The Strait of Hormuz (Tangeye Hormoz) is a strait between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. It provides the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean and is one of the world’s most strategically important choke points. On the north coast lies Iran, and on the south coast the United Arab Emirates and Musandam, an exclave of Oman. At its narrowest, the strait has a width of 29 nautical miles (54 km).
About 20% of the world’s petroleum (about 35% of the petroleum traded by sea) passes through the strait, making it a highly important strategic location for international trade.
In the 10th–17th centuries AD, the Kingdom of Ormus, which seems to have given the strait its name, was located here. Scholars, historians and linguists derive the name “Ormuz” from the local Persian word هورمغ Hur-mogh meaning date palm. In the local dialects of Hurmoz and Minab this strait is still called Hurmogh and has the aforementioned meaning. The resemblance of this word with the name of the Persian god هرمز Hormoz (a variant of Ahura Mazda) has resulted in the popular belief[neutrality is disputed] that these words are related.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2011, an average of 14 tankers per day passed out of the Persian Gulf through the Strait carrying 17 million barrels (2,700,000 m3) of crude oil. This was said to represent 35% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments and 20% of oil traded worldwide. The report stated that more than 85% of these crude oil exports went to Asian markets, with Japan, India, South Korea and China the largest destinations.
A 2007 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies also stated that 17 million barrels passed out of the Persian Gulf daily, but that oil flows through the Strait accounted for roughly 40% of all world-traded oil.
The so-called “Tanker War” phase of the Iran–Iraq War started when Iraq attacked the oil terminal and oil tankers at Iran’s Kharg Island in early 1984. Saddam’s aim in attacking Iranian shipping was, among other things, to provoke the Iranians to retaliate with extreme measures, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz to all maritime traffic, thereby bringing American intervention. Iran limited the retaliatory attacks to Iraqi shipping, leaving the strait open.
In July 2018, Iran again made threats to close the strait. Citing looming American sanctions after the U.S withdrew from the JCPOA deal earlier in the year. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards reported they were ready to carry out the action if required.
In August 2018, Iran test-fired ballistic missile for first time in 2018. According to the officials, the anti-ship Fateh-110 Mod 3 flew over 100 miles on a flight path over the Strait of Hormuz to a test range in the Iranian desert. “It was shore-to-shore,” said one U.S. official describing the launch, who like the others requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Millennium Challenge 2002 was a major war game exercise conducted by the United States armed forces in 2002. According to a 2012 article in The Christian Science Monitor, it simulated an attempt by Iran to close the strait. The assumptions and results were controversial.
A 2008 article in International Security contended that Iran could seal off or impede traffic in the Strait for a month, and an attempt by the U.S. to reopen it would be likely to escalate the conflict. In a later issue, however, the journal published a response which questioned some key assumptions and suggested a much shorter timeline for re-opening.
In December 2011, Iran’s navy began a ten-day exercise in international waters along the strait. The Iranian Navy Commander, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, stated that the strait would not be closed during the exercise; Iranian forces could easily accomplish that but such a decision must be made at a political level.
Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, was quoted in a December 2011 Reuters article: “Efforts to increase tension in that part of the world are unhelpful and counter-productive. For our part, we are comfortable that we have in the region sufficient capabilities to honor our commitments to our friends and partners, as well as the international community.” In the same article, Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said, “The expectation is that the U.S. military could address any Iranian threat relatively quickly.”
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in January 2012 that Iran “has invested in capabilities that could, in fact, for a period of time block the Strait of Hormuz.” He also stated, “We’ve invested in capabilities to ensure that if that happens, we can defeat that.”
In June 2012, Saudi Arabia reopened the Iraq Pipeline through Saudi Arabia (IPSA), which was confiscated from Iraq in 2001 and travels from Iraq across Saudi Arabia to a Red Sea port. It will have a capacity of 1.65 million barrels per day.
In July 2012, the UAE began using the new Habshan–Fujairah oil pipeline from the Habshan fields in Abu Dhabi to the Fujairah oil terminal on the Gulf of Oman, effectively bypassing the Strait of Hormuz. It was constructed by a Chinese company and has a maximum capacity of around 2 million barrels per day, over three-fourths of the UAE’s 2012 production rate. The UAE is also increasing Fujairah’s storage and off-loading capacities.
In a July 2012 Foreign Policy article, Gal Luft compared Iran and the Strait of Hormuz to the Ottoman Empire and the Dardanelles, a choke point for shipments of Russian grain a century ago. He indicated that tensions involving the Strait of Hormuz are leading those currently dependent on shipments from the Persian Gulf to find alternative shipping capabilities. He stated that Saudi Arabia was considering building new pipelines to Oman and Yemen, and that Iraq might revive the disused Iraq–Syria pipeline to ship crude to the Mediterranean. Luft stated that reducing Hormuz traffic “presents the West with a new opportunity to augment its current Iran containment strategy.”