Iran's Foreign Ministry has said closure of the Strait of Hormuz, a key transit route for one-third of the world's tanker oil, is "not on the agenda."
Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, however, reiterated that the strait, a narrow stretch along Iran's Gulf shoreline, could be threatened if current rising tensions ever spilled over into war.
He accused the United States and Israel of threatening Iran so as to create "a climate of war...and in such a climate there is the possibility of some reactions."
Oil prices spiked on December 13 after a comment by an Iranian lawmaker appeared to suggest Iran may be looking at closing the Strait of Hormuz.
Parviz Sorouri, the head of the parliamentary national security committee, was quoted as saying that Iran "will soon hold a drill to close down the Strait of Hormuz."
An editorial in a hard-line newspaper with close ties to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meanwhile asked "why hasn't the Islamic Republic of Iran used its unchallengeable right" to counter international pressure by controlling traffic through the strait, a vital transit route that connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
The United States maintains a navy presence in the Persian Gulf to ensure it remains open.
compiled from agency reports
A hard-line Iranian newspaper considered to speak for Iran's supreme leader has come out in support of closing the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, the world's most important oil shipping lane, as punishment against countries that have sanctioned Tehran over its suspect nuclear program.
A December 13 editorial in "Kayhan" asks, "Why has the Islamic Republic of Iran not used its unchallengeable right till now, when there is a conspiracy of imposing sanctions against our country's oil?"
The piece comes a day after an Iranian lawmaker reportedly said the country's military is planning to hold drills to practice closing the vital shipping passage. The student news agency ISNA quoted deputy Parviz Sorouri as saying, "If the world wants to make the region insecure, we will make the world insecure."
Julian Lindley-French, a professor at the Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands, said Iran's intent appears clear.
"If this threat was carried out, in a sense -- denial of access through the Strait of Hormuz -- then [Iran] will be on a direct route of confrontation with the West and, indeed, many of the regional powers," he said.
That's because the strait -- which runs mainly along Iran, but also touches Oman and the United Arab Emirates -- is the only way for Persian Gulf oil to reach the open sea. An estimated 15.5 million barrels of oil are shipped through the strait every day -- one-third of all seaborne-traded oil, or 17 percent of the world's supply.
Any interruption in those shipments would send shockwaves through the world's already fragile economies. Already, news of Iran's unconfirmed threat has driven oil prices up $3, to more than $100 a barrel.
Theodore Karasik of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis said that's nothing compared to what would happen if Iran follows through on its threat.
"The consequences are that international shipping, in particular in terms of energy, would grind to a halt and this would put immense pressure on the economies all around the world. You'll see the price of oil skyrocket, probably up to $250 a barrel," Karasik said.
Iran says closing the waterway is justified because governments like the United States and Britain have imposed economic sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program, which they believe is a front for weapons development and which Tehran insists is peaceful. Iran's saber-rattling in the strait is aimed at heading off increasing efforts to curb its oil exports, and it says maritime law supports such a move.
But James Kraska, a professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College's Center for Naval Warfare Studies, says relevant law in this case is the UN's 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea.
"Under that convention, transit through international straits is guaranteed for all countries, so there would not be a legal basis to close the [Hormuz] Strait," he said. "And transit through the strait includes transit in the air, on the surface, as well as under the water. There's no requirement to seek the coastal states' permission, and there's no lawful basis for the coastal states to impede the transit."
Neither Iran nor the United States are among the treaty's 150 signatories, but Kraska says the convention is "customary law" that has been recognized for centuries. The waters in the strait have dual status, he says. They are technically Iranian territory, but they are also an international strait, and that gives foreign ships "a higher right of transit."
But let's say Iran blocks it anyway. Does it have the military capacity to then take on a naval power like the United States, which is certain to respond?
A 2008 report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Iran is "essentially in control of the world's oil lifeline" and has the capability to "wage unique asymmetric warfare against larger naval forces."
The institute's Michael Eisenstadt says blocking the strait is "something Iran has been preparing for for years."
"Iran has been investing for decades now on creating a naval guerrilla force which would have the capability of at least interfering with shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and perhaps closing it, at least temporarily, using a combination of mines, small boats, antiship cruise missiles, submarines -- both midget submarines as well as conventional submarines -- and most recently ballistic missiles," he said.
Karasik of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis agrees.
"Iran's specialty is asymmetric warfare," he said. "This is what they practice in their simulations and their exercises. This includes the use of small ships or boats, also suicide boats, underwater warfare capability, combined with the use of ballistic and cruise missiles. So they can pack a punch if they are able to get these weapons off the ground."
But like Karasik, Eisenstadt says if Iran does succeed in blocking the strait, it could only do so for about a week.
"The bottom line is, although the Iranians have been talking a long time about closing the Strait of Hormuz, they probably only have the ability to do so for several days. And once the United States Navy gets involved in ensuring freedom of navigation, I think it's very clear that the outcome will be, eventually, the destruction of the Iranian Navy and the reopening of the strait."
And that may be why the threat could very well remain only that.
Written by Heather Maher, with additional reporting from Antoine Blua and Abubakar Siddique
Copyright (c) 2011 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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