Is Tehran planning an oil spill in the Gulf? | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 18.10.2012
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Middle East

Is Tehran planning an oil spill in the Gulf?

In response to strengthened sanctions, Iran is reportedly planning a targeted oil spill in the Strait of Hormuz, according to newsmagazine Der Spiegel. But in doing so, the country would only harm itself.

According to information from Der Spiegel, such a planned environmental catastrophe would close shipping routes to international oil tankers and thereby "punish" neighboring Arab states that are against Iran.

According to Der Spiegel, the plan by Iran's Revolutionary Guard would lead to a contamination of the Strait of Hormuz which would force the West to undertake a large-scale environmental cleanup - "and also potentially suspend its sanctions against Iran," the paper writes.

Deterrence plan, or serious threat?

Iranian navy soldiers take part in a military exercise in the straight of Homruz (Photo: EPA/ALI MOHAMMADI /dpa)

The Strait of Hormuz is a strategic waterway for Iran

Said Mahmoudi, a maritime law expert and lecturer at Stockholm University, said this "fictitious scenario of the Revolutionary Guard" would be self-destructive. The world community would not stand idly by and allow such a disaster, said Mahmoudi, but take every possible measure to secure the shipping lanes off Iran's southern coast.

Mahmoudi added that such a plan could also be considered a violation of international conventions and a threat to international peace, and would be answered accordingly, should Tehran make such intentions clear.

"If Iran was to deliberately cause an oil tanker disaster, the whole region would be shaken by a new conflict," said Houchang Hassan-Yari, an Iranian-born lecturer at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Canada. But, he added, the Americans have planned for such an event and put preventative measures in place.

"American experts believe such an action would close the Strait of Hormuz for less than a month," said Hassan-Yari. "This is why neighboring Arab states have set up alternative transport routes for their oil exports." For Hassan-Yari, one thing is clear: a deliberate contamination would not jeopardize the world's most strategically important waterway, nor would it lead to serious financial problems for the countries that are dependent on oil exports. Indeed, Iran itself would likely suffer the most damage.

Strait of Hormuz

The waters from the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean all flow through the Strait of Hormuz

'Equivalent to a declaration a war'

According to "Der Spiegel", Iran's Revolutionary Guard believes an oil catastrophe would force the West to lift the sanctions against Iran in order to coordinate an environmental cleanup. Hassan-Yari, however, doesn't believe the Revolutionary Guard has made such plans. "[Such an action] would be equivalent to a declaration of war against the whole world," he said. On the contrary, Iran would be risking the opposite: a tightening of sanctions from the West and even possible military action against it.

Mahmoudi also questions the effectiveness of such a plan by Iran, calling it a completely absurd scenario. "It's unthinkable that someone would believe that such a disaster would be in Iran's best interests," he said.

The sea would recover

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Photo: EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH/dpa)

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has sent a clear message to the West

According to Gholamreza Miraki, an environmental expert and the former head of the environment bureau in Iran's Ministry of Agriculture, an oil spill would not be limited to the Strait of Hormuz but would soon spread to the waters of the Persian Gulf.

"The waters from the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean all flow through the Strait of Hormuz and are divided into two streams: one at the surface, the other along the seabed," said Miraki. An oil spill would eventually spread to other bodies of water, reducing the concentration in the strait and eventually dispersing completely, similar to what the region saw in the Iraq-Iran war from 1980-1988.

Tehran has so far not commented on the Spiegel report. Instead, the country's political and religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has reaffirmed the regime's commitment to its ambitious nuclear program. The West can not "force the country to its knees," he said on Tuesday (16.10.2012). At the same time, Khamenei also signaled a readiness to talk, saying Iran had never broken off the nuclear talks and was still willing to negotiate.

However, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said a precondition for continued negotiations would be that the West allows Iran to continue enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. He said Iran needed the enriched uranium for medical reasons such as, for example, cancer treatment. The West has accused Iran of enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons.

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