The Iranian Navy conducted "aggressive" action against a USN surface action group transiting the Strait of Hormuz. According to the NYT, "the incident, which lasted about 20 minutes and ended uneventfully, took place in international waters, according to the spokesman, Bryan Whitman. The American vessels were a destroyer, a frigate and a cruiser." Commenters at an NYT related blog are calling it "Gulf of Tonkin II". The obvious differences between the two incidents, apart from the fact that the USN warships did not fire upon the Iranians or allege taking fire from them, is that the Gulf of Tonkin was a backwater in Southeast Asia and the Strait of Hormuz is the world's most important oil chokepoint. The Street reports that despite the absence of actual hostilities, the incident has pushed up oil prices. That increase probably more than paid for Iran's naval expenses right there.
The Gulf of Hormuz is one of the major outlets for Persian Gulf oil and the incident probably caused blood pressures to shoot up in Beijing as much as in Washington. Westhawk points out that in physical terms, the US is far less dependent on Persian Gulf oil than popularly believed. "According to the U.S. Energy Department, as of July 2007 the U.S. relied on imports for 59.9% of its net crude oil and petroleum product consumption. Yet just 17% of those imports came from the Persian Gulf." The same can't be said of China. The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security notes:
But despite its efforts to diversify its sources, China has become increasingly dependent on Middle East oil. Today, 58% of China's oil imports come from the region. By 2015, the share of Middle East oil will stand on 70%. Though historically China has had no long-standing strategic interests in the Middle East, its relationship with the region from where most of its oil comes is becoming increasingly important.
Not only does Iran stand to gain from the rise in the market price of oil associated with any threat it may itself make to the Gulf of Hormuz, it also gains leverage by making a credible threat to the energy lifeline of one country in the world that knows the value of cash diplomacy: China. Ironically, it is China itself which has provided the weapons with which to threaten its own lifeline. Had the US warships fired on the Iranians, or if the missile boats had fired accidentally, traffic through the Straits would now be temporarily disrupted. Although the NYT does not specify the type or Iranian missle boat which made the run against the USN surface action group, the Strategy Page allows us to deduce what they probably were.
Twenty missile boats are currently in service with Iran. Ten are serving with the Iranian navy. These are older Combattante III missile boats. These vessels were purchased in the 1970s, and as a result, they once carried the American-built Harpoon missile. They displace 249 tons, have a 76mm gun, and a 40mm gun. Recently, they were equipped with four C802 missiles. The C802 has a range of 120 kilometers, flies as low as five meters above the surface of the sea in its terminal phase, and has a speed of 1,013 kilometers per hour.
Iran also acquired ten Houdong-class patrol boats from China for the Pasdaran Revolutionary Guard Corps. These ships displace 118 tons, carry four C802 missiles, a twin 30mm gun, and a twin 23mm gun. This is a parallel force to the Iranian Navy (much as the Republican Guard operated in a parallel structure with the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein?s regime).
The Iranian Navy would probably have used their most modern units for this operation. Those would consequently have been Chinese-built Houdong-class missile boats carrying the C802 missile. Readers may recall that the C802 struck and seriously damaged a modern Israeli corvette, the INS Hanit, during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. The INS Hanit was armed with 2 Barak point-defense missile launchers and a Mk 15 20 mm Phalanx Close in Weapons System. And although the 3 USN surface combatants carried considerably more defensive firepower than the Hanit, the five Iranian missile boats may have been collectively armed with up to 20 C802, which is many times more than the threat faced by the INS Hanit. The C802 has a range of up to 120 km and an undisturbed hit probability of 98%. In the close confines of the Gulf of Hormuz, where engagement distances may be short, the threat posed by missile boats darting out of the Iranian coast is far from trivial.
The NYT's Lede blog is probably correct in arguing that the Iranian actions are connected to the forthcoming trip by President George Bush to the region. "President Bush is arriving in the region on Tuesday, and The Washington Post reported today that he plans to rally support against Iran “even as a recent U.S. intelligence report playing down Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has left Israeli and Arab leaders rethinking their own approach toward Iran and questioning Washington’s resolve." The Iranians are not the only ones making threats. Adam Gadahn, who is now a spokesman for al-Qaeda issued "an urgent call to our mujahideen brothers in Muslim Palestine, and in the Arabian Peninsula in particular, and all the region in general. They should be in full readiness to receive the crusader arch-killer Bush in his visit to Muslim Palestine and to the occupied Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of January. They should receive him not with roses and applause, but with bombs and booby-traps." Gadahn then tore up his US passport before the camera; maybe he plans on getting a new one at some propitious time in the future.
Bassam Fattouh of Energy Publisher argues the threat of the "Iranian oil weapon" or threat to the closure of the Gulf of Hormuz is essentially a myth because Iran itself is too dependent upon oil and a closure of the Gulf would turn too many countries against it. If this is the case then the recent Iranian missile boat incident, like Adam Gadahn's threat, is largely symbolic in nature and aimed at getting the attention of the press.