Stormy Straits Ahead?

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International attention is beginning to focus on the Persian Gulf, and Red Sea areas since Saudi Arabia suspended Red Sea oil shipments earlier this week following attacks on two of its oil tankers in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The cntentious rhetoric coming out of Tehran of late, along with its open support of the Houthi rebels, has flared US-Iranian tensions, and contributed to the unease. As the prospect of the US sanctions against Iran being reinstituted in the near future grows, Iran’s next move could very well be an attempt to deter Washington from that course of action by way of thinly-veiled economic blackmail.

Since the outbreak of war in Yemen, the Bab el Mandeb Strait has become a highly vulnerable chokepoint for oil shipments, and commerce. In October, 2016 a UAE ship was attacked by Houthi rebels in the strait. Two weeks later, Houthi rebels fired anti-ship missiles against US Navy warships in the area. The missiles were defeated by defensive countermeasures and SAM fire. In response, US warships launched cruise missile strikes on Houthi radar sites in rebel-controlled territory. These sites had enabled the rebels to track shipping in the strait and provided essential targeting data for Houthi attacks.  Although the Houthi missile attacks were unsuccessful, the action in October, 2016 emphasized how vulnerable civilian-flagged merchant ships, and tankers become when transiting the Bab el Mandeb.

Now, the prospect of renewed Houthi attacks in the straits, as well as the recent Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, are reminding the world once again how vital these two chokepoints are to the global economy. Saudi Arabia’s suspension of oil shipments through the Red Sea rattled oil markets and contributed to a 3-day rise in oil prices. A potential major disruption in the Bab el Mandeb is manageable, however. A similar suspension of oil shipments through Hormuz would deliver even more severe ramifications to the global economy. Quite frankly, even the threat of a Hormuz closure would likely be enough to crash oil markets, and lead to an economic domino effect.

Iran has long understood the value of the strait to the world economy, and its own geopolitical interests. It has attempted to use the Strait of Hormuz as a bargaining chip in the past, most notably during the Tanker War phase of its conflict with Iraq. This led to the US to initiate Operation Earnest Will in 1987. Earnest Will consisted of Kuwaiti oil tankers being reflagged, and escorted through the Strait of Hormuz by US Navy warships. Despite a few setbacks, Earnest Will was largely successful, however, it did lead to clashes between the US Navy and Iranian forces. Operation Praying Mantis was the largest of these skirmishes, and saw the destruction of 50% of Iran’s operational naval fleet at US hands.

Iran’s leadership has to remember Operation Praying Mantis, as well as US Navy action in the Bab el Mandeb in 2016, as it considers it’s next move. An attempt at economic blackmail now will surely bring about a US military response of some type. Tehran’s recent threats, and rhetoric was calculated to force the United States to seriously reconsider its intent to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Unfortunately for Iran, it is not dealing with the Obama administration any longer. President Trump has taken strong stance against Iran, having already removed the US from the JCOPA. He is now pressuring US allies not to purchase Iranian oil, a move that is likely contributing to the current Iranian discomfiture.

Over the past two days, the fears of US sanctions being placed on Iran have been joined by speculation in some circles that a US military attack against Iran might be in the works. Pre-emptive US action against Iran is not probable in the near future, although if a situation develops that sees Iran support Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, or should Iran move to close the Strait of Hormuz, all bets are off the table. In either case, a US military response is not only probable, it is essentially guaranteed.

 

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