The Persian Gulf region, more specifically the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz are maritime areas on the Iranian coast over which Iran has considerable naval influence. The Strait of Hormuz is around 155 kilometres long and 34 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. The strait’s shipping channels that can handle supertankers are only 2 nautical miles wide, forcing ships to pass through Iranian and Omani territorial waters. There are limited options to bypass the Strait and only Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pipelines that can ship crude oil beyond the Gulf. This maritime region can turn out to be important in a future Iran-Israel war. About a fifth of the volume of the world’s total oil consumption passes through the Strait daily. OPEC members Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Kuwait, and Iraq export most of their crude via the Strait. Qatar, the world’s largest liquefied gas (LNG) exporter, sends almost all of its LNG through the Strait. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is tasked with protecting commercial shipping in the area. If Iran and Israel begin bombing and targeting each other using aircraft and missiles, Iran might choose to extend the conflict to areas adjacent to the Hormuz Strait to internationalise the conflict and put pressure on Israel.
Iran’s attempt to conduct a more robust campaign of targeting international shipping in the event of a conflict with Israel is fraught with several challenges, unlike the situation in the 1980s. These new challenges reflect the changes that have taken place both at the regional level and in the international scenario. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on Oct.18 called on Muslim countries to impose an oil embargo and other sanctions on Israel, but OPEC sources dismissed such a scenario. The U.S. Energy Administration has estimated that 76% of the crude oil and condensate that passed through the strait in 2018 went to Asian markets. China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore were the main destinations accounting for 65 per cent of all oil shipped through the strait that year. In contrast, the U.S. imported around 1.4 mbpd of oil through the Strait of Hormuz in 2018, accounting for about 18 percent of total U.S. crude oil imports . The oil imported by China from Saudi Arabia saw an increase of 7% in the first half of 2023 in comparison to 2022 . This is precisely why China has a strong interest in preserving security in region, an example of which is its mediation which led to the Saudi-Iran reconciliation in March 2023.
West Asia is also a key node for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China has cultivated ties with all the GCC members as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), further expanding from areas like oil and gas exports, which were the foundations of the relationship, to sectors such as infrastructure, finance, telecommunications, renewable energy, and nuclear energy. China has also invested billions of dollars in ports in the region. Therefore, in any maritime campaign in the region, Iran would be careful to not target Chinese interests because of the ties between the two sides. However, it would be increasingly difficult if the intensity of the conflict increased. Experts are divided on what could be the outcome of a clash between the U.S. and Iran in this maritime theatre. From the outcome of Operation Praying Mantis, it could be deduced that the regular Iranian Navy and the IRGC Navy (IRGCN) could be destroyed in a couple of days by the U.S. Navy, restoring commercial maritime traffic in the Hormuz Strait. But Iran has learned lessons from the Tanker War and now has increased its asymmetric capabilities in the form of numerous mines and speed boats to block the strait. While Iran might not be able to hold on for long in the face of a U.S. naval attack it could cause enough havoc in the global energy markets and also cause a global diplomatic crisis because of the international relevance of the Hormuz Strait.
The third important maritime theatre is the Red Sea region and especially the Bab al-Mandab Strait that connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. The Suez Canal is also important as it connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea and is the fastest and most direct maritime trade link between Asia and Europe. The canal is significant route for energy, commodities, consumer goods and componentry from Asia, including East Asia, Southeast Asia and West Asia, to Europe . Around 12% of international freight traffic of all types (oil, raw materials, containers, etc.) passes through the Suez Canal including 30% of all global container traffic. Nearly 5% of world’s crude oil and 8% of LNG seaborne flows transit the Suez Canal. Due to the Russia-Ukraine War, there has been a rise in oil tanker and LNG carrier transit northbound and southbound through the Suez Canal. There has been a record increase in the number of ships transiting the Suez Canal in 2022 .
While Iran does not geographically have a presence in the region it wields influence through its proxy Ansar Allah more popularly known as the Houthis or the Zaydi Shia militia from the highlands of the former North Yemen. Israel has naval access to this region through the small coastline that it has in the Red Sea. The region has therefore witnessed instances of the clandestine war between Iran and Israel. The Houthis are a loosely organised group of Shia tribal militias unlike Hezbollah which is a tight-knit organisation. The relationship between the Houthis and Iran is complicated. While there is ideological affinity between the two sides, it is not possible to say that the Houthis are an outright tool of Iran. The Houthis might prioritise their local interests in Yemen rather than actively try to become a part of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ that Iran has built in West Asia if a point comes where the Houthis have to choose between the two
If tensions between Iran and Israel rise, the Iranians might give better capabilities to the Houthis in order to make them able to target Israel. For being effectively capable of targeting Israel, the Houthis must be capable of launching munitions to reach targets more than 1800 kms away. The Houthis might launch a complex operation firing both cruise missiles and armed UAVs which can increase chances of more effectively targeting Israel and cause more damage . The ballistic missile capabilities of the Houthis are limited. Iran might provide more advanced ballistic missile capabilities like the advanced Shihab missiles that have considerably longer ranges. They could provide access to the IRGC to launch attacks from Houthi territory. Houthis could launch attacks on maritime attacks to disrupt flow of goods through the Suez Canal, interrupt global oil supply and raise maritime insurance premiums. But chances for success are less as protecting freedom of navigation is the central aim of naval task forces operating in the region including US, French, Russian, Chinese and Egyptian
Houthis can try different methods like approaching and firing anti-tank rockets, attaching limpet mines to the hull of ships and also using ‘suicide ships’ which are explosive and can be operated remotely by using speed boats to attack simultaneously from multiple directions. The latter tactic is basically employing swarm tactics replicating what the IRGCN have trained for areas close to the Hormuz Strait. In fact, the areas near the Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab straits can be locations where Iran might try to employing naval swarming on a large scale only seen employed by insurgents in land combat. These are the methods preferred by Iran as it does not have the access that the Egyptian Navy had in this maritime theatre in 1973 for enforcing the blockade of Israel at the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This is because Egypt is a Red Sea littoral state with a long coastline. Egypt back then also did not have to face the U.S. Navy. While most attention is usually focused on land combat and missile capabilities in any discussion on the Iran-Israel rivalry, a less studied aspect is the maritime domain which perhaps is more important for the Indo-Pacific because of the consequences of a conflict for international trade.