The STRAIT OF HORMUZ NEWS
The current news from the Strait of Hormuz reveals that tensions have once again resurfaced in the Hormuz axis. A U.S Naval vessel fired warning shots at one of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Patrol boats. The encounter occurred in international waters in the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf.
Footage released by the U.S Navy showed that three fast-attack vessels of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corp came too close (62 metres) to two American vessels. The two Naval vessels are the USS Firebolt and the U.S Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Baranoff danger on Monday, April 26, 2021. As the US spokeswoman for the Middle East-based 5th Fleet, Commander Rebecca Rebarich intimated.
“The U.S crews issued multiple warnings via bridge – to – bridge radio and loud – hailer devices but the (Guard) vessel continued close range maneuvers….The crew of the Firebolt fired warning shots, and the (Guard) vessels moved away to a safe distance from the American vessels”.
This was the second such incidence within April. The first incident occurred on April 2, when another U.S vessel the USCGC Monomoy, was suddenly cut by a Guard’s vessel in its front, forcing it to an abrupt stop. Another American vessel, the USCGC Wrangell, narrowly escaped collision with Iranian vessels that swooped toward it.
Not since April 15, 2020, had any such incidents been recorded. No such occurrence was noted in 2020 and probably one in 2019.
Perhaps these breaches are perpetrated to test the resolve of the new U.S President Joe Biden. The newly sworn-in Joe Biden had stated early in February that he will not lift sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration. He insisted that Iran should commit to terminating enriching uranium. Joe Biden made his position clear in his first interview in the office on Friday, February 5, 2021.
Biden’s position was a response to an appeal earlier made by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for a relaxation of Trump-era sanctions. In Khamenei’s words: “If Washington wants Iran to return to its commitments, it must lift all restrictions in practice… then we will return to our commitments”.
The Iran nuclear deal signed with western powers and Russia before Obama era sanctions were lifted had been rejected by the President Trump administration. As President Biden insists on Teheran putting an end to uranium enrichment, Teheran has once again resorted to harassment of American vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. According to President Biden, lifting restrictions on Teheran as an incentive to get back to negotiations would not be in the United States’ interest and the world powers that signed the deal.
The American President hopes to get the deal revived but certainly not on conditionalities put forward at the behest of Iranian leaders. How long the test of will by both parties will last remains to be seen. News from the Strait of Hormuz will give an update on this development as events unfold.
WHERE IS THE STRAIT OF HORMUZ
The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow waterway located in the Middle East. It is 96 miles long but considered very important and strategic because of its location. The Strait links the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. It is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. There are two shipping lanes in either direction and each of them is two miles wide. The two lanes are separated by a buffer zone of two miles. It is considered to be one of the world’s most strategic chokepoints.
It is bounded on the north by Iran and on the south by Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The strait is deep and accommodates the biggest ships in the world and is used for shipping gas and crude oil by the major producers in the area. At any given time of day and night, there are scores of tankers conveying products in and out of the Strait.
About a fifth of the world’s traffic or 21 million barrels of oil a day flows through the strait a day. It has remained the world’s busiest shipping route. With 19 million barrels of oil a day shipment through Hormuz, the volume surpasses the daily 16 million barrels that pass through the Strait of Malacca, the busiest route in the Indian Ocean.
One-third of the world’s Liquefied Natural Gas LNG from Qatar also passes through the Strait of Hormuz (See the map). It is therefore very vital to Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of Gas, and believed to have the third-largest proven reserves of Liquefied Natural Gas.
The bulk of oil shipment through the Strait passes through the Arabian Sea and diverts eastwards through the Indian Ocean to China, Japan and South Korea. Some of the shipment also goes to Singapore through the Strait of Malacca. The rest of the Hormuz traffic goes westward through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean Sea and from there to Europe and America.
HAVE THERE BEEN DISPUTES BETWEEN THE STATES?
The strait of Hormuz was sometimes a zone of controversy in the past between Iran and Oman. In 1959, Teheran attempted to alter the legal status of the Strait by extending claims beyond its territorial waters, avowing that it would only allow passage to a select group of countries. Teheran’s rival in turn did the same in 1972, indirectly closing the Strait to ships of other nations, restricting its ownership to Teheran and Muscat only.
At different times in the 1980s and 90s, both nations continued to make claims and declarations over the Strait that seemed at variance with international maritime law. However, both states are signatories to the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which Teheran declined to ratify. Such inconsistencies had at various times injected uncertainty into the functionality of the world’s strategic choke point.
The STRAIT OF HORMUZ CRISIS: The Strait of Hormuz Map
No place on earth compares to a hotbed of crisis as the narrow waterway known as the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz, significant for its geographical location and its geopolitical status is a focal point in international relations. It has acquired a reputation for incubating tensions between Arab nations on one hand and between the Arab world and the west on the other. At various times, either of these countries during crises threatened to close the strait
In January 2020, the Strait of Hormuz was again in the full glare of the world in another crisis after a US airstrike killed General Qassem Soleimani. He was head of Iran’s foreign wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The attack was authorized by United States President Donald Trump. The U.S President alleged that Soleimani was directing attacks on U.S diplomats and the military personnel in the strategic area under consideration.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “harsh revenge” for the killing and sent missiles against U.S military installations and personnel. In its spillover effect Iraq”s Parliament voted unanimously to expel U.S troops from its territory. Teheran equally used the strike as an excuse to scuttle the nuclear arms deal signed with world powers in 2015, reneging on the agreement to abide by limits of uranium enrichment.
