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Iran Raises Specter Of Damage To World Oil Shipping

"There is a concern that Iran is flush with a lot of oil cash," Koch said. "They are buying more and more sophisticated weapons." Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Lachlan Carmichael
London (AFP) Apr 06, 2006
Amid concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, analysts are worried it could resort to a wide range of weapons and tactics to disrupt the world's busiest oil shipping lanes if armed conflict erupts with the United States.

Because its shores line the narrow Straits of Hormuz, Iran could quickly hit both military and commercial shipping with missiles launched from land, air or sea as well as cripple maritime traffic with mines or sunken ships, they said.

Despite a technological edge, US and allied navies would have less time to react to such threats in the lanes between the Gulf and the Indian Ocean than in, say, neighboring Iraq, Washington-based analyst Andrew Koch said.

"You don't have a lot of maneuvering room," Koch, senior vice president for defense and homeland security at Scribe Strategies and Advisors, told AFP.

Iran is also better armed than it was during the 1987 tanker war, at the height of the Iran-Iraq conflict, when it was able to disrupt shipping with mines and missiles and raise oil prices, Koch and other analysts said.

"There is a concern that Iran is flush with a lot of oil cash," Koch said. "They are buying more and more sophisticated weapons."

In what analysts called serious "sabre-rattling," Iran said during war games in the Gulf this week that it had test-fired a new land-to-sea missile as well as a rocket torpedo.

World oil prices leapt towards 68.0 dollars per barrel on Monday as traders fretted over tensions in both Iran and Nigeria, another major crude producer.

While US military experts finish analyzing data on the weapons, Koch said Iran can resort to other choices, including sinking some of its own ships to block the Straits or mounting "swarms" of small missile boats.

"Absolutely, they have the ability to do that (block shipping) today," he said.

Though Iran has Chinese missiles dating back to the 1980s, it has upgraded them and could deploy them on coastal batteries, on fast-attack boats and even warplanes, he said. He also warned that Iran has sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles from Russia that could threaten US warplanes carrying out any air strikes on its disputed nuclear sites.

Michael Knights, writing in Jane's Intelligence Review in January, said Iran could use its three Russian-built Kilo-class submarines in the Indian Ocean to force US warships to advance more slowly and deploy away from the Iranian coast.

"There are indications that Iran may be considering aggressive tactics such as attacking escorting warships with weapons such as wake-homing torpedos," he wrote.

London-based defense analyst Paul Beaver warned that Iran would risk being seen by the world as "the aggressor" if it started deploying mines or the submarines, as US military technology could sense them immediately.

"I don't think that they're going to take that risk at the moment," though a "very worrying scenario" is developing, Beaver said.

"There's no lessening of the rhetoric in Washington. There's no lessening of the rhetoric in Tehran, and therefore I see this as being a continuing major threat to all of us because it will affect the oil price," Beaver told AFP.

Both Beaver and Koch were concerned that neo-conservatives -- though less influential now than during the buildup to the US-led invasion of Iraq -- were prodding Washington into a new confrontation.

Manouchehr Takin, an analyst with the Centre for Global Energy Studies, said 16 million barrels of crude exit the Gulf daily out of a total worldwide total of 84 million barrels.

In addition, Gulf countries also export oil products.

Takin said the oil market's reaction to Iran's recent muscle-flexing in the Gulf was little different so far to its response to terror attacks on oil facilities or even surges in demand.

"The oil market is very sensitive to any news, any rumor even, of anything affecting the production, and transportations and supply, distribution, whatever," Takin said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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