Providence of some form or another has twice caused a great wind to go over the Red Sea – once many thousands of years ago to split the sea, and once more just last month to close the Suez. The 200,000 ton Ever Given ship closed down the vital shipping lane that is the Suez Canal when it ran off course, causing an estimated $10 billion worth of goods to be held up every day. Geopolitically, this incident demonstrates not only the importance of straits as chokepoints to the international transit of goods, but also as a reminder of just how easy it is to block them and cause astronomical losses to the global economy.
A Tale of Two Straits: Bab el-Mandeb and Hormuz
Indeed the question of the straits is of the first order among military strategists and policy makers – securing them is of the utmost importance. It should be no surprise then that much of the political tension in the world is caused by these straits, and by three in particular – the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. While much has been written on the importance of Malacca to the East Asian economies, and even more on the danger of Iran on the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic value of the Bab el-Mandeb is much less publicized. The truth is rather ominous – should the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels succeed in Yemen, then Iran would have military control of both the Bab al-Mandeb and Hormuz, effectively holding the world’s trade routes hostage.
The Red Sea is unlike most other seas, due in large part to both the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandeb. These chokepoints cause the Red Sea to act as a maritime shortcut to East Asia, saving traders the need to go around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. This shortens the trip by many, many weeks and saves untold amounts in shipping costs. Essentially, the Red Sea derives its geopolitical value from these two chokepoints, and everything that passes through the Suez Canal must pass through the Bab al-Mandeb. To close the Suez would effectively close the Bab al-Mandeb, and vice versa. This is because most of the traffic going through the Red Sea does not originate from the neighboring countries, but comes from afar off.
Iranian Foreign Policy: Explained
Iran poses a very serious threat to the maritime security of the Red Sea. The Strait of Hormuz at 39km wide at its narrowest has always been Iran’s trump card in foreign affairs and its international diplomacy. Closing the Hormuz for prolonged periods of time would obliterate many nations’ economies, as it is a vital chokepoint for the shipping of oil from the Persian Gulf. Similarly, the Bab al-Mandeb is only 26km wide at its narrowest, and already rife with piracy and lawlessness. The same speedboats and surface-to-surface missiles that can close Hormuz can close the Bab al-Mandeb. Lacing either strait with mines could make it unnavigable for weeks or even months even if no further conflict escalated. Pre-COVID-19, the Bab al-Mandeb facilitated the movement of 6.2 million barrels per day of crude oil and other energy products, and saw upwards of 20,000 ships pass through it annually. Guarding such a high volume of maritime traffic with such lawlessness and internally destabilized nations on its shores is a tough task – conversely, capitalizing on these weaknesses to close the strait is an easy task for Iran. It would not take much resources for Iran to exert its control and deny navies the right of passage through the straights.
Why else arm the Houthi rebels of Yemen? Why else invest so much, so continually, into that war? Claiming the Yemen via proxy brings many strategic and tactical benefits to the Iranians, but they all pale in comparison to controlling the Bab al-Mandeb. That strait alone, without any other reason, is enough geopolitical justification for Iran to so influence the events in Yemen. Iran is used to hostage taking, first the American hostages in 1979, and now the world’s shipping lanes and international energy supply. It has chosen its targets well, because holding effective control of these two straits would deter any opposition to its foreign policy practices. Simply, the cost of apprehending the Iranians would be immediate and much greater than the potential benefits which, at the end of the day, may not manifest at all.
The expanding Chinese presence in Africa, especially Djibouti, here becomes a pivotal factor. Djibouti sits across Yemen from the Bab el-Mandeb, and has just as powerful a say in determining who or what passes the strait. While Djibouti may not as a state have the power to determine the fate of the strait, the Chinese do and in more ways than one. Chinese interests in their trade war with the US dictate that the major shipping lanes must remain open; it is then doubtful that the Chinese will let their Iranian allies jeopardize their strategic and maritime interests not only in the Bab el-Mandeb, but also in the Hormuz. Despite this, the threat remains potent.
Balance of Power
The stakes are high in Yemen; it has never been a simple regional issue as the outcome of that war has global implications. Should the Tehran backed Houthis succeed, the Suez passage would be rendered moot and Iran would effectively control passage through both the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. The success of the Houthis would risk greatly upsetting the global balance of power. Regardless of whether or not Iran actually closes the straits, it is enough that it pose a clear threat at doing so. Control over these waterways would give them a greater negotiating power and geopolitical gravitas.
Undoubtedly, such a military closure of the Bab al-Mandeb and Hormuz would be much harder to clear away than an off-course ship in the Suez, and much, much more costly.