Naval protection of oil tankers in the Gulf a risky business

By Guy Burton
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, August 3, 2019
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The photo released on July 21, 2019 shows the British oil tanker "Stena Impero" surrounded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard near the Strait of Hormuz, Iran. [Photo/Xinhua]

Tensions have been growing in the Strait of Hormuz over the past month. Following several attacks against oil tankers in May and June, a British-flagged ship was seized by Iran for allegedly straying into its territorial waters on July 19.

This was believed to be in response to Britain's own capture of an Iranian vessel a week earlier off Gibraltar over an allegation it was transporting oil to Syria and in violation of international sanctions.

The dispute prompted then British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt to join forces with France and Germany to establish a European naval taskforce to provide protection for commercial shipping in the Gulf.

Hunt's proposal echoed a similar U.S. initiative in June. Since then, Washington has sought to get its allies to participate in its initiative. So far South Korea has expressed interest, while Japan has been non-committal and Germany has said no. India has dispatched two warships to provide protection, but has said it won't directly join U.S.-led activities.

The underlying reason for the growing tension lies between the U.S. and Iran. In May 2018 the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015 by the P5+1 (the five U.N. Security Council members – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France – plus Germany) under which Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions against it.

During the 2016 American presidential election, Donald Trump campaigned against the JCPOA, calling it a "bad deal." During his first year as president he threatened to pull out, even though Iran was complying with the agreement. When he finally did so, he reimposed sanctions, which became more testing after waivers granted to China, India and several other countries ran out at the beginning of May.

Since then, relations have been confrontational, the U.S. demanding that Iran re-negotiate a deal over its nuclear program and forego the pursuit of wider regional influence and pressure. Iran, meanwhile, has appealed to the other JCPOA signatories to keep the deal. 

It has also tried to pressure the Europeans to persuade the U.S. to return to the original agreement. The ways it has tried to do this include a decision to increase its stockpile of nuclear material as well as seizing the British tanker and possibly being behind the earlier attacks on shipping in the Gulf.

This has made the Gulf a more volatile and insecure space, with the knock-on effect of undermining the influence and status of the U.S., for so long the preeminent power in the region.

For much of the post-Cold War period, the U.S. was the principal supplier of security in the Gulf. Previously, this was owed much to U.S. reliance on Gulf oil. More recently, however, U.S. imports have declined as its domestic production has increased. 

Despite this, the U.S. has continued to maintain its Gulf presence, because of its connection to the wider, global oil market. Any disruption of this would have a ripple effect, leading to changes in production and supply, and therefore the price. It would also impact on American prestige.

Already this seems to be happening with the growing multinational naval presence in the Gulf. Symbolically, the refusal of countries like Germany and India to join with the U.S.-led operations weakens American leadership in the region. The British choice of a European-led project was a further blow and exposed a difference between the two allies over how best to deal with Iran.

Warship belonging to British Navy, allegedly sent to the Strait of Hormuz is seen passing through the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey on July 12, 2019. [Photo/VCG]

At the same time though, does the number of warships patrolling the region make it safer for commercial shipping? The answer to that is somewhat mixed.

On one side, the more naval ships in the area might make Iran or its proxies think twice about acting against tankers in the future. That is certainly the thinking behind the British decision to dispatch a second warship and India's decision to maintain its presence.

Against that is the fact that not all tankers are at risk. Firms, ships and their crews are already responding. Tankers that come from countries deemed to be friendlier to the U.S. may be more vulnerable and so are changing their routes. 

Some are sailing closer to the Saudi coastline, or switching off their transponders as they pass through the Strait of Hormuz. Others, especially those from countries considered to be friendlier to the U.S., are avoiding the area or collecting their cargoes at alternative, less-exposed ports, like Fujairah in the UAE, lying east of the Hormuz Strait in the Gulf of Oman.

While commercial shipping is adapting, this does not mean that the problems in the Gulf will go away. The greatest risk may come not from further attacks or seizures of shipping, but rather potential military action. 

The growing naval presence in the area is problematic in that it is diverse and potentially uncoordinated. If that is left unchecked, it could give rise to misunderstanding and miscommunication between two or more warships, and lead to escalating confrontation in any stand-off.

Guy Burton is a Visiting Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre and an Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Vesalius College, Brussels.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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