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US says Iran plans Gulf attacks in retaliation for sanctions

25 July 2012

US government officials have told the Wall Street Journal that Iran has developed plans to disrupt international oil trade through attacks on Gulf oil platforms, pipelines and tankers. The Persian state is said to be seeking new ways to retaliate against sanctions that have cut its oil exports by 12.5% and to counter Israel's threats to bomb Iran's nuclear sites.

Oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz would be vulnerable in the event of hostilities between Iran and other global and regional powers
Oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz would be vulnerable in the event of hostilities between Iran and other global and regional powers

This could take the form of attacks against facilities both inside and outside the Arabian Gulf, led by Iran’s elite forces or external proxies, officials said.

Using new intelligence, the US military has conducted internal war-games and exercises to simulate how the international community could respond to an attack on an oil tanker, refinery or another part of the energy-transportation system, the Journal said.

"It wouldn't be surprising to anyone if the Iranian regime was weighing a list of possible responses in the Gulf," a US official said. "This doesn't mean they would do something, as there are significant costs the Iranians would have to consider, but this is something to keep an eye on."

Tehran has targeted international oil supplies in the past, most notably during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. In 1987, the US began patrolling the Gulf and Iran began mining the waters to slow warships and halt Gulf state oil exports.

Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping lane through which 40% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments passes, in response to US-led oil sanctions.

According to Reuters, more than half of Iran’s parliament last week backed a draft law to block the shipping channel to oil tankers, showing the strength of political support for the move.

The US has increased its military presence in the Strait in an attempt to deter Iran from carrying out its threat. Measures include deploying a fleet of robot subs to prevent Iran from using mines, increasing the number of mine sweeping vessels in the region and sending a squadron of F-22 stealth fighters to a UAE air base.

The UAE recently began its first exports from an overland pipeline that bypasses the Strait of Hormuz and may go some way to offsetting any disturbance to the regions’ water-borne oil trade. The 400-kilometre Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline carries oil from fields in the UAE’s western desert to Fujairah and will have total capacity of 1.5 million bpd of crude.

Meanwhile Kayhan Barzegar, Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, gave an indication of Iranian thinking on Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government “Power and Policy” blog, quoted by The Nation.

“While Iran’s economic interests dictate that it not close the Strait of Hormuz, it is likely that if Iran’s economic security is endangered, it will thus react because Iran’s energy exports are directly related to the country’s national security and the government’s legitimacy.

“Iran’s reaction would be more focused on “defensive deterrence”-taking a “measured” reaction when confronting those states which have acted against Iran’s interests with sanctions. Iran had previously conducted this strategy during the Tanker War in the 1980s. In terms of conducting an asymmetric war, Iran is in a much more powerful position for conducting such operations today.”

He said that outside of all-out war, Iran had a number of possibilities to increase pressure on its regional opponents, including the use of  “smart control,” which might include inspection of transiting ships, which would increase oil side-costs such as insurance risk. Another lever might include spreading political-security instability by challenging the pillars of the Arab regimes’ legitimacy.

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