Tensions mount over Iranian threat to block key oil route
Published 29/12/2011 | 05:00
Tensions were mounting between Iran and the United States last night over threats by Iran to block the world's most important oil shipping route.
Iran's navy chief yesterday claimed that closing the Strait of Hormuz to ships would be "really easy".
However, the US military issued a statement saying it would not allow any disruption of shipping traffic.
"Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated," said a US military spokesman.
Iran, at loggerheads with the West over its nuclear programme, is threatening to stop the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf if sanctions are imposed on its crude exports.
"Closing the Strait of Hormuz for Iran's armed forces is really easy . . . or as Iranians say, it will be easier than drinking a glass of water," Iran's navy chief Habibollah Sayyari told Iran's English-language Press TV yesterday.
Analysts say that Iran could potentially cause havoc in the Strait of Hormuz, a strip of water separating Oman and Iran, which connects the biggest Gulf oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. At its narrowest point, it is 21 miles across.
But its navy would be no match for the firepower of the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet which consists of 20-plus ships supported by combat aircraft.
A spokesman for the Fifth Fleet said it "maintains a robust presence in the region to deter destabilising activities," without providing further details.
A British Foreign Office spokesman called the Iranian threat "rhetoric," saying: "Iranian politicians regularly use this type of rhetoric to distract attention from the real issue of their nuclear programme."
Tension has increased between Iran and the West after EU foreign ministers decided three weeks ago to tighten sanctions on the world's number five crude exporter, but left open the idea of an embargo on Iranian oil.
The West accuses Iran of seeking a nuclear bomb; Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
The Iranian threat pushed up international oil prices on Tuesday although they slipped back on Wednesday.
"The threat by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz supported the oil market yesterday, but the effect is fading today as they cannot stop the flow for a longer period due to the amount of US hardware in the area," said Thorbjoern bak Jensen, an oil analyst with Global Risk Management.
The Strait of Hormuz is "the world's most important oil chokepoint," according to the US Department of Energy.
About 40pc of all traded oil leaves the Gulf region through the strategic waterway.