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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

The Hormuz Sideshow

Iran’s other weekend adventure may be more problematic


he Hormuz Sideshow

Not all of Tehran’s deranged signaling this weekend was over Israel. The Islamic Republic Guard Corp (IRGC) also hijacked a Portuguese-flagged container ship, MSC Aries, and is holding it hostage. The footage looked daring enough, with IRGC special forces repelling down from a helicopter, but the crew was 25 unarmed men, so maybe it wasn’t that daring. Tehran said that the ship had links to Israel – which is true enough if you squint: MSC leases the ship from Global Trading, which is affiliated with another company called Zodiac, which is partly owned by an Israeli citizen.


Of the Islamic Republics ill-advised adventures over the weekend, the MSC Aries was less dramatic, but may be the more problematic: Iran has been threatening to take the Strait of Hormuz hostage for years. And why not? Taking that tight crimp where the Persian Gulf empties into the Gulf of Oman is certainly within the narrow ability of what the Islamic Republic calls a navy.


The shooting fight with the Houthi’s in Yemen is to the west, in the Gulf of Aden and another strait called Bab al-Mandab, which takes us into the Red Sea. On the map (thank you, Google) Bab al-Mandab is circled in red, Hormuz is in Green – because you know – the Islamic Republic.


Now that we’ve gotten our bearings… Hormuz is, at its narrowest point, only 30 miles wide. Despite the states on either side of the Persian Gulf hating each other with the passion of a thousand eternities, the strait is reasonably well run. There is a two-mile wide “lane” on the Iranian side for inward traffic, another two-mile wide lane for outbound vessels and a two-mile wide buffer between them. Upstream of this choke point lies about 55% of the world’s known crude oil reserves.

 

The Play:

A year after Iran’s revolution in 1979, neighboring Iraq tried to invade, which resulted in a war over (among other things) the shared border on the Shatt al-Arab waterway. So this sort of thing is in Tehran’s playbook. As it was, the eight-year war was a draw and accomplished little but population control and enough distraction for the revolution to survive its infancy. Iran learned an important lesson: It’s easier to bankroll proxies to spread chaos abroad than the fight at home.


So far, the modus operandi has worked out well by threading a glaring loophole in the entire concept idea of collective security and the legal frame work of organizations like the United Nations. Prior to World War I, nations had relied on what was called “Balance of Power” and national interests. Simply being able to pull an adventure off gave you the right to do it. Brutal, but everyone knew where they stood. The legal framework provided by the UN is without a doubt a moral improvement, but there are a couple of yawning chasms in this logic:

 

1: Down here on Earth, as messy as it is, it's hard to get a dozen people outside of a cult to agree on what defines “collective security.” National interests are too strong and varied. A moral framework is even more slippery.

 

2: Once we get into legal frameworks, people start talking like lawyers and splitting hairs on technicalities and semantics. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a court action knows that no two lawyers can agree on the legal definition of anything.  The UN is a court without a bailiff to haul you off to prison.

 

Until last weekend, Iran had projected what power and chaos it could under the legalism of “plausible deniability” as they had not, technically, attacked anyone. Tehran was gaming the legal framework to get away what simple power says it could get away with. And the US retreat ahead of Russia aggression has only emboldened them. Now Iran has crossed the Rubicon by wading into a direct fight with Israel. While a close US ally, this is still a regional matter. The Strait of Hormuz is not.

 

Pro:

If your object is global chaos, then blocking the Strait of Hormuz would be the Red Sea crisis by an order of magnitude. Whereas some 12% of seaborne oil and gas goes through the Red Sea, if that route is cut off completely (and the crisis has still only dropped traffic load by 20%) you are looking at delays and increased shipping costs, something akin to the Covid supply disruptions created by the demand whiplash. But the oil will get there.


Block up the Strait of Hormuz and half the global oil supply can't get out – it won’t matter how much spare capacity the Gulf States have. Saudi Arabia has some pipeline capacity to move oil overland to terminals on the Red Sea - above the Bab al-Mandab’s current Houthi infestation – but that is both limited and expensive. The world is looking at serious delivery disruptions.


For its part, Iran has been constructing oil and gas shipping terminals to the east of the Strait, on the side of the Gulf of Oman. So were they to block the Persian Gulf at Hormuz, it wouldn’t do too much to harm to Iranian oil and gas exports keeping its economy afloat. The fact that prices will likely triple on the maneuver would be a boon to the regime in Tehran. So what's stopping them? Well there is one, existential-sized con looming.

 

Con:

Currently most of the world sees the Middle East as an Arab and Israeli problem – and the US would really like too. The danger for Tehran is that their “I’m not touching you” strategy of aggravating everyone has crossed over into a direct attack that required a response from around Western and Arab states. If Iran cripples the single commodity economies of the Gulf States – currently only dreaming of strangling Iran – they will be forced into a war that will not be about who Allah loves best.


Mind, the West and its leaders can be very silly, but cut off the energy in warm, comfy, rich and powerful democracies and all bets are off. Even if the US continues its retreat from the global stage, Europe will back the collation against Iran in their bid to replace Russian oil and gas. The West will be forced to quit the UN legal masturbation and sort the matter out by force. That would be a war the current Iranian regime simply couldn’t survive.


 

This article was originally published on 24 January 2024 as The Hormuz Maneuver and has been updated to reflect whatever fresh hell has moved the situation on the ground since then…

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