Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Just How Big a Threat to the Shipping Industry Would an Iranian Blockade of Hormuz Be?

As Sabres Rattle the Chances of a Confrontation Rise (includes Naval Attack Video) A Special Report by: Dan Shingleton
Shipping News Feature

THE GULF – Tensions which have been raised in the Gulf region since the start of naval exercises by elements of the Iranian military on the 24th of December have been ratcheted up further today by comments made by a senior commander of the Iranian navy. Speaking to the Iranian English-language service Press TV Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said that “…closing the Strait of Hormuz is very easy for Iranian naval forces,” adding that “Iran has comprehensive control over the strategic water way.”

His comments follow threats yesterday from Iran's Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi that should further sanctions proposed by the USA be imposed on Iranian trade then "…not even a drop of oil will be allowed through the Strait of Hormuz."

Though the comments have already been dismissed by the British Foreign Office as “rhetoric” there is no doubt that shipping lines with vessels that transit the area should be alerted to the fact that whilst the West continues to allege that Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons and the Iranians continue to deny this then the very real possibility exists that conflict at one level or another may break out in the Gulf. As such it is prudent to consider how much danger Iran’s forces could potentially pose to shipping in the area.

As always such an assessment is difficult, particularly as information on Iranian military forces is sketchy at best and descriptions of indigenous military equipment capability – inevitably from local sources – are always “of a world-class standard”, a description that is highly unlikely to match reality.

There can be no doubt however that the Iranian military’s ability to interdict the Straits of Hormuz should not be underestimated and that even escorted civilian vessels would be under threat from surface and air-launched anti-ship missiles – a weapon that the Iranians are believed to make indigenously and have supplied in the past to Hamas and Hezbollah.

The particular danger from these is that naval vessels equipped with electronic counter measures are generally (though not always) protected from these sorts of weapons, which have shown an alarming ability to lock onto civilian vessels after bypassing protected naval vessels if not shot down. Such an occurrence is thought to have caused the sinking of the container ship Atlantic Conveyor during the Falklands Conflict. Undoubtedly defence contractors that supply jamming and chaff equipment to the world’s navies may soon start exploring the potential of a civilian market for their wares.

Another real danger posed is the use of mines by the Iranians. This is a long time favourite for those seeking to deny waterways as they are easy to use and indiscriminate. The Iranians used them in their last attempts to stop commerce in the Gulf when mines were used in 1988 to bring pressure to bear on Arab states supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. However, the consequence of this action was damage to the US frigate Samuel B. Roberts and heavy retaliation against Iranian facilities and naval vessels from an irate America.

It seems practically inevitable that both of the afore-mentioned tactics – as well as any attack by Iranian fleet or submarine units - would incur some sort of military retaliation either from the US or from the Arab states across the Gulf (whose own tankers and those of their customers would, after all, be the target) and therefore such measures would indicate a rather desperate move by the Iranian government.

This opens the possibility of a further threat which ship owners should be wary of as it has the advantages of deniability by the Iranian government and is a comparatively cheap and expendable option. Since the ‘Tanker War’ of the eighties the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ha s developed a large force of armed speedboats – nicknamed “boghammers” – which specialise in attacking merchant vessels (Video).

What makes the threat to shipping from these units particularly severe is the independent nature of their command structure, with decision devolved to a regional level. The autonomous nature of the IRCG means that vessels in the Gulf could be liable to attack either by an independent commander who is simply looking to strike out in retaliation to any further sanctions, or else by a unit under orders from above but which can be then be accused of independent action.

Regardless, the threat posed is significant. Though the boats are broadly similar to those used by pirates in Somalia and along the west coast of Africa the tactics, weapons and intentions of any such attacker would be much more violent, with the aim being the infliction of maximum casualties and damage on a target. With this in mind it is doubtful that ship security measures that have evolved to deal with pirate threats would be effective, the level of firepower necessary to repel such an attack would have to be considerable – likely only obtainable with either embarked military personnel or very close escort by properly equipped naval escorts.

However, any action by the Iranians that looks to blockade the Gulf runs the risk of triggering conflict with the USA and its allies, a threat that despite bellicose statements must give the Iranian political and military leadership pause as an attack on Iran wouldn’t be an occupation like Iraq, more an action to smash Iran’s military power, or least a punitive punishment. And no one does that quite as efficiently as the Americans.

So another possibly grim scenario faces those who send their container vessels and bulk freighters and tankers through what are already dangerous waters. Inevitably as and when the situation evolves the very least it will mean is increased security and insurance costs, with the potential for a much higher price if things deteriorate.

Photo: Iranian fast attack craft are much better armed than their Somali counterparts.