War of attrition brewing with Iran over Gulf oil routes

DEBKAfile Special Report January 26, 2012, 10:50 PM (GMT+02:00)

Military tensions in the Persian Gulf shot up again Thursday, Jan. 26, after Dubai police commander Gen. Dhahi Khalfan said on Al Arabiya television that an imminent Gulf war cannot be ruled out and first signs are already apparent. “The world will not let Iran block Hormuz but Tehran can narrow the strait to the maximum,” he said.

He echoed debkafile’s predictions that Iran will not shut down the Strait of Hormuz completely, but gradually cut down tanker traffic which carries 17 million barrels, or one-fifth of the world’s daily consumption, through the waterway. Our Iranian sources report that the rule of thumb Tehran has devised for confront sanctions is to respond to the tightening of an oil embargo by having the Revolutionary Guards gradually narrow the tankers’ shipping lanes through the strategic strait. This will progressively cut down the amount of oil reaching the markets.

Tehran will not go all the way and shut the channel down completely for fear of provoking a military showdown with the United States. But each time Washington manages to stop Iran supplying a given country, the IRGC will shut down another section of the strait.
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted on Jan. 8 that Iran has the capacity to block the Strait of Hormuz temporarily but the US would get it reopened within a short time.

Saudi Arabia and Dubai are skeptical about the ability of the American navy and Gulf forces to keep the Strait of Hormuz open at all times in the face of continuous Iranian attacks.

The prevailing view in Gulf capitals is that for the six months from February through July 1, when the European embargo on Iranian oil and the Iranian national bank freeze kick in, a war of attrition will unfold as Iran carries out sporadic strait closures, either by mining the waterway or firing missiles at tankers from unmarked speedboats.

These operations will push up the price of oil and so drum home to oil-dependent Asian and European governments the high cost to them of the alternate opening and closing of the Strait of Hormuz.

A Saudi official said Wednesday, Jan. 1, that Tehran’s threats to punish Riyadh for offering to make up the shortfall incurred from the oil embargo against Iran “could be seen by Saudi Arabia as an act of war.”

The Iranian threats followed the pledge made this week by Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi to raise daily production by up to 2.7 million barrels per day to supply the countries caught short of supplies from Iran.

However, the Saudi minister could not say how the oil would make its way out of the Persian Gulf to destination if the Strait of Hormuz were to be shuttered partially or fully.

debkafile’s military and Gulf sources report that Persian Gulf capitals are talking less these days about an outbreak of armed hostilities over Iran’s nuclear program and more about the coming war over the oil shipping routes out to market.

The Dubai general’s remarks Thursday about an imminent conflict referred not only to the flow of American reinforcements to the Gulf region but also to the new deployments of the armies of Gulf Cooperation Council states. They are moving into position in expectation of a military confrontation with Iran.

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