The Crisis Gripping The World’s Most Dangerous Waterway – By Paul Knott | The New European

  • IRAN and its strategic capability to close the Strait of Hormuz

Paul Knott | The New European

Donald Trump shows no signs of being a student of history. Let’s allow that his recent reference to the capture of “airports” by the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War against Britain in the late 18th century was a slip of the tongue.

More serious is his reckless policy towards Iran, which suggests he knows nothing of the ‘Tanker War’, which occurred in the Persian Gulf between 1984 and 1987.

Indeed, given the much-documented chaos in his administration, one wonders whether anyone in the White House is bearing past precedents in mind when developing current strategy. This omission matters because the looming repeat of a battle targeting commercial shipping could cause immense human and economic damage.  (See map below)     

The shipping industry is the crucial but largely unseen circulatory system of our globalised world. As described in Rose George’s engaging book on the subject Deep Sea and Foreign Going, the roughly 100,000 ships – some the size of football pitches – of the international commercial fleet fetch and carry some “90% of everything” we need and consume. This includes “the clothes on your back, the fuel in your car and the food on your plate”. Stop the shipping industry and you stop the world.

Even a partial disruption of global shipping can cause considerable problems. And the growing tensions between the United States and Iran are threatening to do exactly that.

A series of six attacks on merchant ships in the Persian Gulf took place in May and June. These involved controlled explosive devices being placed on the vessels’ hulls to hole them above the water line. No loss of life or cargo ensued. Despite Iran’s protestations that these attacks were ‘false flag’ operations designed to discredit it by its enemies, most international observers judge them to be warning shots by Tehran. In their view, they were intended to demonstrate the damage Iran could inflict on global shipping in response to any military conflict initiated by the US.

The potential scale of the disruption Iran could cause is huge.

The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow shipping artery between Iran and Oman. Approximately one-third of the world’s seaborne crude oil exports pass through the strait – just 21 nautical miles (39km) wide at their narrowest point – on their way from the Persian Gulf to customers in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

As well as Iraq and Iran itself, these crucial supplies come from US allies and Iranian enemies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. There are no significant alternative routes.

The geography of the Strait of Hormuz compels shipping to pass close to Iranian territorial waters and gives Iran ample opportunity to disrupt it. The speed and ease of access to the strait from Iran’s nearby naval ports enables its special forces and fleet of fast patrol boats to engage maritime traffic very quickly.

Iran could also further escalate warfare against merchant ships. This was amply demonstrated during the Tanker War phase of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, a bloody conflict that resulted in more than a half a million deaths.

Like the main conflict itself, the Tanker War was actually initiated by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In 1984, it began aerial bombing of Iranian oil installations and tankers, including ships from other nations carrying oil supplies from Iranian ports. Saddam’s objective – like Trump’s today – was to cripple the economy of his Iranian adversaries.

Iran initially threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response. Few experts doubted that it could have done so. But Iran was ultimately more restrained, opting to restrict its reciprocal assaults exclusively to Iraqi merchant ships.

Even so, hundreds of civilians were killed in the attacks. The first phase of the Tanker War caused a 25% drop in commercial shipping and a sharp rise in the crude oil price. Other costs, such as shipping insurance premiums, skyrocketed too.

The difference with today’s incipient conflict is that the Tanker War was a by-product of Iran’s wider war with Iraq. The current assaults on shipping could be a central factor in sparking a full-blown war between Iran and the US, and become Iran’s main weapon in it.

Iran’s armed forces are substantial but still no match for the US military in a conventional battle. Nor does Iran have any scope to reciprocate the US’s attempts to strangle it economically through sanctions. These realities may incentivise Iran to make the most of the strategic advantages it does have – blocking the Strait of Hormuz and exploiting the vulnerability of merchant shipping.

Tragically, the accelerating tensions in the Persian Gulf were entirely avoidable. They are a direct result of Trump’s decision to tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, and to impose his policy of maximum pressure on Tehran instead. Trump claims his harsh sanctions will force Iran to submit to another deal on worse terms covering a range of issues beyond its nuclear programme.

Iran has a long history of resisting such pressure. To some extent, Tehran will be aided on this occasion by the US’s isolation as the only country eager to enforce new sanctions against it.

Equally, it already became clear during the difficult, decade-long negotiation of the nuclear deal that attempts to include other issues in it, such as Iran’s interference around the Middle East, would get nowhere. Instead, the negotiators anticipated that the trust built by the successful implementation of the JCPOA would prepare the ground for further discussions on other topics.

