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Strait of Hormuz: Tension between Iran and USA

Course Name- Geopolitics

In general, the literature on the Strait of Hormuz can be divided into
two groups: the first relates to the Persian Gulf, and the second deals
with Irans foreign policy

In this paper, I will address the rising geopolitics of the Strait of

Hormuz which dictates Iranian Foreign Policy and later I will analyze
the strategy of Iran regarding the geographical location of the Strait.



 The Geo-Political Nature of the Strait of Hormuz

 Strait of Hormuz and Global oil politics

 American-Iranian Tensions in the Persian Gulf

 Geography is against the Pentagon: U.S. Naval Strength has limits in the

Strait of Hormuz

 The Geopolitics of the Strait of Hormuz: A determinant of Iranian Foreign





Big powers from distant past have been trying to take control over world politics. Middle East is

the most discussed epicenter of present world politics due to the regions geo strategic as well

as geo-economic importance. In the existing world order, industrialization has invariably

become the reliable way to sustain development and natural resources are obviously needed

for industrialization. Middle East is full of natural treasures and this has made big powers

greedy over that region. For that reason the Strait of Hormuz has become vital transit point for

global energy resources

After years of U.S. threats, Iran is taking steps which suggest that is both willing and capable of

closing the Strait of Hormuz. On December 24, 2011 Iran started its Velayat-90 naval drills in

and around the Strait of Hormuz and extending from the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman (Oman

Sea) to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.

Since the conduct of these drills, there has been a growing war of words between Washington

and Tehran. Nothing the Obama Administration or the Pentagon have done or said so far,

however, has deterred Tehran from continuing its naval drills.

The Geo-Political Nature of the Strait of Hormuz

Besides the fact that Strait of Hormuz is a vital transit point for global energy resources and a

strategic chokepoint, two additional issues should be addressed in regards to the Strait of

Hormuz and its relationship to Iran. The first concerns the geography of the Strait of Hormuz.

The second pertains to the role of Iran in co-managing the strategic strait in accordance with

international law and its sovereign national rights

The maritime traffic that goes through the Strait of Hormuz has always been in contact with

Iranian naval forces, which are predominantly composed of the Iranian Regular Force Navy and

the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy. In fact, Iranian naval forces monitor and police the Strait

of Hormuz along with the Sultanate of Oman via the Omani enclave of Musandam. More

importantly, to transit through the Strait of Hormuz all maritime traffic, including the U.S. Navy,

must sail through Iranian territorial waters. Almost all entrances into the Persian Gulf are made

through Iranian waters and most exits are through Omani waters.

Iran allows foreign ships to use its territorial waters in good faith and on the basis of Part III of

the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas maritime transit passage provisions that

stipulate that vessels are free to sail through the Strait of Hormuz and similar bodies of water

on the basis of speedy and continuous navigation between an open port and the high seas.

Although Tehran in custom follows the navigation practices of the Law of the Sea, Tehran is not

legally bound by them. Like Washington, Tehran signed this international treaty, but never

ratified it.

Strait of Hormuz and Global oil politics

Over the past century, modern society has developed a near selfish thirst for oil and after 100

years of searching and experimenting there is still no reliable replacement. No need to mention

about the importance of Oil in such a modern era of industrialization. It may not be wrong if we


 Oil is Power

 Oil is Universal

 Oil is Unique

 Oil is Rare

First, I dont just mean power as energy. I mean power that provides the mechanisms of both

national and international politics. Those who can consistently get their hands on the most oil,

at the best prices will rule!

Second, it is a staple of our very survival! Oil plays a major role in practically every aspect of our

lives from technology and transportation to the very food and business necessary for our


Third, while there may be various substitute energy supplies available for some industrial tasks

such as creating electricity, there is currently no reasonable alternative for oil when it comes to


Fourth, oil is a gradually depleting fuel that is vanishing at an alarming rate. While there are still

an undetermined number of rich, unexploited oil deposits left to be discovered around the

globe, reasonable arguments will continue as to just how quickly the worlds oil supply might

run out.

The Strait of Hormuz is the narrow sea passage that connects the Persian Gulf to the Oman Sea.

This is only sea passage for the export of oil from the Persian Gulf states. Recently, due to the

revival of the possibility of new sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which may

include sanctions against the purchase of oil and the sale of petroleum products to Iran, the

issue of Irans reactions, especially the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, has been turn into a hot


Some Iranian officials claim that according to the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Law of the

Sea, Iran can suspend the passage from the Strait of Hormuz for the countries that impose

sanction against the Iranian oil and gas imports and exports. This is a piece of legal, political,

military and practical aspects of this issue.

