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The Strait of Hormuz: Potential for Conflict

Author: Christopher Hoch

Case Number: 45
Case Mnemonic:Strait of Hormuz
Case Name: Hormuz


1. Abstract

The Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea and has been the focus of potential conflict between competing regional and international powers. The straits are strategically important and represents one of the nine major water chokepoints in the world, being only 50km wide at its shortest point. For this reason it is of great strategic importance, as it is the only sea route where oil from Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, as well as most of the United Arab Emirates can be transported from. Much of this oil is transported to Japan, Western Europe, and the United States who have a vital interest in securing free passage through this strait. The potential for conflict over these straits and the resources that traverse them are great. The anti-western regimes of Iran and Iraq oppose the United States presence within the Persian Gulf and the security support that the US provides for many of the Gulf states. If war were to break out in this region oil would certainly be used as a weapon, and the enviornmental consequences could be disastrous. There would be serious threats to local water supplies, marine life, and the economies of these nations. Containing conflict within this vital area has been a goal of all of the actors involved, and so far they have been successful in avoiding a major incident.

2. Description

The Straits in Global Context


The Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea and represents one of the world's most important oil chokepoints with approximately 14 million barrels per day(b/d) of oil being exported. The countries of Oman, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates border the straits and each plays a large part in fostering a secure enviornment around the Straits. Oman and the UAE are supported by the United States who guarantees their security by keeping a naval carrier task force in the Persian Gulf area. The US also supplies them with most of their arms purchases including advanced fighter aircraft like the F-15 and F-16.. Iran, however, is an Islamic regime opposed to the United States presence in the middle of Arab and Muslim territory. It is also believed by the US and its allies within the Gulf that Iran harbors hegemonic aspirations concerning the Straits and the large amount of oil that passes through it. Iran has acquired submarines form Russia, Chinese missile boats and anti-ship missiles, and sea mines capable of blockading the Straits. Therefore, the potential for conflict over this vital waterway remains an area of concern for all of the parties involved.

Oil is the world's primary source of energy and will continue to be for the forseeable future. The world's demand for oil will continue to rise as developing nations, such as China, and industrialized ones increase their use of oil. The future, free access to this waterway is vital due to the fact that 66 percent of the world's oil reserves reside in the Arabian Gulf region and presently there are few options for exporting this oil out of the region beside the Straits. Only two pipelines exist in Saudi Arabia capable of transporting oil. It is on this vital waterway then that the US receives 12% of its oil and Western Europe and Japan get 25 to 66% of their oil respectively. In addition 15% of the world's commerce is routed through Hormuz and any aggression by Iran or any other nation would disrupt a large portion of the world's economy.
As the need for energy grows several factors could effect the availability of energy supplies from this region. First among these is the competition among neighboring countries over existing, new, or anticipated energy resources which may heighten tensions. Secondly, increased concentration of oil production within this region and the decreasing capacity of OPEC to control pricing and production quotas may threaten the stability of some of the regional economies who rely solely on oil revenues. Among the primary actors bordering the Strait(Oman, UAE, Iran) there are also regional problems, the primary one being the dispute over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunb islands at the mouth of the Straits. Iran seized the three islands in November 1971 with military forces and continued mediation, by such nations as Oman, has so far failed to bring about a peaceful settlement. Most of the Arab community backs the UAE, and while hostilities have not yet erupted, the potential that an armed conflict could erupt are quite possible. This area then represents a very crucial yet potentially unstable region in the world community. Since the Strait of Hormuz represents a majotr oil transit point if a war were to erupt the enviornmental damage caused by oil spills would be catastrophic to the natural marine life as well as the economies of the nations wihtin this region.

