The Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most sensitive oil-transportation choke point, remains in focus, after U.S. and Iranian officials on Thursday said Iran shot down a U.S. military drone near the waterway.
“This event is raising fears Iran and the U.S. are headed toward a military confrontation that would have serious price consequences for energy. There is too much dangerous activity going on in the Strait of Hormuz,” said Phil Flynn, senior market analyst at Price Futures Group, in a note.
It is the latest in a string of incidents near the waterway that have contributed to rising fears of a U.S.-Iran military conflict that could disrupt the flow of crude oil from the Middle East. It comes less than a week after a pair of oil tankers were attacked near the coast of Iran which the U.S. blamed on Tehran.
Here’s a look at the Strait of Hormuz and why it is so important to the global crude-oil market.
Where is the Strait of Hormuz?
The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow waterway that links the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
At its narrowest point, the waterway is only 21 miles wide, and the width of the shipping lane in either direction is just 2 miles, separated by a two-mile buffer zone.
Why is it important?
Oil tankers carrying crude from ports on the Persian Gulf must pass through the strait. Around 21 million barrels of oil a day flowed through it in 2018, equivalent to roughly a third of global seaborne oil trade and about 21% of global petroleum liquids consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Can the strait be bypassed?
Not easily. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates operate the only pipelines capable of shipping crude outside the Persian Gulf and the additional pipeline capacity to circumvent the strait, the EIA said. At the end of 2018, the total available crude-oil pipeline capacity for both countries combined was estimated at 6.5 million barrels a day. With 2.7 million barrels a day moving through the pipelines that year, around 3.8 million barrels a day of unused capacity would have been available to bypass the strait, the EIA said (see table below).
What’s the latest?
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a paramilitary that answers solely to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, said it shot down the drone when it entered Iranian airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in southern Iran’s Hormozgan Province, the Associated Press reported. Kouhmobarak is around 1,200 kilometers southeast of Tehran and near the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. military confirmed an unmanned drone was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile in what it said was an unprovoked attack in international airspace, The Wall Street Journal reported (paywall).
President Donald Trump, in a tweet, said, “Iran made a very big mistake!”
Asked if the U.S. planned a retaliatory strike, Trump told reporters, “You will soon find out.” But Trump added that he had a “big, big feeling” that Iran accidentally shot down the drone and that someone “loose and stupid” was responsible.
The downing of the drone and last week’s tanker attacks follow a May incident that saw four tankers damaged in what Gulf authorities deemed “sabotage.” The incidents follow the U.S. decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, with Washington moving this spring to end waivers for several importers of Iranian crude. Military bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq have also come under rocket attack in the past week
Oil futures, which were already set to get a lift from the Federal Reserve’s signal that it is prepared to deliver a rate cut as early as next month, rallied sharply to set June highs. Brent crude
the global benchmark, was up around 4% at $64.24 a barrel, while the U.S. standard-bearer, West Texas Intermediate crude
was more than 5% higher at $56.97 a barrel.
Stock-market investors initially shrugged off the incident, with the S&P 500
rising to an all-time high Thursday in a rally attributed to the Fed’s dovish tilt on rates, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average
advanced more than 200 points. But equities trimmed gains after Trump’s remarks, with the S&P holding a 0.7% gain, while the Dow was also up 0.7, or 182 points.
The U.S. in May announced it was sending an aircraft carrier group, bombers and a Patriot antimissile battery to counter what the Trump administration said were “clear indications” that Iran and its proxies were preparing to possibly attack U.S. forces in the region. That was in addition to the existing presence of the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Could Iran close the strait?
The Fifth Fleet’s presence has long cast doubt on Iran’s ability to close the waterway, analysts said.
The U.S. naval presence would make it extremely difficult for Iran to choke off traffic, but the country “has the strategic depth to stage one-off attacks on vessels, not just in the critical chokepoints but also in the region’s relatively open waters,” said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets said, in a May research note.
Is war likely?
Iran’s leadership appears comfortable taking large risks in its engagements, targeting U.S. forces directly rather than sticking to deniable, low-level attacks against third-party targets, said Henry Rome, analyst at Eurasia Group, in a note. The death of U.S. service members would be almost certain to force Trump’s hand, he said.
The U.S., however, appears unlikely to retaliate militarily for the downing of the drone, he said.
“Today’s attack underscores our decision to raise the probability of war between the U.S. and Iran to 40%, but war is still not base case,” said Henry Rome, analyst at Eurasia Group, in a note. The political-risk consulting firm earlier this week raised its estimate of the probability of a U.S.-Iran military confrontation over the next six months to 40% from 30%.