Strait of Hormuz, world's most important oil artery, is under pressure, may intensify US-Iran showdown

After the two attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf a month apart, Iran's downing of a US 'spy' drone on Thursday marked the latest escalation between Tehran and Washington.

Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard said it shot the drone down Thursday morning when it entered Iranian airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in southern Iran's Hormozgan province. Kouhmobarak is some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) southeast of Tehran and is close to the Strait of Hormuz, world’s most strategic waterways for oil.

The channel, which is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, is the only way to move oil from the Persian Gulf to the world's oceans. And that's why the 13 June attack on two tankers — one carrying oil and the other transporting a cargo of chemicals — in the nearby Gulf of Oman is such a concern.

 Strait of Hormuz, worlds most important oil artery, is under pressure, may intensify US-Iran showdown

Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz. Reuters

The 39-kilometre strait is the only route to the open ocean for over one-sixth of global oil production and one-third of the world's liquified natural gas (LNG).

What is the Strait of Hormuz?

The Strait of Hormuz is a v-shaped body of water connecting the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and offering an exit into the Arabian Sea (and the Indian Ocean), with Iran to its north and the United Arab Emirates and Oman to the south. It’s about 96 miles (154 kilometers) long and 21 miles wide, with the shipping lanes in each direction just two miles wide. Its shallow depth makes ships vulnerable to mines, and the proximity to land leaves large tankers open to attack from shore-based missiles, Bloomberg reported.

Role in global shipping

The strait is the world’s most important waterway for global trade in crude oil. A vital corridor connecting the petroleum-rich states of West Asia with markets in Asia, Europe and North America, the strait is the passage for 35 percent of the world’s seaborne oil, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Tankers hauling about 17.5 million barrels, which equals to about 40 percent of all the crude traded internationally, pass through it daily.

About 22.5 million barrels of oil per day passed through the strait on average since the start of 2018, according to Vortexa, an energy analytics firm, CNN reported. That's roughly 24 percent of daily global oil production, and nearly 30 percent of oil moving over the world's oceans.

A history of tension and conflict

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the ideological army of the Islamic republic, controls naval operations in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

Tehran has always been a critique of the presence of foreign powers in the region, notably the US Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain, and has threatened to close the strait if it comes under attack.

Oil transit was disrupted in 1984 during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), when more than 500 vessels were destroyed or damaged in a "Tanker War".

In 1988, an Iran Air flight from Tehran to Dubai, via Bandar Abbas, was shot down by missiles fired from a US Navy cruiser patrolling the strait. All 290 people on board were killed.

In April, 2015, the Revolutionary Guard boarded and took into custody a container ship flying the flag of the Marshall Islands. The following month Revolutionary Guard sailors fired warning shots in an apparent bid to intercept a Singapore-flagged cargo ship in the Persian Gulf.

Dim hopes for talks

Trump, who had warned of wiping out North Korea before welcoming its leader Kim Jong-un to talks, has sent out repeated feelers to Iran in hopes of similarly jump-starting negotiations, diplomats say.

But Iran has rebuffed the overtures, refusing to negotiate with an administration that has gloated over the country's sanctions-triggered recession and walked away from a denuclearisation deal brokered after exhaustive talks under former president Barack Obama.

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, which looks for peaceful ways out of conflict, doubted Tehran would take Trump's offer of talks seriously "as long as he holds a gun to Iran's head".

Any US military response to the drone incident would trigger further retaliation, he said.

"But a disproportionate response will be an even graver mistake, as it could prompt a conflict that can easily spiral out of control," he said.

Vaez said the two countries could still find ways to step back from the brink including by establishing a hotline between their militaries.

Trump's Democratic rivals say Iran's actions were entirely predictable once Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord, with which UN inspectors say Tehran was complying.

"We're saying to Iran — we negotiated, you agreed, but we're breaking the deal and now we want to negotiate again," said Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley.

"People don't tend to want to negotiate with folks who have broken the previous deal," he said on the Senate floor, warning that "we stand on the precipice of potential war".

With inputs from AFP

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Updated Date: Jun 21, 2019 20:52:02 IST