The Consequences of Conflict

The Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf that it connects to is a diverse marine enviornment. Many species of fish, turtles, and marine vegetation, some on the CITES endangered list, call this fragile enviornment home. Regional instability as well as international tensions threaten this enviornment with disastrous consequences. The effects of a major oil spill especially in the Straits, which is the only entrance to the Persian Gulf, could permanently damage this ecosystem irrecoverably. Regional actors as well as international powers like the US, Japan, and Western Europe have a stake in maintaining stability and by doing so in protecting the enviornment. While the main focus is on oil, protection of this area also helps preserve crucial fishing areas. In addition the Gulf is a major source of drinking water for the millions of inhabitants of this region through the use of desalinization plants. Any contamination of this water would represent a majot threat to the well being of the local populations.
While oil represents a major potential threat to the enviornmant it has already affected the area significantly. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's two million barrels were spilled into the Gulf. This has affected some of the 3,650 species, 50 of which are on the IUCN Red List, as well as critical marine habitats such as coastal marshes, mudflats, coral reefs, and seagrass beds found throughout the Gulf. Species include various kinds of whales, dolphins, turtles, and birds each affected by oil in different ways. Their habitats such as seagrass beds and coral reefs can be destroyed if exposed to large amounts of pollution. This would undoubtedly affect the human population, especially concerning fish, shrimp, and plankton hatcheries, directly influencing the capacity of the Gulf to provide food. Both human and animal populations would be affected by any long term damage to the enviornment.

The Straits of Hormuz and the waters of the Gulf are home to a variety of species(some pictured above) including green and hawksbill turtles, dugongs, finless porpoise, gold lipped pearl oysters, and a medley of birds including the Dalmatian pelican, pygmy cormorant, and the lesser white footed goose. Their fragile habitats also exist within these waters and any change to them would severely affect the population size of some of these species. If a major enviornmental disaster would occur it could kill vital sea beds which dugongs, turtles, fish, and shrimp rely on for food. If this food source were to be diminished it would have an impact on the 1 to 2 million birds who winter or migrate in this region every year as well as other animals that rely on these species for food. If the marine enviornment were to be affected food for the human population would also be affected. If these waters were to be polluted the drinking water for many of this regions nations would be effected. One can see then the negative cyclical impact on affecting the marine enviornment. Stability and prevention of pollution then is vital not only to marine life, but also to the millions of inhabitants who rely on these waters for their food and livelihood.

Methods of Prevention

The key to preventing an ecological disaster is to diffuse regional and international tensions that may cause an enviornmental mishap. There are several methods that could be utilized for this purpose. The first and perhaps the most simple is to find an alternate transportation route for oil to get out of the Gulf. This would significantly reduce tensions over the Strait of Hormuz as its global, strategic signifigance would be reduced. The most obvious route for Western powers would be a pipeline through Saudi Arabia, a nation friendly to the US. Any new pipelines, like the two already in existence, would traverse Saudi Arabia and exit at the Red Sea where it could be loaded onto tankers. While this would reduce the threat of the Straits as a chokepoint, it is unpopular with many of the Gulf states. If a pipeline were built it would benefit Saudi Arabia, forcing other nations to pay transit fees for their oil to be shipped via pipeline. Most nations are content with the staus quo until the time when a serious threat may force them to seek other options.
A second method of preventing a regional conflict is for the front-line states, mainly the UAE, Oman, and Iran to settle their disputes. Oman has historically sought good relations with the UAE and has even tried to mediate its island dispute with Iran. Oman has also had a pragmatic policy toward Iran maintaining good relations with this sometimes "radical" state despite the fact many of its Gulf neighbors have severed relations, a primary example being the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988. the UAE's only immediate dispute is over the three siezed islands which it maintains are legally theirs. The country has been willing to negotiate with Iran over their return to calm any Iranian security fears. Iran has long sought to be a power within the region dating back to the days of the Shah(1955-1979). It's hegemonic ambitions have forced its neighbors to spend heavily on defense and to rely on the US for security. A reduction in forces by the US would cetainly calm Iranian fears of a US intervention, but with the present atmosphere in the region this is not a short term option. These three countries then must find areas of mutual interest from which to build confidence so that disputes, such as the one over Abu Musa and the Tunbs can be settled. Until these disputes can be settled and relations are improved among these countries as well as internationally the possibility of conflict over the Straits of Hormuz looms.
The ecological balance of the region would be seriously harmed if any type of conflict were to take place. A large and diverse group of species thrives within these waters and any type of conflict would threaten their chance of survival. Human populations too are threatened as witnessed when a barge carrying diesel fuel ran aground spilling fuel into the water. This forced a desalinization plant in the UAE to shut down proving how vulnerable and important the enviornment and its natural resources are. An ecological disaster in this region would have far reaching consequences affecting vital coastal and marine enviornments as well as human populations that rely on them to provide food and resources. Migratory patterns of birds, whales, and other animals would be affected. Some species like the green and hawksbill turtle might be killed off completley if their habitats are overrun by an oil spill. Many fish populations would be reduced if an oil spill were to occur. This would adversely affect the human population in the area. The UAE, Oman, and Iran are not self-sufficient in food production and any deterioration in the marine enviornment would squeeze these countries food supply further. It is important then for conflict prevention in this region not only among the regional states, but also by the international community who relies on this regions oil to fuel its societies. The Strait of Hormuz then is an area where both human and animal needs are protected if conflict is avoided. If the struggle for resources and power results in conflict it may destroy the marine enviornment as well as the nations who rely on it for resources. If it is protected it continues to be an area of diversity that can support the region as it grows.

