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‘Coalitions Of The Willing’ To Protect The Strait Of Hormuz Runs Into Difficulties – Analysis

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In response to increasing threats to shipping in the Persian Gulf—particularly in the Strait of Hormuz—both the U.S. and the U.K. have proposed multinational efforts to address the situation. But their implementation will be politically difficult.

The U.S. is proposing “Operation Sentinel to “ensure safe passage _ _ throughout the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Oman.” https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/middle-east/1563593118-us-announces-multinational-maritime-effort-to-secure-gulf-waters-following-seizure-of-tankers https://www.americanshipper.com/magazine/daily/?year=2019&month=6&day=25&page_number=3&via=asdailyhttps://www.maritime-executive.com/article/u-s-launches-maritime-security-initiative-for-strait-of-hormuz  However it is clear that the U.S. thinks that the threat is from Iran and that its nexus is the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. has asked some 60 countries to participate including allies the U.K., France, Germany, Norway, Japan, South Korea and Australia. http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0005899604

The problem it faces is that many prospective participants – including US allies –are wary of joining a US led and coordinated military effort there. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/23/jeremy-hunts-plan-of-european-led-maritime-force-in-gulf-hits-opposition  They fear that the U.S. will try to use the effort to press its unilateral “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, including its attempts to totally block Iranian oil exports. In short, they worry that a US-led effort will only escalate tension and the likelihood of conflict, thus further threatening the flow of oil.

The U.S. has tried to allay this concern.  It is now avoiding the use of the word “coalition which conjures up images of aggressive military action. Addressing the issue directly, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said “This is not related to the pressure campaign on Iran.  It’s focused on freedom of navigation.”  https://insurancemarinenews.com/insurance-marine-news/us-sees-european-initiative-as-complementary-to-its-operation-sentinel/ The US idea is that it will co-ordinate and provide intelligence– but the “partners” will be responsible for escorting and protecting their own flagged ships. https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/07/18/world/middleeast/18reuters-mideast-iran-usa-maritime-exclusive.html   Nevertheless, the widespread concern with US intent persists. It does not help to dispel this impression that US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said we are trying to put together a coalition of “like-minded allies who share our concerns about freedom of navigation, who share our concerns about Iran’s nuclear pursuits in the past, their missile technologies and, frankly, their malign activities in the region”. http://cimsec.org/will-the-sentinel-program-work-understanding-iranian-aggression-and-u-s-mixed-signals/41182Much to the US’s chagrin, Germany has declined to participate. https://www.politico.com/story/2019/08/02/trump-iran-coalition-of-one-1444834 Acknowledging difficulties, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “it will take more time” to put together an effective coalition.

The responses of potential participants in the “coalition” have been mixed. South Korea will re-task its anti piracy assets already present in the region. Although France may also re-task its assets there it would prefer a European initiative that ” lays the groundwork for an inclusive regional dialogue on maritime security_ _ increases our knowledge of the maritime situation, and facilitates the safe passage of ships _ _ using the appropriate means. https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/north-africa-and-middle-east/events/article/gulf-q-a-excerpt-from-the-daily-press-briefing-06-08-19 US President Trump is unhappy with France’s position regarding Iran and has criticized it for sending “mixed signals”. https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/456731-trump-criticizes-frances-macron-for-sending-iran-mixed-signals Others like China and India may independently protect their own flagged vessels. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/9670580/russia-iran-joint-war-games-gulf-clash-uk-us/  Japan has its own peculiar domestic obstacles to overcome including its ‘no-war’ constitution and Prime Minister Abe’s self-appointed role as mediator between Iran and the U.S. on the nuclear issue. http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201908080060.html If it does re-task its assets in the region they will probably also act independently of the U.S. and focus only on protecting their flagged vessels. https://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0005927336

Israel may also participate by providing intelligence. https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/20190807_24/ If it participates with actual flagged assets, they could become tempting targets for radicals and thus increase the likelihood of a military clash dragging in all concerned. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190810-iran-foreign-ministry-israel-role-in-us-led-gulf-coalition-clear-threat/

The U.K. recognizes the problems with a US-led coalition.  Moreover it, Germany, France, Russia and China are trying to save the nuclear accord with Iran. So it has proposed a “protection-lite” coalition https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/23/jeremy-hunts-plan-of-european-led-maritime-force-in-gulf-hits-opposition  whose objective would be only to “monitor and observe” maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz. https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/iran-rejects-call-for-eu-led-security-mission-in-persian-gulf

