Only the U.S. Can Keep the Strait of Hormuz Open

by Rear Admiral Terence E. McKnight, USN (ret.)
JINSA Board of Advisors

by Rear Admiral Terence E. McKnight, USN (ret.)
JINSA Board of Advisors

Just recently President Obama crossed the Potomac River and stopped at the Pentagon to roll America’s newest national security strategy – Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense. The key thesis of the strategy is that after ten years of war in the Middle East and with the current fiscal crisis facing the United States we can no longer afford the “two major theater wars” doctrine of the last 50 years.

This old strategy was developed after the Cold War for the military to fight two major conventional wars with large amounts of ground forces, ships and aircraft. The new strategy calls sufficient forces for one major conflict and a rebalancing of these forces toward the Asia-Pacific region. Some will question if this is a new strategy or just a precursor for the massive cuts in the military that are projected in the next decade. The Department of Defense has already committed to $450 million in reductions over the next years. If Congress fails to action on the latest “sequestration,” however, this number could grow to $1 trillion in cuts. The major problem with this strategy – the enemy has not surrendered.

No matter if President Obama is successful in winning a second term or the Republicans retake the White House there is no other national security issue that is more complicated than dealing with Iran. From their attempt to obtain weapons of mass destruction and their support of terrorism throughout out the world, Iran remains the State Department’s “most active state sponsor of terrorism.” Tehran is a major influence behind the deaths of countless Coalition service members who have been killed in Afghanistan by providing training and explosives to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The Quds Force, a special branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) charged with organizing, training, equipping, and financing foreign Islamic revolutionary movements, have supported Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militant groups for years with various forms sophisticated explosive training and state-of-the-art weaponry. Most recently, the United States thwarted a major plot by these forces to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Every Administration in the last several decades has threatened to hold Iran accountable for their actions, but little has been done. Just over the New Year the Iranian Navy held a major fleet training exercise to demonstrate their ability to close the Strait of Hormuz. Let’s be pretty clear over the implications of closing the Strait. Forty percent of the world’s oil and natural gas supplies pass through this vital Strait each year. The importance of allowing the free flow of trade through this Strait cannot be over stressed. There is only one way in and one way out. You can go around the Suez Canal or the Strait of Malacca, but not this body of water.

Does Iran have the firepower to in fact close the Strait of Hormuz? The short-term answer is – yes, but not for an extended period of time. First, there are international laws. The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) of 1982 permits innocent passage in both directions for all maritime users. “Subject to this Convention, ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.” Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law. Iran borders to the north side of the Strait and the United Arab Emirates and Oman border the south side. The Strait is so narrow, however, that the adjacent coastal states are subject to special constraints of the Law of the Sea.

In principle, under the UNCLOS III, all coastal states are entitled to claim coastal waters out to a 12 nautical mile limit, but the Strait is only 21 nautical miles wide at its choke point. The maximum either side could assert a right to is 10.5 nautical miles. To observe the rights of coastal states while also serving the needs of maritime navigation, special rules have been established for the Strait: A six-mile navigation channel has been defined consisting of a two mile wide inbound lane, a two mile wide separation lane, and a two-mile-wide outbound lane. In this case, the inbound lane impacts on Iranian territorial waters, while the outbound lane has effects on UAE and Omani waters. So, any attempt to close this Strait would be a violation of international law.

Militarily, the regular Iranian Navy, which is tasked with defense of ports and coastline, has limited firepower and is equipped with obsolete larger vessels. The IRGC’s naval force, however, controls hundreds of fast patrol boats, coastal anti-ship missiles, and a stockpile of naval mines, reportedly as many as 2,000.

During the Iran-Iraq War of the1980s, the U.S. Navy was forced into the conflict in the role of ensuring the safe passage of Kuwaiti tankers through the Gulf in escort operations. During this operation, the USS Stark was hit by two Exocet anti-ship missiles launched by Iraqi warplanes and the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine. Think of the possible scenario today involving a IRGC swarming suicide attack on several 250,000 deadweight ton (DWT) oil tankers headed for Japan or the United States or the laying of a minefield in the Strait itself.

Just the threat of Iran closing the Strait in December caused the price of a barrel of oil to jump almost ten percent. A closure of the Strait would be catastrophic to the world’s fragile economy. Some energy analysts predict that the price of oil would start to soar and could rise 50 percent or more within days upon closure. There is no doubt that Iran would suffer, but this has not stopped them from taking irrational actions in the past.

“To close the Strait of Hormuz would be an act of war against the whole world,” said Sadad Ibrahim Al-Husseini, former head of exploration and development at Saudi Aramco. “You just can’t play with the global economy and assume that nobody is going to react.” Retaliation from the U.S. Fifth Fleet would be swift, but it would still take weeks or maybe months to clear the Strait of Iranian mines.

While the regular Iranian Navy is not considered a threat, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy has a fleet of fast missile boats and a stockpile of naval mines, reportedly as many as 2,000. “Iran’s credible mining threat can be an effective deterrent to potential enemy forces,” an unclassified report by the Office of Naval Intelligence, concluded in 2009.

If Iran moved to close the Strait to shipping it will be by seeding mines, launching anti-ship cruise missiles at foreign ships as well as attacking them with the IRGC’s fleet of fast patrol missile boats in the “swarm attack” method and possibly suicide speed boats.

To make the environment safe for minesweeping operations, the U.S. and coalition forces would first need to neutralize the anti-ship missile launchers fielded along the coast, on Iranian-held islands in the Strait, as well as mounted on oil platforms. This would be conducted largely through air strikes and cruise missiles attacks. Next, the missile boats and suicide speed boats would need to be eliminated likely through a combination of air and surface strikes and with the support from special operations forces.

As President Obama prepares to implement his new defense strategy and send his 2013 defense budget to Congress he needs to understand that no military force of the earth is capable of preventing the closure or effecting the reopening the Strait than that of the United States. With tougher sanctions directed at foreign firms that do business with Iran’s central bank coming in the future the leadership of Iran might find itself backed into a corner and take irrational actions.

Just recently, Iran’s vice president, Mohammad Reza-Rahimi, explicitly threatened to close the Strait, saying that if Western powers “impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.” The United States must continue to put pressure on Iran to conform to the regulations of international law and remain a key player in the Gulf region in order to protect the freedom of commerce in this vital region and throughout the world.

Rear Admiral Terence McKnight, USN (ret.) is a member of JINSA’s Board of Advisors.