American-Iranian Tensions in the Persian Gulf: In recent developments, the Iranian

Majlis (Parliament) is re-evaluating the use of Iranian waters at the Strait of Hormuz by foreign


Legislation is being proposed to block any foreign warships from being able to use Iranian

territorial waters to navigate through the Strait of Hormuz without Iranian permission; the

Iranian Parliaments National Security and Foreign Policy Committee is currently studying

legislation which would establish an official Iranian posture. The latter would hinge upon

Iranian strategic interests and national security.

On December 30, 2011, the U.S.S. John C. Stennis carrier passed through the area where Iran

was conducting its naval drills. The Commander of the Iranian Regular Forces, Major-General

Ataollah Salehi, advised the U.S.S. John C. Stennis and other U.S. Navy vessels not to return to

the Persian Gulf while Iran was doing its drills, saying that Iran is not in the habit of repeating a

warning twice. Shortly after the stern Iranian warning to Washington, the Pentagons press

secretary responded by making a statement saying: No one in this government seeks

confrontation [with Iran] over the Strait of Hormuz. Its important to lower the temperature.1


In an actual scenario of military conflict with Iran, it is very likely that U.S. aircraft carriers would

actually operate from outside of the Persian Gulf and from the southern Gulf of Oman and the

Arabian Sea. Unless the missile systems that Washington is developing in the petro-sheikhdoms

of the southern Persian Gulf are operational, the deployment of large U.S. warships in the

Persian Gulf would be unlikely. The reasons for this are tied to geographic realities and the

defensive capabilities of Iran.

Geography is against the Pentagon: U.S. Naval Strength has limits in the Strait of

Hormuz: U.S. naval strength, which includes the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, has

primacy over all the other navies and maritime forces in the world. Its deep sea or oceanic

capabilities are unparalleled and unmatched by any other naval power. Primacy does not mean

invincibility. U.S. naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are nonetheless


Despite its might and shear strength, geography literally works against U.S. naval power in the

Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. The relative narrowness of the Persian Gulf makes it like

a channel, at least in a strategic and military context. Figuratively speaking, the aircraft carriers

and warships of the U.S. are confined to narrow waters or are closed in within the coastal

waters of the Persian Gulf.

This is where the Iranian militarys advanced missile capabilities come into play. The Iranian

missile and torpedo arsenal would make short work of U.S. naval assets in the waters of the

Persian Gulf where U.S. vessels are constricted. This is why the U.S. has been busily erecting a

missile shield system in the Persian Gulf amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries

in the last few years.

Even the small Iranian patrol boats in the Persian Gulf, which appear pitiable and insignificant

against a U.S. aircraft carrier or destroyer, threaten U.S. warships. Looks can be deceiving; these

Iranian patrol boats can easily launch a barrage of missiles that could significantly damage and

effectively sink large U.S. warships. Iranian small patrol boats are also hardly detectable and

hard to target.

The entire world knows the importance of the Strait of Hormuz and Washington and its allies

are very well aware that the Iranians can militarily close it for a significant period of time. This is

why the U.S. has been working with the GCC countries Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait,

Oman, and the U.A.E. to re-route their oil through pipelines bypassing the Strait of Hormuz

and channeling GCC oil directly to the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, or Mediterranean Sea.

Washington has also been pushing Iraq to seek alternative routes in talks with Turkey, Jordan,

and Saudi Arabia.

Both Israel and Turkey have also been very interested in this strategic project. Ankara has had

discussions with Qatar about setting up an oil terminal that would reach Turkey via Iraq. The

Turkish government has attempted to get Iraq to link its southern oil fields, like Iraqs northern

oil fields, to the transit routes running through Turkey. This is all tied to Turkeys visions of

being an energy corridor and important lynchpin of transit.

The aims of re-routing oil away from the Persian Gulf would remove an important element of

strategic leverage Iran has against Washington and its allies. It would effectively reduce the

importance of the Strait of Hormuz. It could very well be a prerequisite to war preparations and

a war led by the United States against Tehran and its allies.

It is within this framework that the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline or the Hashan-Fujairah Oil

Pipeline is being fostered by the United Arab Emirates to bypass the maritime route in the

Persian Gulf going through the Strait of Hormuz. The project design was put together in 2006,

the contract was issued in 2007, and construction was started in 2008. This pipeline goes

straight from Abdu Dhabi to the port of Fujairah on the shore of the Gulf of Oman in the

Arabian Sea.

