Iran Can Disrupt Key Waterway, But For How Long? Iran's threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz have caused oil markets to gyrate, but few think Iran can really deliver on its threat. Also, Gulf states are reassured by promises of international military assistance.

Iran Can Disrupt Key Waterway, But For How Long?

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And we end this hour with Iran. Tensions were already high before Israeli officials in India and the Republic of Georgia narrowly escaped assassination attempts this week. Israel blames Iran for the attacks. We'll hear more about that in just a minute.

BLOCK: But first, to Iran's repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. Twenty percent of the world's oil tankers pass through the strait and Tehran has threatened to shut it down in response to pressure from the West over its nuclear program.

NPR's Peter Kenyon visited several Gulf Arab states that depend on the strait to ship their oil and he reports they're surprisingly calm.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Strait of Hormuz, just 34 miles wide at its narrowest point between Iran and Oman, has been called the world's most strategic waterway. Iran has made numerous threats to close the strait in recent decades, causing crude oil markets to gyrate, but generating surprisingly little activity among Gulf oil producers to find alternative routes to get their oil to market.

One of the few efforts has been made by the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi has completed construction of a new pipeline, which bypasses the strait. But local energy reporters say there's less there than meets the eye. Technical problems have delayed use of the line by several months, for one thing. And even when fully operational, the pipeline won't even cover Abu Dhabi's daily production, let alone anyone else's.

ADAL MIRZA: It's roughly half. The capacity is approximately one and a half million barrels a day and they're producing at about 2.5 million barrels a day.

KENYON: Adal Mirza covers energy for MEED, the Middle East Economic Digest. He says, of the major Gulf oil producers, only the UAE and Saudi Arabia have pipeline alternatives to shipping oil through the Strait of Hormuz. Mirza says, by converting a petroleum product's pipeline to carry crude across the desert, the Saudis could make up a fraction of their current production should traffic in the strait be disrupted.

MIRZA: I mean, you have Saudi Arabia, which is producing - has a production capacity of about twelve and a half million barrels a day. They can only transport a maximum of five million barrels a day from the east coast to the Gulf of Suez. Other countries, such as Qatar and Kuwait, would be entirely blocked out, as would Iraq.

KENYON: So why have world oil markets, despite some jittery moments, remained relatively calm about the worst-case scenario for the Strait of Hormuz? Analysts say it's simple. Few people believe Iran can actually deliver on its threat.

Mustafa Alani with the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center says there are several factors weighing against Iran's ability to close the strait. Hormuz is classified as an international waterway by the U.N., meaning international military action to keep it open would not only be permitted, but expected. And as a practical matter, Alani says Iran has already demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq War that it can't keep the strait closed.

MUSTAFA ALANI: The Iranian tried to close Hormuz eight years and they done everything possible, from mining to the air force to navy to the speed boat, tried to close Hormuz and to prevent the export of oil. They failed.

KENYON: U.S. and European military officials have also said they don't believe Iran can close the strait for any length of time. Some analysts, however, say a temporary closure may be possible.

THEODORE KARASIK: We estimate that the strait could only be closed for maybe 10 days, maximum 15, depending on what transpires.

KENYON: Theodore Karasik with the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai says despite what he calls a robust international military presence near the strait, Iran could cause problems with asymmetrical attacks.

KARASIK: It's something to worry about because of the mines issue, I think, and the fact that suicide boats are very difficult to stop. So, if they really want to make a statement for a week, then they will make a statement for a week.

KENYON: But Karasik agrees with other analysts that Iran could not keep the strait closed.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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