oil. The US moves ships and then more ships into the region and the price of oil goes up again.
Even if they were to exert more power over the straits the Iranians would probably never close them; they are too shrewd for that. Knowing the Iranians, they would squeeze them or narrow them. They would force the lanes to become even thinner by "accidently" obstructing them.
They would do so to create a situation just short of being big enough to draw the US and Western allies into a conflict. They could, for example, invent an environmental emergency or produce a disabled ship or even uncover an old and dangerous minefield left over from the time of the Shah.
Each and every one of these potential scenarios would necessitate a clean-up or clearing out that would take days if not weeks to implement.
The result will always be the same: it would slow the flow of oil to the world market and increase the revenues of Iran.
The Iranians are masters of brinksmanship. The game of chess was invented by the Persians. Their forbears, the Iranians of today, have mastered the diplomatic version of the ancient game. And they are laughing all the way to the bank.
Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is Thugs: How History's Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder