By Joe Boyles
The Straiht of Hormuz is a narrow shipping lane the empties the Persian Gulf into the Gulf of Oman and then, the Indian Ocean. At its narrowest point, the straiht is only 34 miles wide and separates the United Arab Emirates and Oman in the south from Iran to the north. Strategically, that 34 mile gap of water is probably the most important straiht in the world: last year, 20 percent of the world’s oil supplies moved by tanker through Hormuz. International shipping follows the rules laid out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Oil tankers regularly transit the Straiht, carrying petroleum from the Persian Gulf ports of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and the UAE to refineries in Europe and Asia. Each of these tankers is backed by high premium shipping insurance for the vessel and its precious cargo.
As the world’s protector of sea lanes, the United States has a strategic interest in keeping the Straiht of Hormuz open to worldwide maritime traffic. To do this, the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed in Oman. Before the current Iranian crisis, the fleet consisted of twenty warships anchored by the USS Stennis (CVN-74), a Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carrier. The Stennis has about 85 aircraft in its air wing, consisting of F-18 Hornet attack and fighter aircraft, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and electronic warfare aircraft. Around the Stennis is an array of warships including guided missile cruisers and submarines to protect the CVN. It is an impressive armada.
Ever since the Iranian Navy began military exercises and saber-rattling, our Navy has deployed two additional carrier battle groups centered about the USS Vinson (CVN-70) and USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) to the region. The Vinson will likely replace the Stennis since their cruise is scheduled to end. Each of these battle groups carry just as much capability as the Stennis.
Meanwhile as Iranian gunboats speed around the Straiht, their tin-hat admiral has announced that they might close the Straiht and warned the Stennis not to return to its port in Oman. Presumably, the Obama Administration will not succumb to this threat against international maritime law.
How might the Iranians close the straiht if they’re so inclined? They could do so either with anti-ship missiles or mines. The no-brainer approach is to mine the straight which is a passive means until a ship hits them. Missiles, on the other hand, require targeting and launch, a much more overt act of war. Regardless, we’ll allow the Iranians to make the first move, if they’re so inclined, so that our response is just that. We have to call their bluff and be prepared in case it isn’t.
My guess is that it is bluster and not much more. The Iranian radical Islamic government is known for saber-rattling. In the meantime, they are facing an internal crisis as someone is targeting their nuclear brain trust. Last week a speeding motorcycle attached a magnetic car bomb to the auto of one such scientist who quickly died in the resulting explosion. He’s the fourth nuclear scientist to die under violent and mysterious circumstances over the past year. The Iranians are sure this action and other similar to it are the work of Israeli/American intelligence, but who knows?
If the Iranians should decide to mine the Straiht, we have a secret weapon — dolphins. It seems as if the US Navy has been training bottle-nose dolphins for years to detect mines with their sonar and photograph them. It seems that the dolphins can detect mines from hundreds of yards away. Whether or not the dolphins are trained to actually detonate the mines is not known. Of course, this revelation has animal rights groups in a tizzy.
A more reliable, long-term approach would be to build sufficient oil pipelines across Saudi Arabia to a southern port which would give oil shippers an alternative and safer route. This would give the insurance companies much needed relief as well.
It is at times like this that we’re reminded that, although the Straiht of Hormuz is a small body of water, more than three-quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by water. Our Navy, the greatest in the world by far, is on patrol to ensure that sea lanes remain free and unimpeded. The world’s economy is dependent on this capability.