US ready to protect Middle East tanker shipping
THE US military has contingency plans in place to protect tanker shipping in the Middle East Gulf if Israel takes military action to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, according to a Central Command speaker at a recent high-level oil industry gathering.
While no specific operations were outlined, Brigadier Simon Wolsey told delegates to the Global Asset Security: Oil and Gas 2010 conference in Houston on February 23 that in the event of fighting, the US would act to protect critical infrastructure and ensure the continued ability of tankers to use major trade routes.
Maritime security sources say that this could point to an all-out mine clearance effort if Iran seeks to close the key chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz, a tactic adopted in earlier conflicts.
But a shipping security specialist, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated that some ships could nevertheless be lost: ?We have learnt the lessons of previous hostilities in the Gulf. You can provide support to ships, you can protect them through some kind of convoy arrangement, you can sweep up the mines, you can have constant patrols.
?You are going to have to invest massively in protection. But at the end of the day, you are never going to get 100% security. The only way you will get complete security is not to have tanker traffic. That is the only full solution.?
Washington"s underlying fear is that a rerun of the tanker war of the mid-1980s would generate an oil price spike, a development that would have potentially devastating consequences for the world economy as it struggles to regain momentum after the recent economic downturn.
Brig Wolsey argued that it was now clear that Iran was trying to build nuclear weapons, and that this represented a red line for Tel Aviv. Unless Iran could be restrained within a matter of months, Israel was expected to respond with a strike on Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Iran would then likely retaliate.
Attendees formed the impression that these developments were now regarded as more likely than not, particularly after Brig Wolsey made the presumably jocular comment: ?If I were a betting man, I would invest in oil futures.?
One delegate confirmed: ?Some us were a bit dumbfounded with his candour. It seemed to me that this was another less-than-subtle warning to Iran. But it is certainly a word of warning to the tanker sector.?
After assessing the threat, the US has decided that its top priority is to protect the supply of crude from the region, even if that requires the deployment of US and allied naval assets to keep the oil flowing, Brig Wolsey made clear.
One obvious scenario is the prospect of Iranian action against shipping along the lines of the policy Tehran adopted after 1984, towards the end of its eight-year war with neighbouring Iraq. All told, some 546 commercial vessels were damaged and about 430 civilian seafarers killed during what became known as the tanker war.
From 1987 onwards, the US provided protection for tankers flying the US flag. Ironically, in light of later history, the move effectively guaranteed oil revenue to Saddam Hussein"s administration for the duration of the conflict.