Halpern: Storms over the Strait of Hormuz


I'm thinking

by Micah D. Halpern

Issue of August 6, 2010/ 26 Av, 5770
Last week, the unthinkable occurred in the most explosive location in this world.

The M. Star, a Japanese mega tanker carrying two million barrels of oil, was attacked in the Persian Gulf’s Straits of Hormuz.

Days later an al Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility by posting an Internet message, saying it was a suicide attack. It is not clear that this group is responsible. Often multiple groups vie for the credit. Only a complete investigation can determine what or who created a divet in the hull of the M. Star.

Therefore, claims aside, the cause of the explosion that damaged the ship is still unexplained and is being investigated. Several theories have, pardon the pun, floated to the surface. It could have been carried out by al Qaeda, pirates or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The tanker may have collided with a submarine or struck an underwater mine. Maybe it was a seismic anomaly, the result of an earthquake that slapped the ship.

Finding the cause has taken on critical importance in the halls of power extending throughout the Middle East to the Western world. The safety of ships traversing the waters of the Straits of Hormuz is of national security importance to — everyone. On any given day between 30 and 40 percent of all the world’s oil is carried on tankers like the M. Star through the Straits and then on to their destinations. Any interruption would cause a serious crisis in oil markets around the world. That would set off a domino effect causing colossal damage to oil exporting and oil importing countries, spiking gas and oil prices and causing a serious oil shortage to the West.

The attack occurred as the M. Star made its way from the United Arab Emirates to Japan. The ship is now in port in Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, where the investigation continues. Pictures of the mega tanker show a humongous dent in the side of the vessel. The hull was not broken but the force of the hit caused a lifeboat to be thrown from the deck and forced a number of hatches to close.

No oil was lost.

But what really happened? The seismic explanation is interesting but implausible. A wave clap of that magnitude, so isolated that it was not picked up by the U.S. Fifth Fleet which is right there in the area, is highly unusual.

The submarine collision theory is slightly more plausible. In the past there have been incidents of submarines bumping into tankers; once the collision even caused an old explosive mine to ignite. What puts this explanation back into the implausible category is that when subs and tankers do collide, countries usually come clean during the ensuing investigation. Not so long ago an American nuclear sub bumped a Japanese tanker and the U.S. owned up pretty quickly.

That leaves us with the attack theory.

Whether pirates, al Qaeda or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the perpetrators were able to strike and leave without being detected. There are several good reasons for each of these groups to want to attack a tanker in the Straits. Until now no attempt has been made because the risk of being detected or of having the attack traced back to any of these groups made the stakes, the international backlash, the costs for an attack of this type, much too high.

This time, someone might have taken the risk. Either they got very, very lucky or this attack was thought through very, very, well.

Until the cause of this attack is determined, until steps are taken to prevent further incidents of this sort, there can be no more smooth sailing through the Straits of Hormuz.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. Read his latest book THUGS. He maintains The Micah Report at www.micahhalpern.com.