3. Duration: 1950's to Present

4. Location

a. Continent: Asia

b. Region: MidEast Asia

5. Actors: Oman, Iran, UAE, and US

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Pollution Sea

7. Type of Habitat: Ocean

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Commons v Commons
Any interdiction of the oil supply or a disruption of this supply would affect the international community. Not only would regional states be affected economically and enviornmentally, internationally commerce would be severely affected as alternate energy sources would have to be exploited or usage cut back. Any aggressive move therefore by a regional or international actor would have serious consequences for all the other actors involved. Either causing enviornmental, economic, or military damage.

Combinations of Act and Harm Sites

Site of Act Site of Harm Example
Commons U.A.E. Oil Spill in Hormuz Straits

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type and Level of Conflict: Interstate

10. Level of Conflict: War Threat

11. Fatality Level: 0

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Enviornment-Conflict Link and Dynamic: Indirect

Causal Diagram
The causal loop pictured above shows the cyclical impact of conflict within the Strait of Hormuz. By competing for increased resources and power each side can continue to expand its economy and military. As each side does this, however, the chance for conflict increases. As conflict increases the chance for species and habitat loss becomes greater. An outside factor, US intervention, also effects the cycle. While it hurts the Iranian military and helps the UAE and Oman it increases the chance for conflict. This also affects the likelihood that species and habitats will be effected.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Multilateral

14. Outcome of Dispute: Yield

Currently none of the critical issues has been dealt with adequately. Regional disputes, such as the island dispute between the UAE and Iran, while under negotiation still exist. Alternate routes of transporting oil out of this region, via Saudi Arabia have been proposed, but so far none have been acted on. International tension, especially between the US and Iran have yet to subside and normalization of relations is not a sort term prospect. In the near term, at least for the next twenty years, the possibility of conflict remains.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related Cases

2. Spratly ICE case

4.Kuwait case

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

1. "Three UAE Islands" URL:

2. "Hormuz and Musandam" URL:

3. "The Quest for Middle East Oil" URL:

4. "Protect Gulf Enviornment" URL:

5. "Diesal Spill Threatens UAE Water Supply" URL: http://

6. "Gulf War Impact on Marine Enviornment and Species" URL:

7. "In SEarch of an Oasis" URL:

8. "Why not Build a Pipeline to Bypass Starits of Hormuz" URL: 7-6.html

9. "Oil Dependence in the Persian Gulf" URL:

10. "USIA: US Policy in the Gulf" URL: http://www.usis.usemb.sclregional/nea/gulfsec/gcbpelle.htm

11. "US sees Iran as Greatest Future Threat" URL:

12. "Oman: A Unique Foreign Policy" URL:

13. "World Oil Transit Chokepoints" URL:

14. "Straits of Hormuz" URL: http://i~cias/e.o/hormuz.htm

15. "Persian Gulf" URL: http://i~cias/e.o/pers_glf.htm

16. "United Arab Emirates" URL:

Relevant Literature

1. Armajani, Yahya and Thomas Ricks. Middle East Past and Present. Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1986

2. Diller, Daniel ed. The Middle East. Congressional Quarterly Inc. Washington D.C. 1994

3. Long, David E. and Bernard Reich. The Government and Politics of the Middle East and Norht Africa. Westview Press. Boulder, CO. 1995.