In Dire Straits: Strategic Gulf Shipping Routes under Threat

Photo: ISNA via AP

On June 13 last, the US Fifth Fleet – stationed in Manama, Bahrain – received two different danger alerts – one at 6.12 and the other at 7.00 a.m. – by two ships operating in the Gulf of Oman.

The first ship, namely Kokuka Courageous, is owned by Japan and flies the Panamanian flag, while the second one, namely Front Altair, is owned by Norway but flies the Marshall Islands’ flag.

They both carried goods, especially oil, to Asia and, most likely, also to Japan. The Kokuka Courageous had 21 sailors and was primarily directed to Singapore, while the Front Altair, with 23 sailors on board, was heading to Taiwan.

The attack was immediately followed by the complete evacuation of the crew and by a strong explosion, with subsequent fires on board. No member of the Front Altair crew was hurt and only one member of the Kokuka Courageous crew was injured as a result of the attack.

The explosion was probably caused by an underwater mine or even a surface vehicle.

Both ships were 32 kilometers – equivalent to 20 nautical miles – away from the Iranian port of Jask, a military base that – as the Iranian decision-makers maintain – was designed to control the eastern flank of the Strait of Hormuz.

On May 12 last, another maritime incident had taken place near the port of Fujairah, in the United Arab Emirates, and the Emir’s local authorities immediately blamed some “state entity” for the incident, without providing further explicit details about the nature of said “entity.”

After its withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal on April 8 last, the United States indicated the Pasdaran, namely the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), in addition to 39 companies linked to the Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company (GPIC), an organization linked to the Pasdaran.

It should also be noted that in 2012, the US identified the Pasdaran General, Gholamreza Baghbani, as responsible for drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Iran and to other countries.

The United States also believes that the Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company (GPIC) currently produces 40% of all Iranian petrochemicals and as much as 50% of all Iranian exports.

Obviously, there is no clear evidence of the role played by Iran in maritime attacks on commercial vessels, while the Yemenite Houthi systematically attack – with artillery and missiles – both the territory and the military and civilian networks of Saudi Arabia.

What is certain is that Iran cannot afford a real war in the Straits, neither with the USA nor even with a minor US ally. Such a conflict would destroy it economically and militarily.

Hence, the strategic rationality of the Houthi’s “hybrid war” against Saudi Arabia and, above all, against the Saudi oil distribution networks.

Obviously, even if the perpetrators of these attacks remain covert, such attacks can only continue and expand.

The slow destabilization of the region will therefore be inevitable, above all on the part of Iran, which sees the Houthi guerrilla warfare as the only possible means for curbing the Saudi economic and military expansion.

In fact, approximately 40% of all the oil transported by sea transit through the Strait of Hormuz. Therefore, the constant insecurity of the Hormuz route will entail a considerable increase in the transport cost and hence in the related oil barrel price. It will also entail the use of military ships, at least by the countries most interested in the naval freedom of the region and in the maintenance of the “innocent passage.”

An economic and military limit that few subjects can sustain for a short lapse of time and very few ones for a medium period of time.

It is intuitive that other Shi’ite and Iranian fires will be set beyond the Bab-el-Mandeb region, probably towards the East Mediterranean or Syrian coasts.

It should also be noted that – before the four ships attacked outside the port of Fujairah over time – there was no report from any intelligence agency or any armed forces in the region.

Although these are operations that inevitably leave many traces and signs on the ground, no one had perceived or interpreted them.

Following the attacks, there were some indications regarding Iran’s mobilization of some Shi’ite militias to attack some US military units on the Syrian-Iraqi border, but absolutely nothing in relation to the Strait of Hormuz.

Hence, we can infer that there is a very advanced Iranian or pro-Iranian Elint network, which is also capable of diverting and masking its own signals.

It can also be inferred that the Iranian intelligence has the ability – even from the Human Intelligence (Humint) viewpoint – to cover up its operations and targets very well for a long period of time.

On a technical level, there is the obvious ability – always shown by Iran – to detonate the explosive charges in a specific order and only at the most appropriate time – once again without the enemy sensors and operators realizing it, which is a sign of very high specialization.

The same military professionalism we saw with the missile attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad, on May 19 last, when some Katyusha missiles exploded near the building, albeit without damaging it.

The same happened with the Iranian missiles targeted at Mount Hermon, on June 1 last, which did not hit Israel’s military positions, but showed considerable shooting accuracy.

Hence, we witnessed – in rapid succession – the attack on ships off the port of Fujairah, as well as an operation against Saudi pipelines, which were quickly repaired, and finally the attacks against the Kokuka Courageous and the Front Altair.

In the case of the Japanese ship, after the attack, Iranian soldiers on ships were noticed removing unexploded mines from the sides. In particular, all the witnesses on the ships reported that the attack had been carried out by “flying objects.”

