By Dr Vijay Sakhuja*
A spate of seizures of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere has fuelled ongoing tensions between Iran, and US and the UK. The latest incident, the third in a row, involves arrest of a vessel in the Persian Gulf by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the grounds that it was “smuggling fuel for some Arab countries.” In July too, the IRGC intercepted Panamanian-flagged Riah, suspected of smuggling oil, but it was the commandeering of a British flagged vessel, Stena Impero, to Iranian waters that forced the British Royal Navy to shadow UK flagged merchant ships. The latter incident was ostensibly in response to the seizure by the British Royal Marines of the Iranian tanker, Grace-1, off Gibraltar, in the waters of British Mediterranean territory. It was alleged that the ship was carrying Iranian crude oil to the Baniyas Refinery in Syria, which has been under EU sanctions since 2014.
There is never a dull moment in the Persian Gulf. It has always attracted geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic contestation between regional and external powers as well as among regional countries over freedom of navigation, safety and security of shipping, boundary disputes, and regional military developments. In most cases Iran has been the centre piece and has on many occasions threatened to block the Straits of Hormuz (SoH), a strategic choke point.
The ongoing tensions in the Persian Gulf have been simmering for some weeks now and have added to existing volatility in the prices of oil and gas in the international market that the US-China trade war caused. The marine underwriters have raised insurance rates, some shipping companies have decided not to send their vessels into the Gulf region, and others have issued advisories to their flagged vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf waters to take protective measures and not to sail close to the Iranian coast.
Meanwhile, some navies have begun escorting their national flagged vessels and others are hoping the US and its partners will underwrite safety of international shipping. The US and the UK are attempting to build a naval coalition and have approached alliance partners, allies and friends—South Korea, Japan, EU and others—to join forces to ensure uninterrupted flow of shipping in the Gulf waters. There have been mixed reactions to the proposal and few appear to be convinced.
The EU is apparently not on board; the proposal has invited ‘silence or rejection’ from many of the EU member states and Germany has been particularly blunt to announce that it would not join “sea mission presented and planned by the United States.” There is ’distrust and resentment’ against the US and visible evidence of conflicting approaches adopted by both sides towards Iran. The EU has invested enormous political and diplomatic capital to salvage the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the US’s decision to walk out of the deal has dented their trust in US President Donald Trump’s strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ against Iran instead of a diplomatic solution.
Unlike the EU, at least one Asian country appears to be mulling over the issue. South Korea may redeploy its warship—which is currently engaged in counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden—to Persian Gulf. Unlike South Korea, Japan has cautioned against an ‘accidental conflict’ but it faces at least three dilemmas. First is the broader Japanese foreign policy objectives wherein it wants to engage Iran. The second is Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe’s, role as a mediator between the US and Iran. The third is that Japan is still unsure about the kind of role it will be required to play in the Persian Gulf tensions. It is useful to mention that the Japanese Navy is already deployed in the Indian Ocean for a number of international and national commitments concerning maritime security. It may not be inclined to take more security responsibilities given that its neighborhood is already witnessing aggressive posturing by North Korea.
India appears confident of an uninterrupted crude supply into the country and an oil ministry official said that India has “robust crude sourcing plans in place” and could obtain supplies from across the globe at competitive prices including the US. The Indian Navy responded to the SoH tensions and has deployed its warships on escort duties to ensure safe transit of Indian flagged vessels. China has advised a diplomatic route to lower tensions, and has urged the US to refrain from applying ‘maximum pressure’ against Iran. Meanwhile Iran has cautioned foreign powers to leave the Persian Gulf and has announced that Iran and the neighbouring countries can ensure safety of shipping in the region.
The US has launched Operation Sentinel to uphold ‘maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and deescalate tensions’ in the Persian Gulf and north Arabian Sea, and the Pentagon has announced deployment of additional troops in Saudi Arabia. However, the international community does not appear to be in any mood to get involved in any confrontation between the US and Iran; even if at all any of the states decides to, other than the UK, it could at best be limited to redeployment of the existing naval forces in the region.
*Dr Vijay Sakhuja is a former director of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.