In other words, it will give oil exports from the U.A.E. direct access to the Indian Ocean. It has

openly been presented as a means to ensure energy security by bypassing Hormuz and

attempting to avoid the Iranian military. Along with the construction of this pipeline, the

erection of a strategic oil reservoir at Fujairah was also envisaged to also maintain the flow of

oil to the international market should the Persian Gulf be closed off.

The Geopolitics of the Strait of Hormuz: A dterminant of Iranina Foreign Policy

Geopolitics studies the impact of geographical factors on governments policies. Governments

make policy with due attention. to their own geographical considerations. As Napoleon said,

The policies of governments are inherent in their geography (Duverger, 1972: 66) . In his

words, if you want to understand the policy of a country, look at its map2

Geographical factors are multiple, including the geographical location. The geographical

location of any country has an important role in its foreign policy. In Spykmans view, the

geographical location of a country essentially corresponds to its foreign policy.

The geopolitics of the Strait of Hormuz is one of the main and continuous factors in the Iran-

Western world relations. Iran and Oman are respectively located on the north and south coasts

of the Strait. Their geographical proximity via the Strait of Hormuz, Omans relative remoteness

The Geopolitics of the Strait of Hormuz and the Iran-Oman Relations. Asghar Jafari-Valdani. 04 March 2012

from the Arab world and the geopolitical and geostrategic importance of the Strait have

required Iran and Oman to maintain a good, neighborly relationship with one another. On that

basis, and despite the fact that Oman has always had close relations with the United States and

recently developed its ties with Israel, its friendly relationship with Iran has largely remained


From a geographic point of view, a strait is a narrow channel that joins two larger adjacent

bodies of water in a natural way of Hormuz is a maritime channel that joins the Persian Gulf to

the Sea of Oman. Iran is located on the north shores of the Strait, and Oman on its south

shores. Straits can separate two adjacent landmasses, as the Strait of Dover, which separate

France. In that case, the separation is political rather than geographical. Straits can connect

adjacent landmasses as well. Although the Strait of Hormuz separates Iran and Oman, it is at

the same time a channel connecting them to each other major impact on their relationship.

Being located adjacent to straits is one of these specific geographical positions. Straits are

important from economic, military and strategic points of view as they serve to connect

regions. For this reason, straits have been at the center of major powers attention ever since

ancient times. Admiral Fisher and Philip Colomb refer to the Straits of Hormuz, Malacca, Dover,

Gibraltar, Suez, Singapore, and Good Hope as keys to the world (Friedman, 1988: 57).

The tensions over the Strait of Hormuz and in the Persian Gulf are just one front in a dangerous

multi-front regional cold war between Tehran and Washington in the broader Middle East.

Since 2001, the Pentagon has also been restructuring its military to wage unconventional wars

with enemies like Iran. Nonetheless, geography has always worked against the Pentagon and

the U.S. has not found a solution for its naval dilemma in the Persian Gulf. Instead of a

conventional war, Washington has had to resort to waging a covert, economic, and diplomatic

war against Iran.

The Government of Islamic Republic of Iran has claimed time and again in the past that if it is

put in serious danger it will close the Strait of Hormuz. Kayhan Newspaper, which is close to

power circles in Iran, has reported in the past: closing the Strait of Hormuz will seriously stop

the flow of oil to the industrial states and they will face intolerable conditions.

Closing the Hormuz is a two sided weapon. Oil prices over a hundred dollars will have serious

consequences for the international economy. However, Iran as an oil exporting country will be

in a difficult situation if the export of well is stopped. Irans government derives about 80% of

its revenues and most of its foreign currency from oil sales. Iran is not only relying on the oil

revenues but also it is an importer of oil products. Iran does not have the capacity to produce

enough gasoline for internal consumption, and it has to import a major part of its needs from

other countries.

However, the claims about the Strait of Hormuz, has several aspects:

Political Aspect

The Strait of Hormuz is export channel for 40 percent of the oil production of entire area. This

means that closing the strait is declaration of war to other exporting countries like Saudi Arabia,

Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, UAE, and Bahrain and also to the importing states including Japan, and

western states that depend heavily on the oil from the area.

Military Aspect

From military point of view, it requires great effort to close the strait, the narrowest part of

which is 34 miles wide. The Iranian forces have conducted several maneuvers aimed at closing

the Strait of Hormuz during a time of crisis, and the Western forces in the region( in

cooperation with some littoral countries or independently) have conducted several maneuvers

aimed at deterring such plans. Although Iran may have enough firepower in the region to

create problems, its military power is no match for powerful forces present in the region. The

military forces of the Persian Gulf littoral states have been increasing in the last several years,

and at the moment, even a small country like the UAE has more powerful air force than Iran.