The independent international observers monitoring the JCPOA and all the parties to it consistently confirmed Iran’s compliance with the deal. The agreement was achieving its aim of controlling Iran’s nuclear programme. It is hard to see how Trump ripping up an arrangement that was working, and eliminating Tehran’s fragile trust in the West, will lead to a better outcome.

The most obvious weakness in Trump’s approach is that it is not really a strategy at all. As the former British ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, reported in his infamously leaked telegrams, Trump’s “act of diplomatic vandalism” in unilaterally withdrawing from the nuclear deal was carried out for “personality reasons”.

The deal was a success for president Obama. Therefore, in Trump’s mind, it had to be torn up.

Most of the world is united in horror at Trump’s tantrum-induced shattering of the Iran nuclear deal. A disparate collection of powers from Europe to India, Japan and China would be further alienated from the US if any ensuing conflict with Iran caused their lights to go off and industries to suffer due to energy shortages or an inflated oil price.

Worse still, the need to protect their shipping and power supplies may make it difficult for America’s allies and others to avoid reluctantly getting involved in the conflict too.

Indeed, the US-Iranian friction is already beginning to draw in other countries, including Britain. Earlier this month, British Royal Marines seized a Panamanian flagged supertanker, the Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar. The vessel was suspected of breaching European sanctions by delivering Iranian oil to the Assad regime in Syria.

Iran reacted with fury to what it called the “illegal” seizure of the ship. The British ambassador in Tehran was summoned for a dressing down by the Iranians, who accused the UK of doing the US’s bidding in its campaign of pressure against them.

Despite British protestations that the seizure was all about enforcing the embargo against Syria and nothing to do with the source of the cargo, an apparent tit-for-tat Iranian response followed a week later. Three Iranian gunships attempted to block a British tanker, the British Heritage, from entering the Gulf through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. The tanker’s safe passage was secured only after a tense stand-off involving a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Montrose, inserting itself between the merchant ship and the Iranian vessels.

There are clear and legitimate concerns that a Brexit-weakened Britain under Boris Johnson could be compelled by Donald Trump to get more deeply involved in his conflict with Iran.

The US itself is increasingly self-sufficient in oil supplies. But a major disruption to the global shipping industry would likely still cause global oil and, as a result, American petrol prices to rise – an acutely sensitive issue in an extremely car-dependent country.

Many American citizens often seem unaware of the extent to which their country is a beneficiary of the globalised economy. Increased energy and shipping costs could easily cause a slump in world trade. A collapse, for example, in exports of Midwest farm produce would come as a nasty shock and voters may not thank Trump for causing it.

They will be angrier still if Trump’s petty desire to destroy his predecessor’s legacy leads to the Americans being embroiled in yet another Middle East war, rather than Trump fulfilling his promise to extricate US troops from the ones already in progress.

The phrase ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ is attributed to the philosopher George Santayana. It is quoted frequently enough to have become a cliché.

It is oft cited because it is often true. When considering his next steps on Iran, president Trump would be well-advised to remember that maxim and the possible impact of his actions on the crucial global shipping industry.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On July 21, 2019 at 7:49 am

    Tensions in the Strait of Hormuz Show a Regional Energy Security Framework is Needed

    Robin Mills | The National – UAE

    The US may think its policy of “maximum pressure” has driven Iran’s economy into dire straits. But the Iranians have other straits on their mind.

    Their adeptness at finding weaknesses in maritime and energy transit around the Arabian Peninsula heightens the question of what, if any, regional security arrangement could be effective.

    I, and others, have previously observed that Iran would not attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz entirely, except in extremis, but could slow and threaten shipping significantly by low-level deniable attacks and stop-and-search missions painted as reasonable enforcement of regulations.

    On July 4, tanker Grace I carrying Iranian crude, allegedly to the sanctioned refinery at Banias in Syria, was seized by UK Royal Marines off Gibraltar.

    In retaliation on July 19, Iranian forces boarded the Liberian-flagged tanker Mesdar, which was later released when it turned out to be owned by a British Virgin Islands subsidiary of Algeria’s state company Sonatrach. Iran later seized the UK-flagged, Swedish-owned Stena Impero.

    Britain offers a weak point for the Iranians to exploit. The UK was one of the “E3+3” that negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, along with France and Germany, Russia, China and the US, which withdrew unilaterally in May 2018.

    The UK has sought to keep the JCPOA alive despite the re-imposition of US sanctions, and Iranian actions of selective reduced compliance, along with various deniable incidents in and around the Arabian Gulf.

    But the UK traditionally stays close to the US in foreign policy, even more so now as Brexit looms. The decision to detain the Iranian tanker was taken by lame-duck Prime Minister Theresa May.

    Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, one PM contender, is now attempting to deal with the tanker fall-out. His predecessor Boris Johnson, who could likely win the leadership vote, has a poor record with Iranian diplomacy, is compromised by his association with Donald Trump’s circle, and lacks the finesse to deal with such a complicated situation.

    There is one British warship in the Gulf, the HMS Montrose, which rescued the British Heritage, a tanker that was approached by Iranian boats two weeks ago.

    Another ship, HMS Duncan, is on its way. But these cannot escort all the 15 to 30 British-flagged tankers that ply in the Gulf daily. Therefore, the vessels have begun turning off their transponders to avoid broadcasting their position.

    For now, oil markets are relaxed. They are probably right to think that neither Trump, the British, nor the Iranians want a war.

    Mr Hunt has signalled the UK could release the Grace I if it does not continue to Syria. There has been talk of US-Iran mediation by congressman Rand Paul, and Tehran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has essentially offered to repeat the JCPOA conditions in return for sanctions being lifted.

    Indefinite attempted containment of Iran is a recipe for expensive instability. Iran’s loss of oil exports removes its stake in free passage of the Gulf. The more forces are deployed to the region to counter it, the more active their missions, and the more Iran is squeezed, the more probable is a cycle of escalation, of incidents from which neither side can back down.

    Geo-strategy author Robert Kaplan has floated a “NATO of the Indian Ocean”, comprising a number of Gulf and South Asian countries along with Australia, Singapore and South Africa, with the US presumably as a guiding spirit. Though he acknowledges the improbability of knitting together some disparate – and even openly hostile – states across a vast expanse of ocean and many time zones.

    Instead, individual task forces and alliances could be assembled for different areas and challenges. Of course, this raises the question of who would join the US and GCC states in a Gulf mission?

    France maintains bases in the region and the UK have the capability but might not want to bail out the US given their opposition to its Iran policy.

    India has already sent naval forces to escort its own ships but has said it will not join an American coalition. Despite the attack on one of its tankers, Japan too has indicated it would not deploy forces to the Gulf, although it does patrol the Horn of Africa against piracy.

    The question becomes much more tangled. Russia has a base in Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and China has one in Djibouti. Following the attacks on tankers in June, Mr Trump tweeted the US, as the world’s largest energy producer, should not be defending oil shipping routes for China, Japan and other countries. But it has long been a core US doctrine to keep rival superpowers out of the Gulf.

    Iran is a fact of the region, a powerful and influential state with its own security concerns. It will always pose a challenge to its neighbours. Under the Shah, it was a Western-friendly aspiring local hegemon, which took control and occupied the UAE’s Tunbs and Abu Musa islands.

    During the Iran-Iraq war and again today, it has been a besieged adversary, retaliating asymmetrically. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was a sometimes frustrating and troublesome neighbour, but with fairly normal international economic and diplomatic relations. Following a US attack, it could be something like post-invasion Iraq, a chaotic vacuum harbouring dangerous groups bent on revenge.

    A regional energy security framework is essential, at least as long as oil and liquefied natural gas continue to be important commodities.

    Naval and other forces are essential for now in maintaining free passage through the Red Sea and the three Gulfs – Arabian, Oman and Aden. This arrangement, though, is not a solution – just a stopgap, until diplomacy can work.

  • Clyde Duncan  On July 24, 2019 at 7:08 pm

    Rohani: Iran Is Ready to Negotiate, but Not if Negotiations Mean Surrender

    ‘We are completely ready for just, legal and honest negotiations to solve the problems,’ says Iranian president amid heightened tensions

    Reuters

    Iran is ready for “just” negotiations but not if they mean surrender, Iran’s President Hassan Rohani said on Wednesday, without saying what talks he had in mind.

    Rohani seemed to be referring to possible negotiations with the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year but has said he is willing to hold talks with the Islamic Republic.

    “As long as I have the responsibility for the executive duties of the country, we are completely ready for just, legal and honest negotiations to solve the problems,” Rohani said, according to his official website.

    “But at the same time we are not ready to sit at the table of surrender under the name of negotiations.”

    Also Wednesday, Iran again denied that any of its drones were intercepted after the U.S. military said it took aim at two of them last week.

    U.S. Central Command said Tuesday that one Iranian drone crashed into the sea after the USS Boxer took what Central Command called “defensive action” against it last Thursday. It said the Boxer also “engaged” a second Iranian drone at the same time, but could not confirm it was destroyed.

    Iran’s defense minister, Gen. Amir Hatami, told reporters Wednesday that “if someone claims he should provide evidence,” adding that “none of our drones have been intercepted.”

    He says that when Iran shot down a U.S. drone last month it shared images of the wreckage to verify it.

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