Located between Iran and Oman, this maritime corridor links hydrocarbon producers from the Middle East to markets in Asia, Europe and North America.
It is a particularly strategic and sensitive area. It extends over fifty kilometers in width, only, for 60 meters deep, at most. The Strait of Hormuz, wedged between Iran and the Sultanate of Oman, is once again in the spotlight after the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by an American strike.
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Tehran did not wait for the death of its general to threaten to block the Strait of Hormuz in the event of American military action. It must be said that this maritime corridor where the Iranian navy patrols remains the almost exclusive shipping route connecting hydrocarbon producers in the Middle East, in particular Saudi Arabia, the world‘s largest oil exporter, to the markets of Asia, d ‘Europe and North America.
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In 2018, around 21 million barrels of crude oil passed through the Strait of Hormuz every day, according to the American Energy Agency (EIA). About a fifth of world oil production therefore goes through this oil artery. A third of the crude oil transiting by sea in the world also circulates there.
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Another figure explaining the geostrategic importance of Ormuz: a quarter of the world trade in liquefied natural gas passes through this area located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, where oil and gas deposits are absent. “It is the main artery of the world oil trade, the most strategic strait in the world“, insists with Express Francis Perrin, research director at Irs and associate researcher at the Policy Center for the New South, at Rabat, Morocco.
China, obstacle to any blockage
A key passage in the supply of oil, in the hands of the Iranians and therefore at the center of concern. Despite threats from Tehran, a total blockage seems excluded since two-thirds of crude exports passing through the Strait of Hormuz are destined for Asian countries, notably China, according to the EIA. However, Beijing is Tehran’s first trading partner. “China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and it is the world‘s largest importer of oil, so it is a country that must be managed, especially since Iran does not have a lot of support international “, analyzes Francis Perrin.
“If Iran blocked the Strait of Hormuz, it would be angry with the whole world, in particular China, a country which tries rather to help it. The Iranians therefore have no interest in doing so”, abounds François Nicoullaud , former French ambassador to Iran, contacted by Express.
Very well-armed small boats, operational missiles
In addition, in the event of a blockage in the maritime corridor, Tehran “would then no longer be able to export the little oil that it can still export due to the American sanctions, so it would shoot itself in the foot,” explains Francis Perrin. And “it would be considered an act of war and the American response would be devastating,” added the researcher.
However, Iran has other means of destabilizing the Strait of Hormuz. “There is such a density of oil and gas infrastructure in the region that there is no shortage of potential targets,” said Francis Perrin. On May 12, Saudi tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. A month later, two tankers heading to Asia had been attacked in the Gulf of Oman, Tehran denying the attacks. In July 2019, the Stena Empire, a British oil tanker, had been boarded by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz.
“Iran has a real power of nuisance, with a fleet of small boats very well armed and very fast. The Iranians also have an aviation which takes the road, drones and operational missiles”, estimates Denis Florin, partner at Lavoisier Council and specialist in energy matters, joined by Express.
Limited threat to oil prices
Another possibility for Tehran: sprinkle mines with the Strait of Hormuz, which would take a long time to remove. But this hypothesis is however “complicated” and “will not be done in three days”, judge François Nicoullaud. “It would then make oil prices jump, even if they would then go down,” said the former ambassador.
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Oil prices have already been rising for a few days, buoyed by escalating tensions in the Middle East following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. “The Iranian crisis has considerably reduced the risk appetite of investors”, who fear a “drastic increase in the price of oil” likely to “blow a headwind on the world economy”, summarizes Milan Cukovic, market analyst at Axitrader , with AFP.
Around 3:55 pm, this Monday prices per barrel climbed 0.96% for Brent in London and 0.73% for WTI in New York. They had already taken more than 3% Friday, after the death of the powerful Iranian general.
“After a period of price pressure, there is immediately a drop, because the Americans then increase their marginal production capacity, which compensates. Their production model of oil and gas is extremely reactive,” notes Denis Florin. What limit the impact of rising prices at the pump for users.