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The University of Texas at Austin

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

The Strait Dope: Why Iran can't cut off your oil

BY Eugene Gholz, August 24, 2009

Supertankers carry about 90 percent of Persian Gulf oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz each day, satisfying some 20 percent of worldwide demand. For maximum safety, the International Maritime Organization suggests that the huge, difficult-to-maneuver ships travel within a designated channel while in the strait, but that channel is only a few miles wide. With such a narrow passage, many experts fear that an attacker (read: the Iranian military) could "close the strait."

The Iranians appreciate the concern: Explicit threats to the strait are a key component of their foreign policy. Alternate routes could only carry a fraction of the oil, so a disruption could cause a major price spike that would severely threaten the global economy.

But the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Regardless of how we assess the credibility of Iran's threats, we should also assess Iran's capabilities. Iranian military exercises apparently emphasize three weapons in the strait: small suicide boats, mobile antiship cruise missiles, and sophisticated sea mines. Using these tools, how hard would it be for Iran to disrupt the flow of oil?

Instead, tankers tend to move around dangers. The strait is deep enough that even laden supertankers can pass safely through a 20-mile width of good water, not just the 4-mile-wide official channel. Tankers already take other routes when it is convenient; during a conflict, they would surely scatter, as they did in the 1980s. Although the strait is narrow compared with the open ocean, it is still broad enough to complicate Iran's effort to identify targets for suicide and missile attacks. The area is too large to cover with a field of modern mines dense enough to disable a substantial number of tankers, especially given Iran's limited stockpile.

What's more, tankers are hard to damage with mines or the small warheads on modern missiles. And a big ship pushes a tremendous amount of water out of its way when it is moving; tankers' bow waves would fend off most small boats attempting suicide attacks. Terrorists hit the USS Cole and the Limburg because their targets were stopped.

Surprisingly, oil tankers also do not burn well. They generally have too much fuel and not enough oxygen to sustain a blaze. Only a tiny fraction of their bulk contains sensitive equipment that, if damaged, would disable the ship. The suicide attack on the Limburg was a lucky shot that hit a boundary between a full cargo cell and an empty one full of air, so the fuel-air mixture caught fire. Even so, three days later, the ship was able to move under its own power, and after repairs, it returned to the global tanker fleet. Over five years of the Iran-Iraq War, 150 large oil tankers were hit with antiship cruise missiles, but only about a quarter were disabled.

So what? By presuming that Iran can easily close the strait, Western diplomats concede leverage, and the current U.S. habit of reacting immediately and aggressively to Iranian provocations risks unnecessary escalation. Iran would find it so difficult, if not impossible, to close the strait that the world can afford to relax from its current hair-trigger alert.

Copy Right 2009 Foreign Policy Magazine

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