The crisis pushed the two nations to the brink of fighting as Trump threatened to impose restrictions on Baghdad if U.S troops were expelled. To Iran, Trump threatened to strike fifty – two key sites, some of which are of cultural significance, if Iran went beyond rhetorics to implementation of further attacks on US interests.
In the following week, crude oil prices soared by 20 dollars per barrel. It rose further to hit $70 per barrel of Brent crude.
Not since the attacks on some Saudi petroleum production installations, the previous year had prices risen so high. Further ripple effects generated by the tension were also felt in other sectors of the global economy. Both parties however exercised restraint and de-escalated the crisis knowing what the consequences would be for the entire world. The devastation for Iran would have been terrible since the conflict theatre was surely going to be at her doorstep, as the U.S moved heavy military material into the Middle East. The fighting would have also reduced oil production capacity.
The Steno Impreso Episode!
The prelude to this crisis above began in 2018. It led to the Steno Impreso seizure. In the wake of renewed Iran tensions, the U.S-led government of Donald Trump withdrew the U.S from the deal signed between Iran and the world powers. The deal aimed at restricting Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for terminating excruciating sanctions imposed on Iran was signed and implemented by the Obama administration in 2015. The Trump administration renewed penalties on Iran in August 2018.
Trump followed up with a second round of sanctions in November 2018, targeting the country’s oil and banking sectors. Both sides exchanged barbs culminating in Trump’s declaration of emergency over the “malign influence” of Iran in May 2019. There was widespread fear that Iran could close the strait if adequate measures were not put in place. President Trump went further and backed his rhetorics with the deployment of nearly 2,000 troops to beef up U.S forces stationed around in the area.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran announced in May that Tehran would commence stockpiling extra low-enriched uranium as a response to US pressure. As the altercation and flurried activities raged around the shipping route, news of the seizure of the Stena Impero shocked the world. In May attacks on vessels also occurred not far from the chokepoint.
Four ships fell victim, including two Saudi oil conveying vessels. US officials accused Iran of leading the attacks. Iran promptly denied involvement. This was followed by further attacks on two oil tankers belonging to Norway and Japan respectively on June 13. Teheran alleged that the seizure of the Steno Impreno was a retaliatory measure in response to the U.K’s impounding of an Iranian oil tanker along the coastline of Gibraltar earlier in June.
As a direct consequence, the British Foreign Secretary announced the despatch of a European – led force to protect vessels around the Strait. However, the government in London distanced its stance from the U.S campaign of “maximum pressure”.
Persian Gulf War.
The world and especially heavy oil-consuming nations were at once put on edge as in past occurrences. Iran had in the past acquired a reputation for attacking oil conveying vessels in the Strait of Hormuz during the crisis at the slightest provocation. For most of the 1980s, Iran and Iraq were embroiled in a conflict as Iraq sought to become the dominant power in the Gulf territory after the 1979 revolution toppled the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran. Besides, the conflict between the two nations reduced the production capacity of petroleum products
By 1984 the war theatre was extended to the Strait of Hormuz in what became known as the Tanker War. Iraq ceaselessly targeted Iranian oil tankers at a time when Iranian oil shipments rose to over 2.5 billion dollars daily. Baghdad had one goal: to cripple the Iranian economy and forcefully close the choke point.
The Tanker War.
As the conflict raged ceaselessly between Teheran and Baghdad on land, it soon degenerated into anti-shipping campaigns that became known as Tanker War. The escalation began in 1981 when Iraq began attacks on vessels sailing in the Gulf to reduce Iran’s oil supply and the Persian Gulf. The primary aim was to weaken Iranian war efforts by attacking ships carrying materials to the battlefield.
It soon expanded to include vessels engaged in commercial traffic, including petroleum products. Iran responded by attacking Iraqi trading partners including nations that extended loan facilities to Baghdad in the war effort.
Beginning in May 1981, Baghdad boldly declared that all vessels going to or from Iranian ports risked facing attacks from enemy fire – by which was meant Iraq. Baghdad backed its threats by using air power to attack shipping in the Gulf. These included helicopters and jet bombers armed with anti-ship cruise missiles. Iran remained principally on the defensive for more than two years.
By 1984 Iraq acquired more accurate and deadly weapons to begin a second phase of the Tank War. The Super Etendard fighter jet and the Exocet missiles used with devastating effects against British warships in the Falklands had a longer range. This gave Iraq added advantage and forced Iran to respond.
