Tensions in the Strait of Hormuz show a regional energy security framework is needed
Indefinite attempted containment of Iran is a recipe for expensive instability
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 reimposition 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, with the new Conservative party leader to be announced on Tuesday. 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. 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.
Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis
Updated: July 21, 2019 02:11 PM