Un’interessante analisi della Stratfor
Global Market Brief: Flashback to the Tanker War
Aug 24, 2006
Iranian naval forces fired at a Romanian oil rig in the Persian Gulf on Aug. 23, in what Tehran referred to as a "commercial dispute." The rig belonged to Grup Servicii Petroliere (GSP), a Romanian drilling firm that Iran contracted for work near Kish Island. Disputes over the terms of that agreement led GSP to sneak its other rig out of Iranian waters under cover of night a week before. So, with the agreement unresolved, Iranian authorities first fired over, then fired at and finally boarded the remaining rig.
For those of us with something other than short-term memories, this event is far more than mildly unnerving. The last time the Iranians decided to take unilateral action against oil assets in the Persian Gulf was during the Tanker War, a subset of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which Iraq and Iran indiscriminately targeted each other’s shipping.
Furthermore, the GSP incident came earlier in the same day that Iran finally announced its response to a package of incentives the U.N. Security Council offered it more than two months ago. Coincidence or not (the latter being more likely), the boarding incident ensured that the spotlight was firmly focused on Tehran for its later announcement.
The Tanker War was not a happy time. Attacks resulted in damage to nearly 550 civilian vessels, witnessed Silkworm strikes on tankers in port in Kuwait and included unfortunate developments such as the Iraqi targeting of the USS Stark and the USS Vincennes’ downing a civilian Iranian jetliner.
But at its core the Tanker War was about oil, about disrupting crude flows out of the Persian Gulf. And though Iran’s military may be no match for the U.S. military in a conventional fight, Iran has just reminded the world that if push comes to shove it has more than a few tools it can use to interrupt oil supplies from the global oil patch.
The most vulnerable spot in the Persian Gulf oil network is the shipping lanes of the 34-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz. The entire traffic corridor is only six miles wide (an incoming lane and an outgoing lane, each two miles wide, plus a two-mile buffer zone between them). Even assuming that Iran did not implement active assets such as missiles, submarines or speedboats, simple mines could inflict heavy damage on shipping.
More than 90 percent of all oil exported from the Persian Gulf region — some 16 million barrels per day (bpd) — is exported via tanker through the Strait of Hormuz, with no alternatives easily available. Only about 3 million bpd of that total amount could be redirected should the Strait of Hormuz close for any period of time, with all of it using Saudi Arabia’s Petroline to reach the Red Sea port of Yanbu. Any cargos of liquefied natural gas, of which about 15 percent of the global total originates in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, would have no alternative shipping options.
Perhaps the greatest deterrent to Iran carrying out such an operation is that an effective mine-laying campaign would render the strait dangerous to navigation for tankers carrying Iranian oil as well — not something Tehran would implement lightly.
Beyond mines, Iran’s most significant threat to Gulf shipping would probably come from its truck-mobile anti-ship missiles. Iran generally keeps eight SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missile batteries stationed near Bandar-e Abbas, as well as at least 12 Silkworm anti-ship missile sites around Bandar-e Abbas and Kharg Island. Military ships’ defenses could easily shoot down the Silkworms, but not the hypersonic Sunburns, which have a 75-mile range. Any civilian shipping would be a sitting duck in a fight with either.
Iran also boasts three Tareq/Kilo-class diesel/electric submarines and several Ghadir-class midget subs (based on a North Korean design) that could be launched from Chabahar. Both ship types are capable of attacking shipping — or other energy assets in the Gulf — directly or indirectly by laying mines. Speedboats could also be used to harass tankers and terminals. Luckily, Iran’s air force would be of limited use since it has few anti-ship capabilities.
Unfortunately, the inelastic nature of crude oil markets means a full suspension of Persian Gulf oil supplies for as little as a few days could result in the doubling of oil prices.
Luckily, such forecasts depend not only on the robustness of Iranian attacks, but also on the effectiveness and speed of opposing military efforts, which would undoubtedly be more capable. The United States, for example, generally keeps an aircraft carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf at all times. Such a battle group by itself is more than a match for the combined naval and air assets of the Islamic republic.
