Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Straits of Hormuz, the "Tanker War," and Iran's geopolitics 

The American Thinker has an excellent short history of the triangular "Tanker War" among Iraq, Iran and the United States in 1988. Most Americans don't remember that the ruinous war between Iraq and Iran ended with the largest naval confrontation since World War II, in which the United States Navy thrashed Iranian warships that had been dispatched to choke off oil coming out of the Strait of Hormuz.

That’s the history the Iranians have to live with. That’s what comes to mind when they consider the United States. And that’s the context in which we must judge current Iranian actions.

Today, the government which created that record of defeat and disgrace finds itself surrounded on all sides, not in control of the waters off its own coast, loathed by its own people, and facing the most powerful and experienced military in the Middle East.

No wonder they’re shaking nukes they don’t have.

The ayatollahs’ behavior is not a product of confidence. There’s no way it could be. The Iranians are in worse shape today than in 1988. Their navy has suffered extreme neglect. Its major vessels are twenty-five to fifty years old, its personnel untrained and inexperienced. The army, with “armored” and “mechanized” divisions with more men than vehicles, is scarcely worth mentioning. So the leadership responds out of fear: shouting to overcome their own misgivings, claiming weapons they have no way of developing, and making premature announcements of “joining the nuclear club.”

All that can be said for this line of behavior is that has succeeded in shaking up a very jittery Western media elite. But that can’t last. The thing about repeated threats is that they tend to grow more comic as they go. The Iranians crossed that line with their Pythonesque “uranium dancers.” It will require a lot of shouting to overcome that image. Ahmadinejad is simply not ferocious enough a figure to do it. You can’t continually scream about “cutting people’s hands off” without eventually cutting off some hands. And if he wants to try that….

Then the 5th Fleet will be waiting.

And then there is this from Wretchard, more than a year ago.
But the bottom line is that an Iranian blockade of the Gulf of Hormuz will probably fail to stop tanker traffic completely, just as it failed in the 1980s. US forces in the region have grown comparatively more capable, with facilities within the Gulf itself, both in Bahrain and in Iraq, for example. An Iranian blockade would however, disrupt tanker sailings, increase insurance premiums and generally drive the cost of crude upwards; it might even sink a number of tankers and naval vessels, but in the end the United States would prevail. Strangely enough, the Iran blockade threat is more powerful "in being" than in actual implementation. While it remains simply a threat, it can be used as a diplomatic lever to extract concessions. If actually carried out, Europe and China, whatever their political inclinations, would be forced by economic necessity to help break the blockade.

The confrontation with Iran is extraordinarily complex, and I am openly wrestling with my own thinking on the subject. There are a lot of little pieces to keep track of, including the possibility that Iran will threaten oil exports from the Gulf. The history of the Tanker War and its aftermath should remind us -- and the Iranians -- that the United States Navy is an extraordinarily formidable power in the region that even the more, er, prudent President Bush did not hesitate to deploy against threats to the oil supply. As Wretchard observed more than a year ago, not only has American military strength in the region increased substantially in the last 18 years, but other great powers are much more aligned with the United States in their national interest in an open Strait. The ironic result is that the greater dependance of China, Europe and the United States on Persian Gulf oil has, in all likelihood, diminished the risk that Iran would try to play the "tanker card."


By Anonymous Brad, at Wed Apr 26, 08:24:00 AM:

Here are photos from the last time U.S. and Iranian forces clashed: the U.S. reflagging and escort of Kuwait tankers; the U.S. seizure of an Iranian minelayer, the damage to the USS Samuel B. Roberts by an Iranian mine; and the daylong battle waged in retaliation for the attack.

The website is the companion to a Naval Institute Press book, "No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf", coming out in July.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Wed Apr 26, 11:44:00 AM:

The Iranian mullahs will continue overplaying an increasingly weak hand until they are forced to fold.

Maybe their own people will call their bluff. That would likely be the best possible outcome for everyone, except, of course, for the mullahs.  

By Blogger skipsailing, at Wed Apr 26, 01:20:00 PM:

this is an important statement:

" There are a lot of little pieces to keep track of"

If you're having difficulty keeping track of this, just imagine what the Iranian regime faces. We are constantly challenging them and they have to keep track of all of these little pieces because their lives depend on it.  

By Blogger viking kaj, at Wed Apr 26, 01:43:00 PM:

Said it before and I'll say it again. Iran's government is sitting on a powder keg of popular dissatisfaction. This time, however, it is due to the increasing sophistication of the populace, in direct contrast to days of the shah. The average Persian is well educated and aware of the rest of the world, while their government tries to alternately placate comsumer demands with the oil dole and at the same time keep them in the stone age.

While it is difficult to predict anything in the middle east, the history of the region would tend to indicate that any change will be accomplished only with blood shed. My hope is that ultimately consumerism will win, just as it did in Eastern Europe without a shot being fired. This is, of course, not the same as saying that the US, or our agenda, will win, especially given the way we have squandered our political capital worldwide over the last 20 years.

The average Persian teenager is more interested in her access to private parties, make up, alcohol and the internet in that order than what the mullahs are doing with the nukes.

Come to think of it, is this all that different from the US?  

By Blogger Mark White, at Wed Apr 26, 08:29:00 PM:

When you talk about dissatisfaction in Iran, don't limit yourself to Persians, who are only around 50% of the population. The mullahs already face a significant rebellion in Kurdish Iran (10% of Iran's population) and are shelling Kurdish Iraq over the border to try to settle the Pesh Merga.

The most significant minority population in Iran, though, is not the rebellious Kurds. Unlike their brothers in Iraq, they're nowhere near oil. The Ahwazi Arabs in Khuzistan (5% of Iran's population), though, are a majority of that province's population, and that's where all Iran's oil comes from. Split off the Ahwazi Arabs and suddenly all Iran's oil wealth disappears.

Mr. Dunn's article shows us how easy that would be. In fact, it looks so easy that we ought to defund the Wahabbis over in Saudi Arabia at the same time. The Shiite Arabs in the eastern provinces, where all the Saudi oil is, have been oppressed by Sunnis long enough. It's time the Shiite Arabs around the Gulf came together in one nation, with help from the Anglosphere (US, UK, Canada, Australia, India), Japan, and the Shiite majority in Iraq.

The Persians ought to do well enough without the oil, once the overthrow the mullahs and start putting their educations to work.  

By Blogger Georgfelis, at Thu Apr 27, 10:56:00 AM:

Do not make the assumption that the Iranians will make all their decisions based on rational thought. If the people in power in Iran think they can keep their positions for a few more years by engaging in a war that will devastate their country, they will. And if they start without warning by striking oil operations in Iraq, and a doomed attack on Israel, they stand a fair chance of initial success, with at least tepid support from their fellow Arabic neighbors.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Thu Apr 27, 07:55:00 PM:

La. The more conservative Arab nations (Saudi, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt to some extent) hate and fear Iran. They footed much of the bill for Iraq's war against Iran. One of the reasons for the Gulf War was that the Arab Nations (tm) refused to forgive Iraq's debts, which Iraq thought they should do since the Iraqis paid the price in blood in halt the mad mullahs' westward expansionist dreams. (according to them)

And rest assured that the Iranian leadership (with the possible exception of their... weird... president) are perfectly rational. From their perspective. The trick is to place oneself inside their heads long enough to predict likely actions, because they won't behave like we would in their place for obvious reasons.  

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