The American navy and other forces are heavily present in the region. In fact, in April 1988, US

Navy, in retaliation against the mining of sea lanes by Iran (during the Tanker War), destroyed

almost half of the Iranian Navy in several hours in Operation Praying Mantis. The French forces

have a newly-established base in the area very close to the Strait of Hormuz and their main

mission is to keep the Strait open.

Legal Aspect

It should be noted that any action by Iran to stop the flow of oil from Persian Gulf states by

blocking the Strait of Hormuz, attacking the shipping lines, trying to blow up pipelines or the

production and refinery facilities of the other countries in the region, will be considered a

serious violation of international laws. At the same time it is a serious challenge to the interests

of the major oil importing sates especially the USA.

Iran has signed the 1982 UN convention on the Law of the Sea, but has not ratified it. However,

Iran is committed to the convention, and considers the transit passage as only for those who

have ratified it (US has not). So in the case of these countries Iran still believes in Innocent

Passage. But Innocent Passage in the Straits used for international navigation is different.

One of the important subjects discussed during the various sessions of the UN third conference

on the law of the sea was the regime of passage from the international strait such the Hormuz

strait. The 1982 convention created and approved a new notion for passing from these straits

which is called transit passage, and it gives more rights and freedoms to the passing ships

than the previous customary regime of passage from these strait.

According to the declaration that Iran has issued at the time of signing the 1982 UN Convention

on the Law of the Sea, as far as the transit passage was concerned was that the new rights were

based on the contract and therefore they extended only to those who accept all commitments

coming from the 1982 convention, and that it did not extend to those who are not the

members. The Iranian concern in this case, contrary to the well-known idea that it was against

the big naval countries, was also coming from its conflicts with the Arab neighboring countries

that tried to undermine the rights of coastal states of such waterways as much as possible. The

Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) had added fuel to this kind of thinking.

Iran believes that the passage of naval ships of other states from territorial waters is dependent

on prior notification and by observing innocent passage requirements. Some other countries

that have the same policy are Egypt, Oman and Yemen.

The foreign policy makers of Iranian government have tried to argue that Iran has the right to

close the Strait if the other countries ban its oil export and Imports. They claim: If Tehran is

due to be deprived of its oil exports or faces paralyzing sanctions, the Strait of Hormuz will not

be secure to tankers and ships carrying commercial goods or weapons to and from its enemies

Supertankers carry about 90 percent of Persian Gulf oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz

each day, satisfying some 20 percent of worldwide demand. For maximum safety, the

International Maritime Organization suggests that the huge, difficult-to-maneuver ships travel

within a designated channel while in the strait, but that channel is only a few miles wide. With

such a narrow passage, many experts fear that an attacker (read: the Iranian military) could

"close the strait."

The Iranians appreciate the concern: Explicit threats to the strait are a key component of their

foreign policy. Alternate routes could only carry a fraction of the oil, so a disruption could cause

a major price spike that would severely threaten the global economy.

But the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Regardless of how we assess the credibility of

Iran's threats, we should also assess Iran's capabilities. Iranian military exercises apparently

emphasize three weapons in the strait: small suicide boats, mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, and

sophisticated sea mines. Using these tools, it would be hard for Iran to disrupt the flow of oil.


Human history and all of its tangential aspects -- including foreign policy -- is inseparable from

geography. Geography dictates foreign policy, diplomacy and patterns. It especially dictates

trade patterns and lays groundwork for military doctrine. Thus the importance to U.S. foreign

policy of Iran's most recent saber rattling -- threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, which is

vital to oil transportation. Most analysts see Iran's rhetoric as simply bluster. Iran is unlikely to

risk the economic chaos a war over the strait could cause. Iran would also likely lose much of its

navy in such a war.

Nevertheless, U.S. policy makers and military planners keep a wary eye on events around the

strait for there is no denying the importance of such transportation gateways.


1. Duverger, M. 1972. the Principles of Political Science, (in Persian), trans.,

Ketabhaee Jeebi LTD, Tehran.

2. Friedman, Norman Friedman. 1988. The U. S. Maritime Strategy, London.

3. Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option. Matthew Kroenigb

January/February 2012

4. Foreign Affairs: Published by the Council of Foreign Relations.

5. Why Iran Wants to Attack the United States. by MATTHEW LEVITT | OCTOBER 29, 2012

6. Iran Foreign Policy. Institute For Strategic Research Journals (ISR)