Geography affects commerce. The lay of the land determines how we move, and how we transport goods. Sometimes nature sets up a fiendish tableau, as it forces people to travel through dangerous landscapes to carry on business. One such convergence of goods, politics, enmity, and travel is in the Strait of Hormuz, at the south end of the Persian Gulf, in southwest Asia. The Persian Gulf is famous for its oil production. There, both offshore and in the surrounding land, the richest deposits of oil in the world are found. While the wealth brought from this bumper crop of petroleum has turned backwater areas around the Gulf into world-class cities over the past several decades, the bulk of the oil goes out to the rest of the world. It has to go by either pipeline or oil tanker, and there are risks and advantages to each method. Pipelines that cross borders are subject to political pressures, and their stationary nature and known position make them vulnerable to enemy attack. Tanker transport is more flexible, but the Persian Gulf does not open widely to the ocean like the Gulf of Alaska or the Gulf of Guinea. The passage to the open ocean can be daunting.
Heading out of the 600-mile-long, 100-mile-wide Persian Gulf toward the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean, tankers must pass through a constriction that is a mere 21 to 34 miles wide, depending on how it is measured. This is the Strait of Hormuz. Here, the finger of Oman’s Musandam Peninsula points closely at the curved coast of Iran. The shipping lanes through this narrow passage are only two miles wide in each direction, with a two-mile separation. The Persian Gulf is defined by Iran on its northeast, and to its south and southwest by the Saudi Arabian peninsula, which includes the shorelines of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the U.A.E., Oman, and a tiny bit of Iraq. There is plenty of governmental disharmony between some of these nations, and no shortage of factions both political and religious amongst the peoples of the Gulf region. To control the passage of multi-million dollar loads of oil through the Strait is to effectively control the livelihood of most of these states, so there is a strong desire that movement through this crucial waterway be unhindered by anyone’s mines or navies.
The greatest threat to this free flow of commerce came in the 1980s, when hostilities between Iraq and Iran escalated into what was called the Tanker War. Attempting to damage the economy of one another, planes and warships attacked oil tankers and other merchant vessels not only of each other, but of each enemy’s allies and even some neutral nations. At Kuwait’s request, the U.S. began patrols in the Persian Gulf to maintain free passage of commercial shipping. In 1987, a missile attack by Iraq on the USS Stark inflicted heavy damage and the loss of 37 American Navy sailors. Between this incident and Iran’s intention to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the United States became more involved in the war. The interruption of a major part of the world’s oil supply was seen as unacceptable. Convoys of U.S. warships shepherded tankers through the waters, and some were damaged by mines laid by Iran. The war eventually ended as Iraq and Iran tired of the conflict and signed a ceasefire. In all, 540 commercial vessels were damaged, in addition to the 430 civilian sailors of many nations, who were killed.
Not all of this occurred in the Strait of Hormuz by any means, but that chokepoint and its strategic importance fueled the urgency of the conflict. Saudi Arabia had an ace in the hole during the hostilities, as it could use a long pipeline across the center of the Saudi peninsula to send its oil to its Red Sea port of Yanbu. From there, tankers could sail north through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean and on to Europe, or American East Coast ports. By going south from Yanbu, and accessing the Arabian Sea by way of the Gulf of Aden, those tankers could be on their way to eastern Asian markets without ever having to traverse the Strait of Hormuz. Not every oil-producing nation in the Persian Gulf had such an autonomous pipeline advantage, but other multi-state pipelines also helped to move oil out of the area despite the war. Iran took advantage of its ability to ship oil from Larak Island in the Strait, shortening its exposure to travel in the Gulf. So despite the carnage and destruction of the Tanker War, oil prices and deliveries were only marginally affected.
Since that war, Iran has threatened closure of the Strait of Hormuz on other occasions, including during the Persian Gulf War in the early ’90s, in 2012, and again in 2016. Having never made good on a total blockade, Iran’s threats are seen as something of a bluff, but any pinchpoint for travel is a place where trouble can be made, and the Persian Gulf region remains a volatile place. Though oil markets have declined, there is still an enormous appetite for petroleum around the world. Due to the increase in domestic shale oil development, the U.S. is less dependent upon Middle Eastern oil, but still uses plenty of it. Shifting alliances and constant political disruption mean that getting oil out of the Gulf states will continue to be a puzzle to be solved, affected by geography as well as the philosophical differences between those who live on the land.
Interested in the Persian Gulf region? Check out Maps.com’s wall map of Iran, available here: