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Iran’s warning to shut Strait of Hormuz 'mere rhetoric': Omani experts

Cargo ships sail in the Gulf off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, which has a strategic position on the Strait of Hormuz, on April 29th. [Atta Kenare/AFP]

Iran's recent threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping route, through which about a fifth of the world’s seaborne oil passes daily, are mere rhetoric, experts told Al-Mashareq.

Iranian armed forces chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri on April 28th warned that his country could shut the waterway to maritime traffic.

The threat from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander followed a US announcement a few days before that it will end exemptions granted last year to eight buyers of Iranian oil and demanding they stop purchases by May 2nd or face sanctions.

On April 24th, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif threatened the US of unspecified "consequences" if it prevented his country from using the Strait of Hormuz for the sale of oil.

"We believe Iran will continue to sell its oil, we will continue to find buyers for our oil and we will continue to use the Strait of Hormuz as a safe transit passage for the sale of our oil," he said.

"But if the US takes the crazy measure of trying to prevent us from doing that, then it should be prepared for the consequences," he said.

The US "should know that when they enter the Strait of Hormuz, they have to talk to those protecting the Strait of Hormuz -- and that is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards [IRGC]", he added.

Such threats place increasing responsibility on Oman, experts said, as the sultanate overlooks the western side of the Strait of Hormuz.

The sultanate will act to protect its national interests and international navigation from the threats that Iran poses, they said.

'Immense risks'

The Strait of Hormuz separates Iran and Oman, linking the Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea.

Most crude exported from Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Kuwait and Iraq is shipped through the waterway.

"Oman is well aware of the immense risks the region would face if Iran insists on closing the strait," said strategy expert Abdul Rahman al-Kathiri.

If Iran makes good on its threats to close the strait at its narrowest point (approximately 3.2 kilometres wide), "the potential scenarios would be absolutely catastrophic, and the region might descend into an unremitting war", he said.

"Oil prices would surge at least 20% due to the ensuing shortfall in global supply," he said, noting that Iran is "well aware of these dangers".

Oman is striving to avert such a crisis, he said, noting that he does not expect Tehran to "risk its special relations with Muscat and carry out hostile acts in our country’s territorial waters".

'Media hype'

Navigation in the Strait of Hormuz is governed by international law and the UN Convention on the High Seas, former academic at Dhofar University in Oman Salem al-Maashani told Al-Mashareq.

Under the convention, "all vessels have the right and freedom to pass through the strait as long as their passage 'is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State'", he said.

The international community has repeatedly rejected Iran's request to supervise the Strait of Hormuz, he said, calling on oil exporting countries to address the issue and adopt innovative mechanisms to avoid falling once again under the scepter of Iranian threats.

One way of doing that is by "using Omani ports that are distant from the Strait of Hormuz, such as al-Duqm port", and "safe waterways that preserve the national oil and gas wealth of Gulf states", al-Maashani suggested.

"I doubt that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz, and the statements issued in this regard are merely media hype," economist Abdullah al-Harethi told Al-Mashareq.

Iran "cannot afford to engage in a wide-scale confrontation with the international community", he said.

The global economy has been in recession for many years and many countries are battered by waves of high prices, he said. Therefore, the international community and Gulf states will not allow the outbreak of new crises in the region.

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