Germany's weekly Der Spiegel reports that Iran may be planning an intentional oil spill as a mechanism for repealing the crushing economic sanctions:

Oct 15 (Reuters) - Iran's Revolutionary Guards chief has drafted a plan to cause an environmental disaster in the Strait of Hormuz to block seaborne oil exports with the goal of removing economic sanctions imposed on Tehran, the weekly Der Spiegel said in an unsourced report...

The German newsmagazine reported that Mohammad Ali Jafari's plan, codenamed "Muddy Water", envisages the Iranians steering a tanker onto the rocks in the Strait, the world's most important oil shipping waterway.

"The aim is to block shipping temporarily through the contamination, to 'punish' adjacent Arab states that are hostile to Iran and to force the West to take part in a large-scale cleanup of the waters - and possibly thereby a suspension of sanctions against Tehran," Spiegel said.

The Strait of Hormuz, as shown on this graphic, is located between Iran and Oman, connecting the oil-rich Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. Given its strategic location and challenging geometry, the Strait of Hormuz functions as a significant "chokepoint" to the movement of oil from the region.

        Hormuz 1

The volume of oil passing through the Strait is daunting:

...almost 17 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2011, up from between 15.5-16.0 million bbl/d in 2009-2010. Flows through the Strait in 2011 were roughly 35% of all seaborne traded oil, or almost 20% of oil traded worldwide.

On average, 14 crude oil tankers per day passed through the Strait in 2011, with a corresponding amount of empty tankers entering to pick up new cargos. More than 85% of these crude oil exports went to Asian markets, with Japan, India, South Korea, and China representing the largest destinations.

Clearly, anything that threatens the continued international reliance on the Strait of Hormuz for movement of oil would have global economic and political implications.  The fact that something catastrophic is being seriously considered by the leadership of Iran's Revolutionary Guards also suggests that the sanctions are indeed having the desired effect on Iran's economy and trade.

Oil spills in marine environments, as we've seen with the Exxon Valdez and the BP Horizon release, pose significant logistical problems to contain. Conditions in the Strait of Hormuz are more complex by far than those in the US Gulf. The bathymetric, tidal, and shipping logistics challenges would be compounded by political considerations, and the need for deployment of technologies by other nations.

As noted in Der Spiegel, there's madness to their madness:

"A decontamination would only be possible with technical help from the Iranian authorities and for this the embargo would have to be at least temporarily lifted," it said.

"Iranian firms, some of them owned by the Revolutionary Guards, could even profit from the rescue operations."

As always, it's worth following the money, but creating an ecological apocalypse in the Strait of Hormuz to make a few rials off the clean-up seems like a Pyrrhic victory at best; sheer insanity at worst.

It's possible that this is simply more saber-rattling, but evidently:

...Western intelligence services were studying the plan, which it said now required only the approval of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be put into effect.
It's certainly a situation that bears watching. It would not be the first act of eco-terrorism in the region, but it could have disastrous near-term and long-term consequences that go far beyond a temporary disruption of shipping and some profiteering by clean-up contractors.


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