The Strait of Hormuz is a strategically important strait or narrow strip of water that links the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman (map). The strait is only 21 to 60 miles (33 to 95 km) wide throughout its length. The Strait of Hormuz is important because it is a geographic chokepoint and a main artery for the transport of oil from the Middle East. Iran and Oman are the countries nearest to the Strait of Hormuz and share territorial rights over the waters. Due to its importance, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz several times in recent history.
Geographic Importance and History of the Strait of HormuzThe Strait of Hormuz is extremely important geographically because it is considered one of the world’s foremost chokepoints. A chokepoint is a narrow channel (in this case a strait) that is used as a sea route for the shipment of goods. The main type of good going through the Strait of Hormuz is oil from the Middle East and as a result it is one of the world’s most important chokepoints.
In 2011, nearly 17 million barrels of oil, or almost 20% of the world’s traded oil flowed on ships through the Strait of Hormuz daily, for an annual total of more than six billion barrels of oil. An average of 14 crude oil ships passed through the strait per day in that year taking oil to destinations such as Japan, India, China and South Korea (U.S. Energy Information Administration).
As a chokepoint the Strait of Hormuz is very narrow – just 21 miles (33 km) wide at its narrowest point and 60 miles (95 km) at its widest. The widths of the shipping lanes however are much narrower (about two miles (three km) wide in each direction) because the waters are not deep enough for oil tankers throughout the strait’s width.
The Strait of Hormuz has been a strategic geographic chokepoint for many years and as such it has often been the site of conflict and there have been many threats by neighboring countries to close it. For example in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War Iran threatened to close the strait after Iraq disrupted shipping in the strait. In addition, the strait was also home to a battle between the United States Navy and Iran in April 1988 after the U.S. attacked Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.
In the 1990s, disputes between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over control of several small islands within the Strait of Hormuz resulted in further treats to close the strait. By 1992 however, Iran took control of the islands but tensions remained in the region throughout the 1990s.
In December 2007 and into 2008, a series of naval events between the United States and Iran took place in the Strait of Hormuz. In June of 2008 Iran asserted that if it were attacked by the U.S. the strait would be sealed off in an effort to damage the world’s oil markets. The U.S. responded by claiming that any closure of the strait would be treated as an act of war. This further increased tensions and showed the importance of the Strait of Hormuz on a worldwide scale.
Closure of the Strait of HormuzIran and Oman currently share territorial rights over the Strait of Hormuz. Recently Iran has again threatened to close the strait due to international pressures to stop its nuclear program and an Iranian oil embargo that was enacted by the European Union in late January 2012. Closure of the strait would be significant worldwide because it would result in the need to use very long and expensive alternative (overland pipelines) routes for the transport of oil from the Middle East.
Despite these current and past threats, the Strait of Hormuz has never actually been closed off and many experts claim that it will not be. This is mainly due to the fact that Iran’s economy depends on the shipment of oil through the strait. In addition any closure of the strait would likely cause a war between Iran and the U.S. and generate new tensions between Iran and countries like India and China.
Instead of closing the Strait of Hormuz, experts say it is more likely that Iran will make shipment through the region difficult or slow with such activities as seizing ships and raiding facilities.
To learn more about the Strait of Hormuz, read the Los Angeles Times’ article, What is the Strait of Hormuz? Can Iran Shut Off Access to Oil? and The Strait of Hormuz and Other Foreign Policy Chokepoints from US Foreign Policy at About.com.