Iran lacked sophisticated weapons but adapting weapons meant for the ground battle to attack shipping proved not very effective. However, calculated targeting of vulnerable parts of ships with weak armour-piercing missiles scored a measure of success against enemy vessels. It sometimes killed or wounded sailors of ships under attack. Incapacitated vessels gradually became phenomenal obstacles to traffic through the strait.
By 1987 Iran had access to new anti-ship cruise missiles that improved its firepower, notably Chinese made CSSC-2 Silkworm missiles. It had larger warheads and proved more effective. Enemy vessels began to receive severe hits.
Responding to the new effectiveness of Iranian attacks, Kuwait called for American assistance to protect oil tanker traffic through the strait. The U.S “reflagged Kuwaiti tankers making them U.S. ships eligible for U.S. Navy escort”. This gave them desired security to sail to and from neutral countries in the Gulf territory. About 250-oil tankers were attacked during the war, but only 45 were sunk.
Iran sought peace thus bringing the conflict to an end in August 1988, but not before a U.S warship, the USS Vincennes had erroneously shot down an Iranian airliner in July 1988. All passengers on board, mostly Iranians, died. The Pentagon stated that the plane had been mistaken for an Iranian F – 14 fighter jet.
The Strait of Hormuz Conflict 2019.
Conflict in the Gulf area is like something perennial which the world has to live with from time to time. In 2019 the UK Royal Navy sent vessels to escort British tankers to protect them from potential attacks in the wake of growing tension. At about the middle of the year, Iran’s patrol boats had begun to act as predators on traffic in the Strait’s international waters. Two British oil tankers were seized and a third one was stopped and released.
Earlier in June, Iran shot down a U.S drone flying around the Strait. The following month, a U.S warship the USS Boxer brought down an Iranian drone in the same area. A month after this incident, in the midst, of escalating tensions, President Trump called for a re-evaluation of American policy towards shipping in the Gulf territorial region.
He made a shift towards stopping the protection of the lanes in the Gulf. His argument centred on the understanding that the bulk of oil shipments through the Strait found their way to China and Japan. America would no longer take responsibility for that without due compensation.
True, over 70% of the oil shipment found its way to Asian countries. Nonetheless, US oil imports amount to nearly thirty – five million barrels of oil monthly. That’s a whopping volume, and in the face of Iranian threats to shut the choke point, Washington DC cannot look the other way. A vicious attack on shipping around the strait can block the oil lanes, leading to a globally spiralling rise in oil prices.
If not for anything else the consequences of global economic destabilization makes American involvement ever more crucial. Either way, the American economy would be adversely affected. Besides, the region would lose its relevance as a significant oil supplier as alternative sources would be sought elsewhere.
Why Is The Strait of Hormuz So Important?
The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow waterway and very vital shipping route in the Gulf region of the Middle East. It separates the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman. Its narrowest point is 21 miles(33 km) wide (see Map). It is very strategic to the global oil market. It opens into the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Its status as an international waterway has made it a subject of manipulation by aggressive claimers to the ownership of the seaway.
Iran and Oman have between 1950 and 1980 respectively adjusted territorial claims over the strategic waterway to assert their importance over and above neighbouring countries. The other Gulf States are Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, Hormuz remains a crucial chokepoint in terms of geopolitical and financial relevance to the global economy in several ways.
The strait of Hormuz is the world busiest shipping lane because there are no other bypass alternatives. The bulk of the oil traffic through the strait is sourced from the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) States. It is widely believed that if oil traffic through the strait is disrupted, oil importers around the world could look beyond the Middle East to source oil. That could further whittle down dependence on the region’s oil and render it unreliable in its supply capability.
Riyadh remains the world largest exporter of oil to the West as well as Asian countries and the majority of its exports pass through the strait. That means Ryadh’s sensibilities cannot be played down. For a kingdom with an oil-dependent economy, any crisis in the region makes Riyadh very vulnerable especially when it pertains to the Strait of Hormuz.
In the wake of Iran’s missile strike on Iraq following the death of Qassam Soleimani, Saudi State-backed oil tanker Bahri postponed all shipment through the Strait, the Financial Times reported. According to U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA), Saudi Arabia accounts for the bulk of the oil passing through the strait. Citing 2018 statistics, the EIA further states that “21 million barrels of crude oil pass through the strait everyday”.
The quoted figure is assessed to be one-third of the world sea traded oil, or $1.2 billion worth of oil per day at current oil prices in 2020. Any disruption to the vital shipping lane would have affected world markets for petroleum products. And this would have posed a serious economic threat to the entire Strait of the Hormuz region. The West, whose dependence on global oil shipment through the Strait have compelled their military forces to send warships to the region, also consider it strategic. This is a further confirmation that the strait is of great importance to the world’s oil supply.
In 1978, as the Persian Gulf war raged between Iran and Iraq in the two countries engaged in a battle of attrition. US Administration Officials vowed to: “use force, if necessary, to keep Hormuz open”. Subsequently, the Defense Department dispatched the aircraft carrier “Ranger” to the area to ensure that oil shipments remained undisturbed.