Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Iran, The Strait of Hormuz, and Nuclear Weapons

Among the many benefits of living in and around the nation's capital is (are?) the opportunities to duck into the many think-tanks that help shape policy. I had the honor to receive an invitation to the Cato Institute the other day (extended by Dr. Chris Preble who directs their Foreign Policy staff) for lunch and discussion with Dr. Eugene Gholz of the University of Texas. Dr. Gholz is a notable defense and national security scholar at the University of Texas, and I first came into contact with him during my work in the Maritime Strategy--the folks at the Naval War College looked to Dr. Gholz to provide some guidance on the underpinnings of grand strategy. I found him to be a fascinating speaker.

Gholz was at Cato to talk about the findings of this study, which basically takes an analytical look at the much repeated Iranian claim to be able to "close the Strait of Hormuz". The Iranians are quick to make this claim as possible retribution for all manner of offenses, but the one most frequently cited these days is as a response to any potential Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The scenario basically pressures the rest of the world (i.e those who depend on the free flow of oil through the only major chokepoint that can't be sailed around) to influence Israel into sitting on their hands as the Iranians develop nuclear weapons.

Gholz and his team of grad students decided to take the Iranians at their own word...that in the event of something like an Israeli attack, that they would try and shut down the Strait to the flow of oil. The question for Gholz's team however, was would they be successful? Using the technology and weapons currently available to them, could the Iranians actually "close" the Strait of Hormuz and deal the world a crippling economic blow?

Drawing on the considerable data available from the Iraq/Iran war (1980-88) and the many attacks on tankers conducted therein, and analyzing it against the capabilities Iran is currently thought to possess, Gholz and his team reached a set of conclusions that indicate that while the Iranians could clearly create a "price spike" by taking out a tanker or two, they are no more capable of "closing" the Strait today than they may have been twenty years ago.

I've always considered the Iranian claim a little dubious; Gholz's data adds fuel to this perception. But here's the real kicker--I think the Mullahs in Iran figured this out a long time ago; as a matter of fact, I think their experience in the Tanker War convinced them that they simply couldn't pull it off (closing the Strait). They realized that their one big strategic play would in all likelihood, be a failure if it were ever exercised. And so they needed a plan B, which I believe turns out to be a program to develop nuclear weapons.

Let's face it; a nation that COULD close the Strait would have a difficult time making a good strategic case for the development of a nuclear capability. And because I tend to think that other governments are generally rational actors, Iran's ongoing program to develop nuclear weapons--and the costs it brings both financially and in the court of world opinion--can be satisfactorily explained if one grants to the Iranians the ability to conduct the same kind of analysis Gholz and his team did.


Anonymous said...

I agree with all of your points and analysis up until the last paragraph. I am not sure why being capable of closing the Strait and developing nuclear capability have to be mutually exclusive in the least. And while governments may generally be rational actors, those are not the governments that we generally have serious problems with. Maybe I am oversimplifying your arguments here but I think that the analysis starts strong and then loses bite.

Realpolitik is seen as a bad word in most corners today, but I think that it accurately allows you to model or predict actions of friends and belligerents alike. I think that layering a bit of realpolitik on top of the noted analysis would turn the argument to note that any nation that could effectively close the Strait would also strive to attain a credible nuclear capability if for no other reason than to allow them to argue their ability to close the Strait without actually doing so.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Being capable of closing the Strait and developing a nuclear capability aren't mutually exclusive--they just don't make a lot of rational sense given the considerable world pressure Iran is under NOT to develop a nuclear program. And though you didn't say it and probably don't mean it, I can't resist saying that because we're having problems with the Iranian government doesn't make them irrational.

Your second paragraph is a good one...and it is useful "other possibility" to the one I raise.

Kurt Loder said...

I think we should layer a bit of Telepopmusik on the analysis.

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