(We are here. Infidels are here, here and here. Apostates over there. Good. Points? Questions?)
Those kray-zee Iranians.
Just when Christmas television looked like getting everyone down, up popped the comedy act that is North Korea* to entertain us with their choreographed grief (though believe me, if I were living in Pyongyang, I'd have cried and wailed with the best of them just in case someone decided that I had been insufficiently upset and felt that a little reeducation was in order.)
Not to be outdone by their former colleagues in the Axis-of-Evil, Iranian Admiral Habibollah Sayyari says it would be "very easy" for his navy to shut down the Strait of Hormuz (SoH) if the nasty west (and especially the nasty EU led by the confounded British, whose hand is behind everything bad in the Islamic Republic, I'm reliably informed) has the temerity to impose oil sanctions on Iran for its repeated violations of the NPT, which the IAEA noted in their 18 Nov 11 Resolution. And here's a nice piece from the good people at APM's Marketplace - they do a great daily podcast, too.
Excellent, certainly a move that's all about the spirit of the season, and likely to bring everyone together and allow us all to get along better and all of that.
But is it feasible?
(Ah. Rather narrow then.)
The strait is about 34nm across at it's narrowest point, and more importantly, the commercial traffic goes through the two 2nm corridors marked on this helpful map. And given the major Iranian naval base at Bandar Abbas is nice and close, in principle Iran's two naval arms - IRIN and the IRGC(N) - could make a stab at "closing" the SoH if they so chose. However, this overlooks a couple of things.
First, legality. Such a blockade would be illegal (states have the right to peacefully sail through straits worldwide) - something established in customary international law and in the 1948 ICJ Judgement in the Corfu Channel case - unless it was an act of war. An Iranian declaration of war against the rest of the world seems somewhat unlikely, and so in the absence of a UNSCR allowing for Iran to close the SoH (inconceivable), then the Iranians would be acting illegally.
Second, actual capability. Does Iran really want to take on the US Navy and her allies in a shooting match in the SoH whether on the water or from shore based missile and artillery batteries (or both?)? I can't see it - the Iranians could get lucky and cause some damage to naval vessels escorting oil tankers or patrolling the Straits - but the risk of retaliation sinking the rest of your fleet (or worse, starting a broader war) is such that you'd have to be nuts to try it. And this blog (at least) doesn't think that the Iranian regime irrational - more than anything else, it is solidly focused on it's own survival.
So, nothing to see here - let's all get back to the Christmas specials on telly. But not a clever move by the Iranians, and I suspect, not one that they're going to enact, irrespective of their domestic posturing.
Finally, in the spirit of goodwill to all men, in the unlikely event that this does kick off, please don't ask the Royal Navy how many spare ships it has to send out to help out in the SoH. You may get an answer similar to asking the RAF how many maritime patrol aircraft they can quickly send. Seen from here, the choices made in SDSR 2010 are looking less clever by the month.
*As long as you don't live in it or near it, clearly.