Iran Ties Itself in Knots Over Threat to Block Maritime Oil Route

Being loudmouth is not unprecedented in the case of Iranian leaders. Over the decades they have, in all seriousness, threatened to destroy America, to annex the Kingdom of Bahrain claiming it to be their territory, to develop nuclear weapons, to set Middle East on fire … The list is long and the resolves daring if not outlandish.

The latest threat has surfaced on the website of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and was repeated in a roundabout manner at a Press conference in Switzerland. It comes in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s inflexible stance on his decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran agreed in the days of his predecessor Barack Obama and in the face of stiff opposition from at least three of the other five signatories to the pact – Germany, France and the UK.

Make no mistake. Iran is a grave threat. The Iranian President has threatened that his country would disrupt all oil shipments from the Gulf countries if America presses ahead with its goal of forcing all countries to stop buying Iranian oil. The deadline set by Trump is November 4, coincidentally [or intentionally?] the date on which, in 1979, student followers of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 90 people hostage.

There will be no exemptions, Trump has warned, and sent an emissary to India only last week to nudge the government there in view of the fact that during the previous round of sanctions India had baulked at such a suggestion and had continued to buy Iranian oil.

At the Bern Press conference Rouhani was quoted as saying: “Assuming that Iran could become the only oil producer unable to export its oil is a wrong assumption … The United States will never be able to cut Iran’s oil revenues.”

The Iranian threat of disruption would translate into blocking the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow egress for oil tankers between the Omani territory on the one side and the Iranian coast on the other. That’s the only passage for the tankers that carry oil to the world at large at least from Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates [UAE] and Qatar. Saudi Arabia uses the route only partially since it has seaboard facing Egypt as well while the UAE can use the Fujairah port that opens on to the Arabian Sea, circumventing the Strait of Hormuz.

But the implementation of the threat is going to be no easy task for Rouhani. For one, the Americans and the British have a very strong naval presence in the Arabian Gulf, especially in Bahrain and Qatar. Any misadventure by Iran could spark a major imbroglio and Tehran is – and needs to be – well aware of the combined might of the two superpowers’ fleets. Moreover, America has close ties with all the Arab states facing Iran.

More discomfiting for Rouhani should be the fact that much as he would like to stop oil from the Arab states flowing out of the Gulf, it is in its interest to ensure the Iraqi oil tankers find a safe passage since it has directly [and indirectly through its subversive outfits] much at stake in Iraq.

But the worst and most disconcerting end result of the implementation of the Rouhani threat would be that Qatar, the new-found friend on the Arab side of the Gulf littoral states, would be left completely high and dry since it has burnt its bridges with its neighbours and can expect no comfort by way of any land routes to transport its gas.

In such a scenario – where it has to protect the interests of two countries in addition to its own – how Rouhani would carry out its threat is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it’s a ruse to put up a brave face and make the remaining five signatories to the deal to sit up, take notice and push for resolving the Trump conundrum.

Brij Sharma
Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don't usually hear from the middle east country.