Can IRan, by lashing out with sporadic rocket attacks, effectively close the Strait of Hormuz, despite the presence of a US Navy task force prowling outside?
The question arises in the wake of the reported sinking Oct. 7 of three foreign cargo ships, and damage to others, by Iranian troops holding out in their battered port city of Khorramshahr.
US experts generally agree that Iran cannot directly close the vital strait, through which flows much of the oil that fuels Western economies, because the Iranian Navy lacks the capacity to mine the waterway and because ship channels are too deep to be blocked by sunken vessels.
Other experts cite a different danger: namely, that Iran -- by firing missiles at oil tankers and otherships in the Persian Gulf -- might make the price of passage too steep for shiponwers to pay.
In the first days of the war, marine insurance rates for vessels with cargoes bound for the two warring countries, Iran and Iraq, soard, and the Oct. 7 sinking of foreign ships off Khorramshahr may nudge them higher. However, cargo insurance elsewhere in the Gulf region has remained largely unchanged since the outbreak of hostilities.
Sailors from the striken ships at Khorramshahr, who reportedly swam to the Iraqi side of the Shatt al Arab after the attack, say the sunken vessels were registered in China, Panama, and Dubai. Vessels of India and Romania also reportedly were damages.
Another cause of potential concern to shipowners, experts say, is the Iraqi demand that three tiny Iranian-held islands in the Gulf, near the Strait of Hormuz, be returned to "Arab control."
The three islets, commanding a strategic position in the Gulf, had belonged to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), until they were claimed and occupied by the former Shah of Iran.
From the standpoint of foreign shippers, including oil companies, fighting on and around the islands would add to the danger of passage through the Gulf.
Reports from Oman, at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, say nearly 40 large oil tankers are riding empty at anchor off the Omani port of Mina Qaboos, awaiting word from their owners whether or not to steam into the gulf to load oil.
John Lichtblau, a leading US oil expert, says that the mere presence of the tankers off Oman does not necessarily mean they willnot enter the Gulf.
Waiting off Oman, south of the Strait of Hormuz, he noted, is cheaper than to wait for berthing space in the Gulf itself, because of high insurance rates near the war zone.