Strait of Hormuz: Key waterway is vulnerable and under pressure


The Strait of Hormuz, a strategically important waterway for the world’s seaborne oil transits, has been at the center of decades of regional tensions.

In the latest incident, on Thursday two tankers came under attack in the Gulf of Oman, to the southeast of the strait.

U.S. President Donald Trump, whose country is in an escalating standoff with Tehran, said the incident has Iran “written all over it.” Tehran denied involvement.

The attacks came one month after four ships, including two Saudi oil tankers, were damaged in mysterious “sabotage attacks” off the United Arab Emirates.

Here is some background on the strait, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to close in case of a military confrontation with the U.S.

Gateway to the Persian Gulf

The Strait of Hormuz links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and is situated between Iran and Oman.

It is vulnerable due to its narrowness — some 50 kilometers (30 miles) — and its depth of no more than 60 meters (200 feet).

The corridor is dotted with sparsely inhabited or desert islands that are strategically important, notably the Iranian islands of Hormuz, Qeshm and Larak.

Oman’s Mussandam Peninsula juts out to the Strait of Hormuz toward Iran, separated from the rest of the sultanate by United Arab Emirates territory.

With their back to the UAE coast, the strategic and disputed islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Mussa serve as observation posts of all the Persian Gulf coastline.

Iran under the Western-backed shah gained control of the islands in 1971 as Britain granted independence to its Persian Gulf protectorates and withdrew its forces.

Oil transit hot spot

The strait is a vital corridor connecting the petroleum-rich states of the Middle East with markets in Asia, Europe, North America and elsewhere.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), 35 percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

Zone of tension and conflict

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the ideological army of the Islamic republic, controls naval operations in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

Tehran repeatedly criticizes the presence of foreign powers in the region, notably the U.S. Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain, and it has threatened to close the strait if it comes under attack.

Oil transit was disrupted in 1984 during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), when more than 500 vessels were destroyed or damaged in a “Tanker War.”

In 1988, an Iran Air flight from Tehran to Dubai, via Bandar Abbas, was shot down by missiles fired from a U.S. Navy cruiser patrolling the strait. All 290 people on board were killed.

The crew of the USS Vincennes said they mistook the Airbus for an Iranian fighter.

In April 2015 the Revolutionary Guard boarded and took into custody in the strait a container ship flying the flag of the Marshall Islands.

The following month Revolutionary Guard sailors fired warning shots in an apparent bid to intercept a Singapore-flagged cargo ship in the Persian Gulf.