Satellite image of the Strait of Hormuz.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Welcome to an edgy world where a single incident at an energy "chokepoint" could set a region aflame, provoking bloody encounters, boosting oil prices, and putting the global economy at risk. With energy demand on the rise and sources of supply dwindling, we are, in fact, entering a new epoch—the Geo-Energy Era—in which disputes over vital resources will dominate world affairs. In 2012 and beyond, energy and conflict will be bound ever more tightly together, lending increasing importance to the key geographical flashpoints in our resource-constrained world.
Take the Strait of Hormuz, already making headlines and shaking energy markets as 2012 begins. Connecting the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, it lacks imposing geographical features like the Rock of Gibraltar or the Golden Gate Bridge. In an energy-conscious world, however, it may possess greater strategic significance than any passageway on the planet. Every day, according to the US Department of Energy, tankers carrying some 17 million barrels of oil—representing 20 percent of the world's daily supply—pass through this vital artery.
So last month, when a senior Iranian official threatened to block the strait in response to Washington's tough new economic sanctions, oil prices instantly soared. While the US military has vowed to keep the strait open, doubts about the safety of future oil shipments and worries about a potentially unending, nerve-jangling crisis involving Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv have energy experts predicting high oil prices for months to come, meaning further woes for a slowing global economy.
The Strait of Hormuz is, however, only one of several hot spots where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond. Keep your eye as well on the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin, and an energy-rich Arctic that is losing its sea ice. In all of these places, countries are disputing control over the production and transportation of energy, and arguing about national boundaries and/or rights of passage.
In the years to come, the location of energy supplies and of energy supply routes—pipelines, oil ports, and tanker routes—will be pivotal landmarks on the global strategic map. Key producing areas, like the Persian Gulf, will remain critically important, but so will oil chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca (between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea) and the "sea lines of communication," or SLOCs (as naval strategists like to call them) connecting producing areas to overseas markets. More and more, the major powers led by the United States, Russia, and China will restructure their militaries to fight in such locales.
You can already see this in the elaborate Defense Strategic Guidance document, "Sustaining US Global Leadership," unveiled at the Pentagon on January 5th by President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. While envisioning a smaller Army and Marine Corps, it calls for increased emphasis on air and naval capabilities, especially those geared to the protection or control of international energy and trade networks. Though it tepidly reaffirmed historic American ties to Europe and the Middle East, overwhelming emphasis was placed on bolstering US power in "the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia."
In the new Geo-Energy Era, the control of energy and of its transport to market will lie at the heart of recurring global crises. This year, keep your eyes on three energy hot spots in particular: the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and the Caspian Sea basin.
The Strait of Hormuz
A narrow stretch of water separating Iran from Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the strait is the sole maritime link between the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and the rest of the world. A striking percentage of the oil produced by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE is carried by tanker through this passageway on a daily basis, making it (in the words of the Department of Energy) "the world's most important oil chokepoint." Some analysts believe that any sustained blockage in the strait could trigger a 50 percent increase in the price of oil and trigger a full-scale global recession or depression.
American leaders have long viewed the Strait as a strategic fixture in their global plans that must be defended at any cost. It was an outlook first voiced by President Jimmy Carter in January 1980, on the heels of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan which had, he told Congress, "brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world's oil must flow." The American response, he insisted, must be unequivocal: any attempt by a hostile power to block the waterway would henceforth be viewed as "an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America," and "repelled by any means necessary, including military force."
Much has changed in the Gulf region since Carter issued his famous decree, known since as the Carter Doctrine, and established the US Central Command (CENTCOM) to guard the Strait—but not Washington's determination to ensure the unhindered flow of oil there. Indeed, President Obama has made it clear that, even if CENTCOM ground forces were to leave Afghanistan, as they have Iraq, there would be no reduction in the command's air and naval presence in the greater Gulf area.
It is conceivable that the Iranians will put Washington's capabilities to the test. On December 27th, Iran's first vice president Mohammad-Reza Rahimi said, "If [the Americans] impose sanctions on Iran's oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz." Similar statements have since been made by other senior officials (and contradicted as well by yet others). In addition, the Iranians recently conducted elaborate naval exercises in the Arabian Sea near the eastern mouth of the strait, and more such maneuvers are said to be forthcoming. At the same time, the commanding general of Iran's army suggested that the USS John C. Stennis, an American aircraft carrier just leaving the Gulf, should not return. "The Islamic Republic of Iran," he added ominously, "will not repeat its warning."
Might the Iranians actually block the strait? Many analysts believe that the statements by Rahimi and his colleagues are bluster and bluff meant to rattle Western leaders, send oil prices higher, and win future concessions if negotiations ever recommence over their country's nuclear program. Economic conditions in Iran are, however, becoming more desperate, and it is always possible that the country's hard-pressed hardline leaders may feel the urge to take some dramatic action, even if it invites a powerful US counterstrike. Whatever the case, the Strait of Hormuz will remain a focus of international attention in 2012, with global oil prices closely following the rise and fall of tensions there.