On November 5th, a series of US sanctions are set to resume against Iran, but the Iranian government may have a recourse in kind up its sleeve. While the sanctions were conceived mostly to prevent Iranian nuclear aspirations, they are not the only strategic capabilities that the US and Israel should be concerned about. Iran has the breakout potential to not only blockade maritime trade in the strait of Hormuz, but increasingly in Bab-el Mandeb as well. The utilization of this double blockade strategy could result in mutually assured economic destruction. It’s essential that American and Israeli leaders in the business, political and military spheres understand Iran’s economic redlines, the importance and vulnerability of Bab-el Mandeb and the Hormuz, as well as Iran’s past and current military capabilities. Understanding these, hopefully they will be better equipped to counter this Iranian strategic option.
Earlier in his presidency, Donald Trump canceled the controversial “Iran Deal”, which sought to limit the Iranian nuclear program. Instead of the multilateral pact, the US sought a strategy of economic pressure to push Tehran to submit to its denuclearization prescriptions. Since the restoration of sanctions, Iran has suffered economic difficulties, resulting in open protests across the country against the regime. Recently President Trump announced, with a Twitter Game of Thrones meme, the coming full reimplementation of sanctions against Iran. The Rial has already suffered in the weeks prior, and will likely continue to do so. While the strategy pursued by the US is non-violent, like President Erdogan of Turkey, the Mullahs may see it as “economic war”. The sanctions campaign may soon affect Iranian oil exports, a well established Iranian red line. Energy products are a large part of the Iranian economy. Several months ago, in response to the threat of the hindrance of Persian oil movement, President Hassan Rouhani and an Iranian military commander threatened to use military assets to blockade all oil traffic through the strait of Hormuz. This is consistent with past policy, as in 2011 then Vice-President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi issued an identical threat in response to the same red line. What has changed since 2011 is Iran’s access to a whole other strait.
Bab el-Mandeb is a narrow strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, and further the Indian Ocean. It separates the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, on the coasts of Yemen, and Eritrea and Djibouti. It’s a high traffic and important shipping choke point. 3.3 million barrels of oil and petroleum, much from Saudi Arabia, ship through every day, in addition to bulk and container shipping. The Somali pirate problem that plagued the strait and area cost the global economy billions of dollars each year. The cost that Iran could extract by blocking both this route and the Hormuz would be far greater.
Iranian officials have bragged how Iran controls four Arab capitals; Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Sana’a. Iran has proxy forces, influence, or direct control over these political centers. The last of these cities, Sana’a, is the capital of Yemen. There Iran arms, funds and influences the militant forces of the Houthi, Yemeni Shiites that are at war with southern Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s coalition. It’s their coastal proximity to Bab el-Mandeb that is of greater global concern. The pirates caused financial damages with small fleets of trawlers and skiffs, and manpower using old Kalashnikovs and RPG-7s. The Houthis are greater in number and organization. They are better armed, not just with Iranian small arms, but with anti-tank missiles, mortars and ballistic rockets. If the Houthi turned these arms towards the strait, they would cause more damage than the Somalis, with less physical presence. However, considering Iranian history in the strait of Hormuz, speed boats and naval mines in the strait are not out of the question.
In the Iran-Iraq war, Iran used speed boats and mines to engage Iraqi supply lines. In 1988, it also participated in a short battle against the US after Iran mined a US frigate. Iran has grown more militarily capable since then. Its naval doctrine calls not only for guerilla warfare in Hormuz using fast craft, commandos and mines, but occupation of key islands. With these elements, Iran could close or disrupt Hormuz traffic, which is greater than Bab el-Mandeb, host to more than 17 million barrels of oil each day. This is 35-40% of the maritime oil trade. Using the Houthi and its own naval forces, Iran could cut Saudi and Gulf Arab maritime trade down to a trickle, and force global shippers to make expensive reroutes. Even a Nasser-like false claim of mining the straits would force ships to reroute. Each vessel, besides its cargo, is worth millions, far too dear for shipping companies to risk.
A reduction in traffic in the Red Sea would greatly affect southern maritime trade into Israel. Though not Israel’s chief port, Eilat still sees millions of tons of cargo pass through it each year. A partial blockade of this port would not only halt this traffic, but harm the development investments that the state of Israel has been fostering. On the American end, even increased energy independence would not prevent oil prices from rising due to reduced Gulf oil activity. Higher energy prices would hurt Americans in the wallet, and act as a revenge for the sanctions restored by the Trump administration. Sunni-Arab states that export oil would have their economic mainstays non-transportable. With no oil or container trade in the Red Sea, Egypt would see the Suez empty.
Considering its past military policy and current capabilities, Iran possess the option of blockading major trade routes and severely damaging the world’s economy. The straits remain vulnerable targets, and Iran might be inclined to lash out at them for vengeance. Both the US and Israel need to be wary of this strategic option. The US Navy already has vessels patrolling the high traffic zone through Bab el-Mandeb to protect ships from pirates. They may need to realign their threat horizons. Israel in turn may need to consider how it can help the US and the gulf states prepare for the Iranian maritime threat. Otherwise, despite any attempts to avoid open conflict, sanctions will not be a prelude to “economic war”, but an unforeseen military conflagration.