A report from German news magazine Der Spiegel states that Iran's latest effort to disrupt key shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz may be to cause a massive oil spill. Code-named Murky Water, the operation may serve to force a temporary respite from sanctions targeting the country's energy sector. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein tried a similar tactic during the first Gulf War to deter invading U.S. forces. If the German report is true, the Iranian operation could be a sign of Tehran's dwindling options.
Der Spiegel, citing unnamed "Western intelligence officials" privy to "top secret" information, reports that Iranian Revolutionary Guards Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari could order an oil spill by possibly wrecking an oil tanker in the key strait. Such an act would force the temporary closure of the conduit for much of the world's maritime oil shipments. When Iran threatened to choke off the strait early this year, oil markets went into overdrive despite a lack of physical disruptions. But apart from closing the strait, the German report notes, any international response to the spill would require lifting the embargo on Iranian oil shipments and potentially result in kickbacks for Iranian companies responding to the disaster.
Iraqi forces in 1991 tried to avert an amphibious assault by the U.S. Marines by dumping an estimated 5.7 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, making it the worst oil spill of its kind in world history. While roughly half that spill evaporated, much of the residual oil seeped into sensitive marshlands in the region. In the sixth-worst spill in history, eleven people died in 1983 when, during the Iran-Iraq War, a 1.9-million-barrel slick from an oil tanker collision caught fire in the Persian Gulf.
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Der Spiegel reports the plans for Murky Water may now be in the hands of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who makes all final decisions in Iran. The ruling cleric said Monday that economic pressure on his country wasn't a destabilizing factor when considering the resolve of the Iranian people.
"Dear Iran enjoys an exemplary political stability and tranquility due to the nation's really admirable vigilance, awareness and insight backed up by people's presence on the scene," he said. "The Iranian nation has managed to show its capabilities to the world despite threats, sanctions and the enemies' hostilities relying on this stability and tranquility."
His resolve, however, ignores recent political trends. A top adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was taken into custody in late September for publishing material deemed offensive to Khamenei. Weeks later, lawmakers passed a measure calling on the president to answer questions about his economic policies after the Iranian currency collapsed. Ahmadinejad, blamed currency speculators for causing the devaluation, saying any criticism against his domestic policies was part of a "psychological war." The historic Grand Bazaar, meanwhile, was closed in response to economic protests.
The European Union announced Monday it was taking further action against the Central Bank of Iran because of Tehran's "flagrant violation" of its international nuclear obligations. Sanctions imposed on Iran are meant to starve the country of revenue needed to fund its controversial nuclear program. The U.S. government has offered waivers for some sanctions on Iran, meaning crude oil continues to flow from the Islamic republic. If the Der Spiegel report is true, however, economic pressure is finally forcing the country into a corner.
Der Spiegel's story, widely circulated by the Israeli media during the weekend, wasn't verified by outside reports.
By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com