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Reporter's notebook: journey to the Strait of Hormuz

Ali Arouzi / NBC News

By Ali Arouzi
NBC News
BANDAR ABBAS, IRAN

 

With each passing day, the tension between Iran and the West escalates over access to the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway for oil exports at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

Over the weekend “Nightly News” was given a rare opportunity to visit the port city of Bandar Abbas, the closest Iranian city to the Strait of Hormuz.  We were the only foreign journalists allowed to visit the city, an area just a few miles from the Strait, and speak to the people who live there.


After flying into Bandar Abbas airport we jumped into a cab, and it did not take long for our driver, Jamshid, to start complaining about soaring inflation and the effect of U.S sanctions. He told us that the price of everything has gone up and he and his family are struggling to stay afloat.  

Today, the European Union joined the United States in imposing heavy sanctions on the Iran oil and gas sector. The sanctions came one day after a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, steamed through the crucial sea passage without incident, despite threats issued by the Iranian government three weeks ago.

A pair of Chinese-made shoes that Jamshid had bought for his daughter about three months ago now cost $40, nearly double what he previously paid. When we spoke about the presence of a large American fleet in the vicinity, Jamshid told me that his cousin had an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the 5th fleet and it scared him half to death because it was like a floating city. I asked Jamshid in what capacity his cousin had seen the 5th fleet, but he declined to tell me.

Ali Arouzi / NBC News

We approached people at a fish market, but when the camera came out people clammed up. The few people who did talk to us were not happy.

A fishmonger, who told us his name was Ali, said work had become prohibitively expensive. The price of fishing and materials has sky rocketed, he said, and people simply don’t have the money to buy fish because the price goes up daily.

Others spoke to us off-camera and said they fear war and don't know what to do. More boisterous members of the crowd said they had no fear and would fight till their last breath.

From there, we took to the waters, where we traveled through the Persian Gulf. Amid the plethora of oil tankers, it became obvious that this chokepoint also offered a lifeline for fishing boats, cargo boats and the multitude of unmarked Iranian speedboats that make a clandestine crossing every day loaded with smuggled consumer goods -- ranging from Chinese-made shoes to Japanese cars -- from the other side of the Gulf.

As far as many merchants and politicians are concerned, this is the most significant waterway in the world, and it's here in the Persian Gulf that America and Iran's resolve will be tested if they can't come to some sort of a compromise.

With 17 million barrels of oil traveling through the Strait of Hormuz every day, it's a tight squeeze: only 21 miles at its widest point, and its shipping lanes are even narrower. Inbound and outbound lanes are only two miles wide. This is where Iran can cause trouble if its oil sales are disrupted or it's attacked.

Ali Arouzi / NBC News

Today, lawmaker Mohammad Ismail Kowsari, deputy head of Iran's influential committee on national security told Iran’s Mehr news agency the Strait "would definitely be closed if the sale of Iranian oil is violated in any way."

Kowsari claimed that in case of the Strait's closure, the U.S. and its allies would not be able to reopen the route, and warned America not to attempt any "military adventurism."

Another senior lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, told the news agency Iran has the right to shutter Hormuz in retaliation for oil sanctions, and that the closure was increasingly probable.  

And Iran is preparing itself for that eventuality with war games involving the country’s Navy and Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf becoming routine.

A senior commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards said Saturday on state TV that the likely return of U.S. naval vessels to the region was "not a new issue and ... should be interpreted as part of their permanent presence." This may be seen as a sign of cooler heads prevailing while a last-ditch attempt is made to restart nuclear talks, but it does not indicate any change of stance on Iran’s nuclear program. If talks don't bear fruit, or if Iran is blocked from selling its oil, cooler heads won't prevail for long. One analyst, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity, told me that if Iran can't sell its oil through the Gulf, it's not going to let anyone else do so.

Back on dry land, we visited the local bazaar where we spoke to a man who went by the name Koshrude, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. While we were setting up to interview him he argued with a client buying tea. The client complained that the goods were too expensive, but Koshrude said, "What can I do? The price of the dollar has gone up, so has the Dirham. We have sanctions and threats … it's not in my hands.”

The client reluctantly bought two boxes of Indian tea and left. Koshrude said, “The customer was right to complain, prices are staggering!”

When asked about the presence of the U.S. Navy in the area, Koshrude dismissed it as saber rattling at sea.

"We have seen these pressures before. We dealt with it and we will do so again," he said.

Our day was drawing to an end and hunger started to set in. In the true tradition of Iranian hospitality, Jamshid, our driver, insisted that we go to his house and have dinner with his family. He said, “It is my duty. You are guests in my town, and besides which the restaurants are too expensive.”   

After our meal, he dropped us off at our hotel and bid us farewell. I could not help feeling very sorry for him because it's the working man that will pay disproportionally for Iran's standoff with the West.