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Solution To Shipping Security In The Hormuz Strait Must Come From The Region – Analysis

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About one fifth of daily global oil production passes through the Strait of Hormuz. https://www.dw.com/en/oman-may-mediate-between-iran-and-uk-over-tanker-crisis/a-49761892   Obviously security and safety of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz is critical to global energy and economy. But since the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement and unilaterally slapped sanctions on Iran, US-Iran relations have been in free fall.  Given this context, Iran thinks the UK seizure of an oil tanker carrying Iranian oil was instigated by the U.S. It also views the seizure as a UK breach of the nuclear agreement. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/crisis-talks-iran-nuclear-deal-set-kick-vienna-190728072008700.html  

In response, Iran has seized a British oil tanker. As a result, the risk level for foreign shipping in the region has risen to ‘critical’ and both the U.S. and the U.K. have proposed multinational efforts to address the situation.  But implementation will be politically difficult.

The U.S. has asked some 60 countries including its allies the U.K., France, Germany, Norway, Australia, Japan and South Korea to participate in its Operation Sentinel  Although South Korea and France have agreed, Germany and Japan have declined.  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/23/jeremy-hunts-plan-of-european-led-maritime-force-in-gulf-hits-opposition  Some fear that the U.S. will try to use the effort to prosecute its unilateral “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, including its attempts to totally block Iranian oil exports.  In short, they think a US-led effort will only escalate the situation, thus making it worse for their interests.

It is unclear whether the U.K. proposal is complementary or opposite to that of the U.S. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-iran-usa-europe/us-sees-european-maritime-security-effort-in-gulf-as-complementary-idUSKCN1UJ23D, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-iran-france/france-germany-britain-working-on-maritime-observation-mission-in-gulf-le-drian-idUSKCN1UI1WO] ; https://www.stripes.com/news/european-allies-spurn-us-effort-to-protect-ships-from-iran-1.591848  Whichever it is, it appears that this effort will, if anything, be only to “monitor and observe” maritime security there. https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/iran-rejects-call-for-eu-led-security-mission-in-persian-gulf  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/23/jeremy-hunts-plan-of-european-led-maritime-force-in-gulf-hits-opposition  But for political and logistical reasons few European countries are likely to participate at least with flagged military assets.   Nevertheless, the European effort and that led by the U.S. will likely become complementary or even integrated —at least in Iran’s eyes.

These embryonic efforts have been called “coalitions of the willing”. But at this stage they are more like ‘coalitions of the ‘wary’. Effective implementation will have to overcome many political and legal obstacles.

The waters comprising the Strait of Hormuz are under the sovereignty of Iran and Oman and it will be very difficult to implement those plans without their co-operation.  But Iran has rejected both plans. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/23/jeremy-hunts-plan-of-european-led-maritime-force-in-gulf-hits-opposition;   Iran’s position on the issue is clear.  “Either everyone enjoys full security or no one does.”  What that apparently means is that if its tankers are not secure, no one else’s will be either. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/defense-national-security/pompeo-pledges-collective-defense-of-shipping-threatened-by-iran

The situation is somewhat reminiscent of that involving the Malacca Strait bordered by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.  When incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea there rose to alarming levels, maritime powers like the U.S. and Japan offered to secure the Strait. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/ils/vol83/iss1/9/ Indonesia and Malaysia rejected this offer.  They considered it a usurpation of their natural and legal responsibility.   

According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, States bordering straits may adopt laws and regulation relating to transit passage through straits regarding the safety of navigation and the regulation of maritime traffic.   Foreign ships exercising the right of transit passage shall comply with such laws and regulations. https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf Articles 42 and 34. More important, “the regime of passage through straits used for international navigation shall not in other respects affect the legal status of the waters forming such straits or the exercise by the States bordering the straits of their sovereignty or jurisdiction over such waters and their air space, bed and subsoil.”  This is important because Iran and Oman claim territorial seas that together encompass the Strait of Hormuz.  They both insist that only the innocent passage regime exists in the Strait and that foreign warships must have permission to pass through their territorial waters.

The Malacca Strait states also worried that a US presence in the Strait would actually energize extremists and attract terrorist attacks.  Instead, the three Strait states launched their own sea and air patrols to enhance security.  However they did accept training, equipment and financial assistance to do so.  This could serve as an example for the protection of the Strait of Hormuz. Any initiative to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz should come from and be led by Iran and Oman.

Yes, the U.S. and U.K. see Iran as the threat.  Although the U.S. was quick to blame it for the attacks on oil tankers off Fujairah, Iran has denied responsibility and the UAE and European countries withheld judgment.   As for its seizure of the UK tanker, it maintains that the arrested vessel was violating the traffic separation scheme and endangering other vessels.   In other words, it was enhancing safety and security in the Strait, not threatening it. 

The Gulf states could agree to security co-operation among themselves based on the UN Charter and international law.  Iran actually proposed such an arrangement for the protection of shipping in the entire Gulf more than a decade ago. https://lobelog.com/collective-security-in-persian-gulf-can-it-fly/ 

The proposal contained ten points including most significantly:

  • Establishment of a Persian Gulf Security and Cooperation Organization comprising the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as Iran and Iraq;
  • Guaranteeing the security and energy exports of regional countries for a sustainable supply of energy to the world;
  • Forging cooperation among regional countries for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction; and
  • Having foreign military personnel and assets exit the region and establishing full security by the regional countries.

The major obstacles to implementation of this plan remain the military relationships of the GCC states with Western powers like the U.K., France and in particular the traditional role of the U.S. in providing security there.  Indeed, the U.S. has several large military bases in the Gulf and provides massive amounts of sophisticated weaponry that contributes to the regional arms race.  Some argue that  “the West’s behavior simply augments existing Gulf cleavages and precludes collective security as basically antithetical to U.S. and European interests.” 

Nevertheless, such a plan would be in the long term interests of the Gulf states and is likely to eventually gain traction in the region.  Perhaps the recent rare talks between frenemies UAE and Iran on maritime security may be a ray of hope that this is possible. https://www.apnews.com/49c6da1c33fd45bbaf1b14836ee5e2ec  The alternative is more of the same – a region divided against itself, lurching from one security crisis to another.

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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