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Strait of Hormuz at Center of Int’l Chess Game.

Yaakov Katz

REUTERS/Fars News/Hamed Jafarnejad

Jan 25, 2012

A mere 54 kilometers wide at its narrowest point and dotted with tiny islands, the Strait of Hormuz has turned into something of a powder keg, just waiting to explode. The only question is who will light it on fire.

Linking the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean, the strait is used to transport about a fifth of the world’s oil on a daily basis, and the popular assessment within the IDF is that Iran – which borders the channel to the north and east – has the ability to shut it down if it so chooses.

Barak: Tougher sanctions needed for Iran to change course Iran says sanctions to fail, repeats Hormuz threat

The question then would be: What next?

The US has taken a clear approach – some Israelis wished this week that such American resolve would carry over to Iran’s nuclear program – claiming that it will use military force, if needed, to reopen the sea line.

Defense officials said Tuesday that while Iran will continue to threaten to close the strait, it most likely will not do so, in order to avoid providing US President Barack Obama with the justification to launch a strike against Iran and its nuclear facilities.

Already under attack by political opponents for his economic policies, Obama is unlikely to initiate a war with Iran that would lead to a spike in worldwide oil prices. While the price of gas in the US would significantly increase, his popularity would crash.

If, however, Iran closes the strait or attacks the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier that sailed through the channel and into the Persian Gulf on Sunday, Obama would receive the justification he needs to attack Iran, even in this election year.

While Iran has threatened to close the strait a number of times in recent years, the last time it actually tried to disrupt shipping was during its eight-year war with Iraq.

In 1988, toward the end of the war, an Iranian mine exploded under the USS Samuel B. Roberts, nearly sinking the frigate. This prompted the Reagan administration to launch Operation Praying Mantis, in which the US Navy carried out a series of retaliatory strikes against Iranian oil platforms and naval vessels.

In recent years, Iran has increased its arsenal of naval mines and is believed to be capable of lining the strait with them, a move that would prevent the flow of oil from the Gulf to the West.

In addition, Iran has a number of naval bases along its southern coast where it stations its submarines – including a number of Russian-made Kilo-class vessels – which it could use to attack oil tankers. With insurance premiums already at relatively high levels, the sinking of an oil tanker would be akin to closing the strait, since the price of oil would almost immediately skyrocket.

Israel is currently on the sidelines of the ongoing conflict being played out by Iran and the US. The oil embargo passed by the European Union on Monday was exactly as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu described – a move in the right direction – but still far from enough to motivate Israel to move its military option to the back burner.

Even if Israel believed the Iranian oil embargo on its own was enough to deter Iran, it would not explicitly say so, since Israel wants the world to continue escalating its actions against the regime in Tehran.

This has been Israel’s strategy since the end of last year, when in the run-up to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s damning report on Iran’s nuclear program, it began beating the war drums in an effort to get the world to enforce tougher sanctions.

So far, this strategy has worked, but the lingering question – whether the sanctions that have passed will suffice – will still take time to answer.

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