Nevertheless, the French and German foreign ministers have been cautious regarding the U.K. proposal. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-iran-france/france-germany-britain-working-on-maritime-observation-mission-in-gulf-le-drian-idUSKCN1UI1WO  They “agreed that safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz is a top priority for European nations, while avoiding escalation in the region.” [emphasis added] (https://www.gov.government/mews/strait-of-hormuz-incident-foreign-secretary-calls-with-french-and-german-foreign-ministers The UK arrest of a tanker carrying Iranian oil has done nothing to diminish the impression that it is doing the U.S. bidding. Indeed, some think that Iran’s seizure of a UK tanker was retaliation and that this is “a mess of Britain’s own making.”  https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/07/24/britains-power-play-in-the-persian-gulf/ They question if “there is a real danger for international shipping” or if this is just a temporary tiff between the U.K. and Iran.  Moreover, the main proponent, Jeremy Hunt, has been replaced as Foreign Minister and the idea has been opposed by some of the incoming Prime Minister’s closest supporters. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/23/jeremy-hunts-plan-of-european-led-maritime-force-in-gulf-hits-opposition;  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-oil-tanker-uk-strait-hormuz-gibraltar-syria-navy-a9021886.html    Meanwhile the UK Navy is doing its best to escort its national flag vessels.  But it probably cannot protect them 24/7 throughout the Gulf by itself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOLxT_UuLcw   Another problem is that most European navies do not have the capability to undertake a sustained overseas effort.   

Further complicating matters, Russia and Iran will hold joint naval exercises near the Hormuz Strait. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/9670580/russia-iran-joint-war-games-gulf-clash-uk-us/ So for political and logistical reasons few European countries are likely to participate in the UK effort. Faced with this reality– and perhaps regretting that it had declined US offered naval protection just before its tanker was seized–the UK has agreed to join the US effort. https://www.breitbart.com/europe/2019/08/06/weeks-snubbing-washington-help-britain-us-launch-iran-naval-task-;force/https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-joins-international-maritime-security-mission-in-the-gulf However in an attempt to save face and the nuclear agreement new British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab clarified that “Our approach to Iran hasn’t changed. We remain committed to working with Iran and our international partners to de-escalate the situation and maintain the nuclear deal.” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-iran-britain/uk-joins-united-states-for-maritime-security-mission-in-gulf-idUSKCN1UV1MD Supposedly Britain hopes that mission leadership will transition from the U.S. to the U.K. and that a diplomatic solution will be found. This is probably as unrealistic as the initial UK proposal.

But the major obstacle will be to overcome Iranian opposition to the proposals. While some maritime powers insist that this is a “freedom of navigation” issue it is more complicated—both politically and legally. https://www.smh.com.au/national/reasons-our-signature-to-operation-sentinel-is-a-done-deal-20190805-p52e2t.htmlhttps://sputniknews.com/world/201908081076500411-pompeo-raab-gulf-coalition/

 According to Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweet ” _ _it is IRAN that guarantees the security of the Persian Gulf & the Strait of Hormuz.  U.K. must cease being an accessory to #Economic Terrorism of the U.S. https://www.aninews.in/news/world/middle-east/uk-must-cease-being-accessory-to-us-economic-terrorism-says-iran-fm20190720214550/

Iran’s political position on the issue is “either everyone enjoys full security or no one does” apparently meaning that either its tankers have security from interdiction—including in the Strait of Gibraltar—or no one’s tankers do. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/defense-national-security/pompeo-pledges-collective-defense-of-shipping-threatened-by-iran

According to Zarif “_ _ Iran is responsible for the security and safety of the Strait of Hormuz_ _”https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-iran-zarif/iran-says-will-not-tolerate-maritime-offences-in-gulf-idUSKCN1UV0KR Iran actually has a reasonable legal and political argument and is trying to garner regional support for its position. https://www.newsweek.com/iran-israel-coalition-consequences-support-1453325 The waters comprising the Strait of Hormuz are under the sovereignty of Iran and Oman. 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.  https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf (Articles 42 and 34). The International Maritime Organization has approved a traffic separation scheme (TSS) for the Strait. Foreign ships exercising the right of transit passage shall comply with such laws and regulations. According to Zarif “_ _ our action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold int’l maritime rules.” Iran claims that that was what it was doing when it intercepted the British and other tankers. It said the British tanker was violating the TSS.

 More important, according to UNCLOS “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. 

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



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Mark J. Valencia

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 and Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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