The burning oil platform: Iran's threat to the West

 

It has become a commonplace that the United States and its allies went to war for a second time with Iraq not so much to relieve the Iraqi people of the yoke imposed by dictator Saddam Hussein but for oil, that fungible commodity on which modern life depends.  Getting the oil to the United States is dependent on vital sea lanes and chokepoints in often unstable and dangerous parts of the world, thereby necessitating monitoring by the U.S. naval fleet and dozens of military installations overseas.
Consider what an interruption of the foreign oil supply could mean to the United States: Americans use approximately 19 million to 20 million barrels of oil per day, of which approximately half is imported. If 1 million barrels per day are lost, or suffer the type of havoc sustained from Hurricane Katrina, the federal government would open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which offers a mere six- to eight-week supply of unrefined crude oil. If the U.S. loses  1.5 million barrels per day, or approximately 7.5 percent, the government would ask allies in the 28-member International Energy Agency to tap their own Strategic Petroleum Reserves and provide other assistance. If 2 million barrels per day are lost for a protracted period, experts believe that the chaos in the country would be so astronomic as to beg estimation. 
 
Edwin Black, the author of Banking on Baghdad, The Plan, and other best-sellers worries about what a 10 percent shortfall over several weeks could mean for the U.S. The disruption, he says, of the Abqaiq processing plant in eastern Saudi Arabia, the Ras Tanura terminal on the Saudi Arabian coast, or the two-mile-wide sea lane of the Strait of Hormuz that passes by Iran, could be catastrophic. If these critical chokepoints are taken out by terrorists or Iranian military hegemony, “as much as 40 percent of all seaborne oil will be stopped, as much as 18 percent of all global supply will be interrupted, and more than 10 percent of the U.S. supply will be cut off. Estimates on the U.S. shortfall suggest the percentage lost could be far higher.” The punch line of this tragicomic scenario, says Black, is that the U.S. government has no effective plan in place to replace the oil that would no longer pass through the Strait of Hormuz.  Said Black, “They do not have a plan for an oil interruption. There is a 57-day supply of unrefined oil that can be stretched to about a hundred days.”
 
However, the Obama administration did make a move in 2011 to address this significant gap in national preparedness with an Executive Order that would have far-reaching effects on the national economy and polity. Entitled "National Defense Resources Preparedness," the Executive Order renews and updates the president's power to seize control of all civilian energy supplies, including petroleum and natural gas, control and restrict all civil transportation, which is almost 97 percent dependent upon oil; and even provides the option to re-enable a draft in order to achieve both the military and non-military demands of the country, according to Black. The Executive Order covers "all forms of energy including petroleum, gas (both natural and manufactured), electricity, solid fuels (including all forms of coal, coke, coal chemicals, coal liquification, and coal gasification), solar, wind, other types of renewable energy, atomic energy, and the production, conservation, use, control, and distribution (including pipelines) of all of these forms of energy." And because a deficit in oil would immediately affect food distribution, the Executive Order also covers "the production or preparation for market use of food resources." The Order defines "food resources" as commodities and products ... capable of being ingested by either human beings or animals."
 
This would put the U.S. on a war footing should a conflict arise involving the U.S., Iran and Israel that would convulse international commerce and industry while putting millions out of work, perhaps with only intermittent supplies of food and energy. 
 
The prospect of a war with Iran is of the utmost concern to the U.S. and Israel and to their allies. Iran’s nuclear weaponization program continues unabated while it works on uranium enrichment, nuclear triggers, and missile delivery systems that can reach out and touch Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel. In recent weeks, top Iranian officials have said that a pre-emptive attack by Israel on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities would be suicide, promising catastrophic retaliation. Black told Spero that this is part of the usual “vituperation” directed by Iran towards Israel. “It is part of the usual rhetoric of Iran has been targeting at the Israelis. They’re going to wipe them off the map, it would be suicide to attack, they will be demolished, they will be disintegrated. This is the kind of vituperation faced by the Jewish state on an hourly level.”
 
Iran’s refusal to allow effective inspection of its nuclear facilities, alongside its expressed belligerence, has caused growing friction in its relations with the United States, EU countries, and Israel. The United States has issued warnings that aggression against Israel, or military action in the Strait of Hormuz, will not be tolerated and can be expected to bring on an overwhelming response. But friction has developed also between the United States and Israel. Speculation has emerged in the United States and Israel that there are strains between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, despite protestations of solidarity.
 
 Israel prefers to walk softly and carry a big stick, says Black. “Lately, the big stick is a little more visible in that it is made clear that it may reluctantly have to take action and, if it does, I think that action will be soon,” said Black. Averring that Israel is quiet about its plan of action regarding Iran, the author said that given the Iranian development of weapon-grade nuclear materials and a trigger mechanism, along with both short-range and long-range missiles, “it has become clear that Israel cannot remain completely mum. I don’t think that it is for the United States to tell Israel what to do at all. It is not a vassal state. I don’t think the United States would tell Great Britain what to do if it had a war on its hands. It would not tell Saudi Arabia what to do. And I don’t think it would tell Israel what to do.”  
 
Responding to reports about Iran’s supposed enhancements of its Fatah 10 missile, Black said that Iran cannot be believed when it issues pronouncements about its weapons systems. However, said, Black, Israel has “steady nerves” as it quietly makes ready for an attack. When asked about the possible effects of a repeat of Iran’s 1970s mining of the Strait of Hormuz, Black said that mining the strait would only be a facet of a possible conflict. Iran could also launch missiles from the land, or seaborne platforms, at oil tankers headed through the narrow strait thus cutting off 20 percent of the global supply of oil. Iran could also launch missiles at the Ras Tanura oil terminal at the strait, added Black, while it could also take out the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia. Despite retaliatory military action against Iran, the Islamic Republic has the capability of continuing to destroy and disrupt oil traffic. Black said that Iran’s surrogates (e.g. the Hezbollah terrorist organization) could strike key oil facilities in the Mideast by simply diverting a 747 from its flight and turn it into a devastating suicide mission.  With regard to the Iranian threat to oil, Black said “I like to say we have tanks and they have Toyotas. And they know how to use them.” Swarming tactics could be used, said Black, which involves using small boats that attack tankers or naval vessels in the Persian Gulf and the strait.  Iran could use its Silkworm missile arsenal to wreak havoc, with an assist from North Korea, “the Number One missile power,” said Black.  
 
Black has said repeatedly, in print and in interviews, that to the question of when an attack on Iran might occur and put an end to its weaponization program and belligerency, “the best minds say, ’He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.’” In any event, a conflict involving the United States, Israel, and Iran could flow and burn and devastate like a spreading oil platform  fire. Whether such a conflagration would respond only to a dynamite-like strike, in the tradition of the celebrated oil fire fighter Red Adair, remains to be seen. 


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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