In all the incidents that have occurred so far, the bursts on the bulkheads have been such that the weapons must certainly have been placed by mini-submarines, by effective saboteurs or even by small fast ships.

It should be recalled, once again, that all this happened without the US, British, French or other countries’ fleets being able to identify the operations in time. The same holds true for the reporting or local intelligence networks.

In all likelihood, none of the weapons used by Iran missed the target.

Furthermore, no intelligence source to date has noticed that Iran has weapons capable of hitting with a margin of error of 1-1.5 meter at the most.

This happened when, on June 12 last, the Houthi launched the new Iranian Soumar missile on the Saudi airport of Abha, where it directly hit and destroyed the control tower.

Obviously, Israel’s main fear is that the Soumar missile ends up in Hezbollah’s standard armaments, right on the border between the Jewish State and Lebanon.

The Soumar missile is supposed to derive from the Russian cruise missile Kh-55, considering that many of them were illegally sold by Ukraine to Iran in 2005. It has a range of 2,000-3,000 kilometers.

Moreover, on the strategic level, it is almost impossible to bypass the Persian Gulf.

Only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pipelines that can transport oil out of the Persian Gulf and also have additional land networks, capable of avoiding the transit through the Strait of Hormuz.

Hence, the strategic points that are controlled from the Persian-Hormuz-Yemen triangle are the following: the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, more accessible for the Hormuz attacks, as well as Hormuz and the Strait of Suez.

As early as July 2018 Saudi Arabia had declared the temporary suspension of its oil transport from Bab-el-Mandeb, but with two possible alternative options: the transit of crude oil through the East-West Pipeline – the so-called “Petroline,” which connects the fields and deposits of the Eastern region to the Yambu terminal on the Red Sea – or the Saudi oil circumnavigation of Africa to reach Europe and the United States.

Hence, the issue of oil security does not regard only Saudi Arabia: as much as 8-10% of the total world oil supplies, equivalent to approximately five million barrels per day, transits through Bab-el-Mandeb.

Thirty percent of it transits also through Hormuz.

Therefore, both Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz are already interdependent at strategic and military levels and hence a single arc of crisis has been created in the connection between the Red Sea, Suez, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian Ocean.

Furthermore, for Saudi Arabia, the real problem is not even oil, but rather rescuing maritime and commercial infrastructure.

Not only Saudi oil, but also all the infrastructural development of the Saudi Kingdom, passes through Bab-el-Mandeb.

Hence, without freedom of passage through Bab-el-Mandeb, no Saudi economic diversification is possible, according to the Vision 2030 plan.

Furthermore, with a view to bypassing Hormuz, Saudi Arabia is investing in the West coast, from Jizan – right on the border with the Houthi – up to Duba, near the Egyptian Sinai.

Not to mention NEOM, the city of the future between Aqaba and the Red Sea, with an estimated cost of USD 500 billion.

Or the Red Sea Project, having mainly a tourist nature, or even the King Abdullah Economic City, again on the Red Sea.

In short, in the arc of crisis enucleated by the Houthi, there is the future of economic differentiation, which is vital for Saudi Arabia.

The United Arab Emirates also has an interest in permanently stopping the Houthi operations.

In fact, coincidentally, only the Emirate of Fujairah is beyond the Strait, but all the commercial and military policies of the Emirates go directly to the Indian Ocean, between southern Yemen (Aden, the island of Socotra, Mukalla) and the Horn of Africa with Assab and Berbera – not to mention all the small ports that are already the focus of Chinese investment with the Belt and Road Initiative.

Why, however, despite the repeated attacks that have been lasting at least since 2017, has Saudi Arabia just stopped using Bab-el-Mandeb?

A primary possibility is that Saudi Arabia seeks to internationalize the whole issue of oil port security, so as to gain support not only from the USA, but also from other global and regional actors.

Probably the Russian Federation?

Russia is not very interested in the Bab-el-Mandeb area for transporting its oil and gas, but it may be attentive to the future of oil barrel prices, which depend also on the safety and security of Middle East choke points.

Hence, it is equally very credible that the US intelligence has recently got the news that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have already completed the project of a massive attack against some Saudi oil networks.

On June 17 last, the White House already brought together the Heads of the US intelligence agencies and of the Armed Forces to prepare a military and operational response to face this threat.

On the operational level, the United States has already mobilized 6,000 military for ensuring safe commercial transit in the Gulf region, with the inevitable corollary of destroyers, Patriot launchers, and air support.

In principle, for the time being, approximately 1,000 additional soldiers have been authorized by the US Presidency, but currently it is mainly an issue of a terrestrial oil base, not of the Saudi ships’ transit through Bab-el Mandeb and beyond.

Hence this is the current strategic link.

However, we must not forget the axis between Saleh, a former Yemeni President, the Houthi, Iran, and the anti-Sunni insurgency on the Arabian Peninsula.