Should Iran decide to pull the trigger, a U.S. military response would likely occur within hours (or less) and would involve airstrikes on Iranian Sunburn and Silkworm anti-ship missile sites preceded by attacks on Iranian command-and-control and air-defense targets. U.S. air patrols over the Gulf could deal with speedboat or aircraft threats with similar ease and speed. Any U.S. effort would likely target all Iranian air and naval assets along the entire Iranian shoreline and would not be limited to the Strait of Hormuz.
And it is highly likely that U.S. forces would not act alone. Should Iran decide to interfere with shipping, it would be directly targeting the lifeline of not only oil-importing states, but local oil exporters such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Their military forces have considerable experience in working with the United States, and those relationships would certainly be activated.
EU/CHINA: Data released by the European Commission on Aug. 22 indicates that, in the first five months of 2006, EU imports from China were up by 25 percent to $92 billion, compared with an 11 percent rise to $95 billion in imports from the United States. The European Union’s imports for the year from China are very likely to exceed imports from the United States for the first time.
CHILE/PERU: On Aug. 22, Chile and Peru signed free trade, labor, migration and investment deals, marking the warmest period in the countries’ relations in more than a century. Chile also rejoined the Community of Andean Nations (CAN) as an associate member, joining Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia in the South American commercial bloc. This renewed alliance — Chile left the CAN in 1976 — suggests Chile’s interest in looking within Latin America for future trade development. For the past generation Chile has largely kept its relations with its Latin American neighbors to a minimum.
CHILE: The strike at the Escondida copper mine in Chile is now in its third week, with workers pledging to continue their strike for another six weeks unless their demands are met. The Escondida strike began Aug. 7 and the mine’s operators — BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto Ltd. — closed the mine Aug. 18. The companies have said they will soon begin hiring replacement workers. The Chilean government is attempting to mediate the dispute and fears the Escondida strike is merely a prelude to labor action at other copper mines in the country. Escondida produces about 8 percent of the world’s copper, while Coldelco, the state-owned copper producer, is the world’s largest supplier.
NIGERIA: Peter Esele, president of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, said Aug. 23 that Nigeria’s oil workers’ unions — his and the blue-collar National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers — will vote Aug. 30 on a motion to pull all of their members out of the Niger Delta over safety fears. Previous Nigerian labor actions have resulted in sabotage and kidnapping, but this development — while likely to be nonviolent — would still slow Nigerian output.
EU: European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said Aug. 23 that nuclear power is the Continent’s only realistic choice for electricity generation because it can provide the biggest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while shielding Europe from geopolitical complications. However, he also noted that talk of a nuclear resurgence is premature until the public adopts a friendlier stance on the topic and the issue of nuclear waste disposal is solved. Nuclear power plants account for about 32 percent of the electricity produced in the European Union.
VENEZUELA/CHINA: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is visiting China Aug. 23-24 and has said that China has agreed to take delivery of 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Venezuelan crude by 2011, up from 14,000 bpd in 2005. Chavez is attempting to sever economic relations with the United States by shifting the country’s oil exports elsewhere. But as members of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted in the China Daily during Chavez’s visit, "China does not have the refining capabilities to process Venezuelan crude and the distance is too far." For China to absorb such a large amount of Venezuela’s heavy, sour, distant crude, someone would first have to spend billions to upgrade China’s refineries, and then subsidize the transport of Venezuelan crude across the Pacific. Other Venezuelan goals — such as a desire to purchase 18 tankers and 12 drilling rigs from Chinese builders — are more realistic.
INDIA: The New Delhi-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology said Aug. 23 it will blockade trucks supplying Coca-Cola and Pepsi for five days starting Nov. 21 as part of its "Quit India" campaign targeting the global giants. The NGO asserts the two drinks contain unacceptably high levels of pesticides. Though national health authorities dispute the claims, the states of Gujarat, Karnataka (Bangalore), Andhra Pradesh (Hyderabad), Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have all enacted partial bans on the soft drinks, while Kerala has enacted a blanket ban.