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December 28, 2011

Why Does Iran Think It Can Get Away with a Blockade?

"If they impose sanctions on Iran's oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz," says Iran's first vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, as quoted in The New York Times. According to the same article, about a fifth of the world's oil flows through the Straits. Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and UAE all border on the Persian Gulf which would be bottled up by the threatened Iranian blockade.

So why does Iran think it can get away with that massive threat to both its neighbors and the Western economies dependent on this flow of oil. Let me count the reasons:

  1. The US and Saudi Arabia have done nothing but grumble after uncovering an Iranian plot to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
  2. The world has, of yet, taken no effective action against Iran's growing nuclear program.
  3. The US once allowed Iran to hold its embassy personnel hostage for longer than a year.
  4. Bands of ragtag Somali pirates continue hijacking ships – including oil tankers – despite patrols by NATO and other navies.
  5. We continue to allow the payment of ransom for hijacked ships instead of recapturing them by force.
  6. Some NATO countries (but not the US) play catch and release with pirates.
  7. Despite some US progress towards independence from Middle East oil, the President can't bring himself to approve the XL Pipeline, accelerate drilling offshore in the lower 48 or in Alaska, or accelerate safe recovery of our vast natural gas resources (subsidies aren't needed, just intelligent regulation).
  8. "Mr. Obama, his aides acknowledge, has no interest in seeing energy prices rise significantly at a moment of national economic weakness or as he intensifies his bid for re-election — a vulnerability the Iranians fully understand." –from the NYT article.

The article also says "In recent interviews, Obama administration officials have said that the United States has developed a plan to keep the strait open in the event of a crisis." I hope that's true. Presumably US and NATO warships will accompany tankers through the Straits. Hopefully Iran would back off in that case. But what if they miscalculate? We can't afford to be bluffing. The Straits is narrow and would be effectively blocked for a while by any wreckage. It can be reached by missiles fired from deep in Iran. The West would win eventually but better to avoid the dangers of Iranian miscalculation.

Here are a few suggestions for avoiding miscalculation:

  1. Have NATO's navies finish their efforts against Somali pirates in order to concentrate on patrol in and near the Straits. Finishing means ending piracy by forbidding payment of further ransom and freeing the ships now being held hostage by force immediately. Until the pirates realize they have no options and that it is too dangerous for them to harm hostages, freeing these ships will probably involve some small loss of life; I don't say that lightly. But there will be more lives lost if hostage-taking continues to be rewarded. And many more lives lost if we have to go to war with Iran to keep the Straits open because Iranians confuse our forbearance towards pirates with weakness.
  2. Put NATO ships on conspicuous station in or near the Straits; don't allow Iranian ships to come near them; and put Iran on notice that missile tests during this crisis they've provoked are too dangerous to allow and so all known launch sites will be destroyed in the event of any launch.
  3. Take the steps approved by the Senate in a 100-0 vote to cut off companies which do business with Iran's Central Bank (this makes it very hard for Iran to sell its oil).
  4. Approve the XL Pipeline and other projects which make North American oil and natural gas readily available.
  5. Republican presidential contenders, who have generally taken a hard line on Iran, should announce that they will NOT politically attack the President when oil prices rise as a result of these tensions so long as we are taking speedy steps towards energy independence.

If we convince Iran that it can't threaten us with blockade, they may even realize they have to back off on nuclear weapons. On the other hand, if they think their threats deterred action against their oil exports, imagine what their threats'll be once they have a couple of nuclear bombs.

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