Powered by WebAds

Monday, April 26, 2010

Uh oh... Iran inspecting ships in the Strait of Hormuz?

Iran's Press TV reports that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stopped two ships - one French and one Italian - in the Strait of Hormuz last week, on the pretext of inspecting them for compliance with environmental regulations.
The vessels were allowed to continue sailing after confirmation that they had not breached any regulations, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.


The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between Iran and Oman, connects the Persian Gulf with the Sea of Oman. Nearly 40 percent of the world's crude oil passes through this waterway.
I searched in vain for confirmation by the French or the Italians that these events took place. Every source I found repeats the report (except for Stratfor, which notes that it cannot confirm the story at this time). J.E. Dyer explains why it matters what the Iranians are doing:
The names of the foreign ships were not provided; sketchy details make it difficult to be certain exactly where in the strait they were stopped. But European ships — even private yachts — rarely venture outside the recognized navigation corridors in the Strait of Hormuz. If this news report is valid, it almost certainly means that Iran detained ships that were transiting those corridors.

That, as our vice president might say, is a big effing deal. That’s not because Iran has committed an act of war by intercepting these ships, as some in the blogosphere are speculating. The intercepts were not acts of war. The purpose of verifying environmental compliance is one Iran can theoretically invoke on the basis of its maritime claims lodged with the UN in 1993. Ironically, however, Iran has never signed the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), the instrument by which the terms of its claims are defined. Many nations, of course, have yet to either sign or ratify UNCLOS, America being among them. In the meantime, world shipping has operated in the Strait of Hormuz for decades on the basis of UNCLOS’s definition of “transit passage,” which has customarily immunized ships in routine transit through straits against random intercept by the littoral navies (e.g., Iran’s or Oman’s).

Iran would be breaking with that custom by stopping ships for inspection in the recognized transit corridors. But this venue for a newly assertive Iranian profile is chosen well: stopping foreign ships that are conducting transit passage is uncollegial and inconvenient for commerce, but it is not clearly in breach of international law.

What it is, however, is an incipient challenge to the maritime regime enforced by the U.S., which includes the quiescent transit-passage custom on which global commerce relies. Mariners take care to observe the law as it is written, regardless of their nationality or national position on UNCLOS; but the guarantee of their unhindered passage isn’t international law, it’s the U.S. Navy. Demonstrations of force are required only rarely. Reagan put down revolutionary Iran’s only serious challenge to international maritime order back in 1988, in the final months of the Iran-Iraq War. Since then, Iran has refrained from unilateral action against shipping in the recognized transit corridors of the strait.
I've said before on this blog that the only way that sanctions could be enforced against Iran would be for the US and other civilized nations of the World to control the Persian Gulf. That would have to include controlling the Strait of Hormuz, and that, of course, is unlikely to happen without a significant war.

But Iran controlling the Strait of Hormuz is a nightmare scenario. It means that Iran could turn the oil spigot on and off as it pleases. Look at the map. While it's theoretically possible for Saudi oil to be diverted to the country's Western (Red Sea) coast, at the moment there is no pipeline. The other countries involved - Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE, and of course, Iran itself, cannot ship oil except through the Strait of Hormuz. That's why 40% of the World's oil goes through there. Take 40% of the World's crude off the markets and the price of oil will skyrocket.

Will Barack Obama send US warships to fight Iran in the Strait of Hormuz? Will he use US firepower against Iran? What could go wrong?


At 11:43 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Don't look for Obama to flex US military muscles in the Persian Gulf. After all, that would not advance "engagement" with Iran.

What could go wrong indeed


Post a Comment

<< Home