Every day, two-thirds of all oil consumed world-wide passes through seven ocean choke points. The most vital of these, the Strait of Hormuz, is the gateway to the Persian Gulf’s oil shipment ports, and is bordered by Iran, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
General Hossein Salami, deputy commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, recently said Iranian forces will close the Strait of Hormuz if the United States “threatens” Iran. In the past, similar threats by Iran have largely been dismissed. Why? Because America and its allies believe the presence of a strong U.S. navy in the region makes such threats empty.
But should the threat now be taken seriously? Unfortunately, the U.S Navy’s ability to keep the Strait open is weaker than in the recent past, and Iranian military capabilities are measurably stronger.
It is not as if we had no warning of the problem. In a Pentagon wargame in 2002 to test U.S. ability to keep the Strait open, the U.S. Navy failed spectacularly. A carrier and ten cruisers were “sunk” as a retired U.S. Marine general carried the day for the Red Team, simulating Iranian unconventional tactics to great effect.
Despite the recent surge in U.S. oil production, there would still be serious economic impacts on the United States from a cut-off of oil transiting the Strait of Hormuz. If the Strait was blocked for an extended period, oil prices would spike and the US economy would likely be thrown into recession.
The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s primary maritime energy choke point. Through that narrow waterway passes more than 17 million barrels of oil – more than a third of all maritime-traded oil — each day. And ocean-going oil accounts for nearly two-thirds of all oil used daily in the world, between 93-96 million barrels, of which the US uses 19.3 million barrels.
History is instructive. Every major oil-price hike for the past four decades, including those in 1973, 1979, 1991, 2001, and 2008, was shortly followed by a rise in American unemployment and an economic recession.
Five years ago, Admiral Habibollah Sayari, then the Iranian navy commander, said closing the strait was “as easy as drinking a glass of water.” At that time, most military analysts were unimpressed. Max Boot and Bradley Russell with the Council on Foreign Relations, shrugged off the threat, retorting, “Actually it would be about as easy as drinking an entire bucket of water in one gulp.”
They added that “Iran tried this trick before and failed miserably,” referring to April 18, 1988, when President Reagan ordered the U.S. Navy to end Iranian naval harassment in the Gulf. Operation Praying Mantis was launched, the Navy’s biggest surface combat action since World War II, and Iranian attacks on Persian Gulf shipping ceased.
Fast forward to 2016. Could Iran now successfully close the Strait of Hormuz? New factors suggest the answer to that question is “Yes.”
As noted earlier, a wargame, “Millennium Challenge 2002,” proved the U.S. would have great difficulty in keeping the Strait open. And since that fiasco, the U.S. fleet’s weapons, tactics and strategy have only been marginally improved. The fleet has shrunk to 272 combatant ships even in the face of analysis that a robust maritime security strategy can only be implemented with a fleet of at least 350 ships.
For example, just five of our 10 carrier battlegroups now operational and only two are regularly available. According to the Navy Times, “The tense waters of Asia-Pacific or the Middle East could go for weeks or months without a U.S. aircraft carrier patrolling there.”
On the other hand, Iran has improved its military assets over what they had on hand in 2002, including vast numbers of sophisticated missiles that can reach U.S. and Arab bases far from the Gulf.
And there is more to worry about than the Strait of Hormuz. Iran-backed Houthis are destabilizing Yemen. If Yemen were to become a puppet state it would give Iran control of the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal, through which 7.3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
Would U.S. support of a regional Arab coalition be able to counter these Iranian objectives? Yes, but only if we implement a cooperative regional strategy that includes bolstering U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy conventional capabilities, battle planning with our allies to keep the straits open, deploying additional missile defense systems, adopting a regional counter-Iran strategy, and executing an Iranian denuclearization plan that jettisons the failed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
JCPOA, the Iranian “nuclear deal,” is seen by many as a way for the United States to assist Iran’s push for regional power. As Dennis Ross writes: “Iranian regional hegemony, especially as Iran’s behavior in the Gulf has been more aggressive, not less so, with regular Iranian forces joining the Revolutionary Guard now deployed to Syria, wider use of Shiite militias, arms smuggling into Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and ballistic missile tests.”
Without America as a partner, our Gulf allies cannot stand up to growing Iranian terrorism that is bolstered by $150 billion provided by JCPOA, funds equivalent to at least 50 times more per capita than what the U.S. provided 17 European nations under the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II.
Americans are often asked to make a choice between guns and butter, between military spending and social welfare programs. In the Middle East we need more guns to secure the butter today, because Russian President Putin and Middle Eastern leaders understand the logic of coercion. It’s that simple.
As Dr. Henry Kissinger remarked years ago, “The exercise of diplomacy without the threat of force is without effect.”