SINGAPORE — Could a radio operator, whose identity is unknown, cause a war between the United States, the world’s most powerful nation, and energy-rich but radical Iran? Perhaps not. But it now appears that someone — maybe a prankster — almost triggered a shootout between the two sides earlier this month in the Hormuz Strait at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the source of around one-fifth of the oil traded each day around the world.
It could have escalated into a wider conflict with serious global reverberations, particularly for Japan and other oil-importing countries in Asia. With crude oil currently costing around $90 per barrel, analysts say a blockage of the strait would cause panic oil buying and make prices shoot much higher until the normal flow could be reestablished and secured.
The latest incident involving Iranian challenges to U.S. warships as they pass into and out of the Persian Gulf also highlights how the relative risks to Asia’s vital oil shipments have shifted west from Southeast Asia to the Hormuz Strait in the past few years, as tensions between Iran on the one hand and the U.S. and its allies on the other rise while perceived security threats diminish in the Malacca and Singapore straits.
The International Maritime Bureau said recently that closer security cooperation among Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore — the three states flanking the main straits used for international shipping in Southeast Asia — had helped cut the reported number of actual and attempted pirate attacks and thefts in the waterway to just seven last year, down from 11 in 2006 and 38 in 2004.
Shortly before the IMB released its survey, the U.S. military complained that its warships had been harassed by Iranian vessels at least three times since December in the Hormuz Strait. An audio-video tape released by the U.S. military showed that in the latest incident on Jan. 6, five Iranian speedboats dodged around and between a heavily armed cruiser, a destroyer and a frigate for about half an hour as they steamed together through the strait into the Gulf.
The U.S. says that boxlike objects were dropped into the water from the high-speed Iranian craft, in an apparent simulated mining exercise. One of the American warships trained a machine gun, capable of firing 10 armor-piercing slugs per second, on an Iranian boat that came within 200 meters of the U.S. vessel. But the Iranians turned away before the commander gave the order to fire.
At the height of the tense confrontation, a male voice speaking in heavily accented English on an open frequency was heard to say:
“I am coming to you. You will explode after. . . minutes.” Initially, the Pentagon attributed this voice to Iranians on the five speed boats. Now it says that the source of the threatening commentary cannot be pinpointed. The U.S. Navy Times newspaper suggests that the radio transmission may have come from a local heckler known as the “Filipino Monkey.” This person evidently listened in on ship-to-ship traffic and then intervened. U.S. military personnel have reported many similar threatening or insulting radio transmissions in the past but says they do not know whether they come from Iran or somewhere else in the Gulf.
Iran has played down the whole affair, accusing Washington of deliberately stoking tensions while U.S. President George Bush was in the Middle East trying to rally a regional Arab coalition against Iran. Teheran says that the Iranian boats were merely trying to identify the U.S. vessels.
However, such challenges to the right of unimpeded transit passage by warships through a strait used for international navigation are inherently dangerous. Miscalculation or over-reaction by either side could lead to use of force. Radio exchanges between Iranian and U.S. vessels are common in crowded Gulf shipping lanes, especially near the Hormuz strait, which is flanked by Iran to north and is only 33.8 km wide at its narrowest point.
With Iran’s regular navy, these exchanges are generally professional. But this is not always the case with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has a well-equipped force including naval elements that specialize in “asymmetric” tactics designed to cause heavy losses more powerful enemies.
Among these tactics are sea mining, cruise missile barrages and deployment of large numbers of armed speedboats to attack conventional warships from multiple directions in the constricted waters of the straits where it is difficult for big vessels to manuever.
The U.S. Navy has been acutely aware of the danger of speed boat attacks since al-Qaida operatives packed a small boat with high explosives and rammed the destroyer USS Cole while it was docked in Yemen in October 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors, wounding 40 and causing around $250 million in damage to one of the navy’s most sophisticated warships.
A simulated war game conducted by the U.S. in 2002 suggested that a Gulf adversary using cruise missile barrages fired from shore and the air combined with swarms of attacking speedboats, some packed with explosives and others armed with heavy machine guns and rockets, could cause devastating damage to U.S. warships, even sinking some of the biggest including aircraft carriers and cruisers.
Asia’s stake in Gulf security is high and growing. Each day, an average of 17 million barrels of oil is exported from the Gulf in giant tankers — 20 percent of oil traded around the world. About 16 percent of these exports go to Europe and only 11 percent to the U.S. By contrast, some two thirds go to Asia, mainly to Japan, China, South Korea and Southeast Asian oil importers.
It is clear, therefore, that just because the threat of a disruption to shipping and energy supplies has moved to the Hormuz Strait from the Malacca and Singapore straits, this does not mean the danger is any less acute for Asia.
What can be done to improve security in the Gulf region and, specifically, to safeguard energy shipments through the strait? The root of the problem lies in the longstanding hostility between Iran and the U.S., a mistrust that is even more difficult to bridge because of Iran’s determination to enrich uranium despite calls from the U.N. Security Council to suspend its sensitive nuclear activity. Asian countries have differing interests. Some, including Japan, are prepared to put their nonproliferation concerns ahead of their hopes to get access to Iran’s rich natural gas and oil resources. Others, among them China and India, appear unwilling to cut their energy and commercial interests in Iran.
Yet Japan, China, India and all other Asian oil and gas importers that are increasingly dependent on the Middle East for their energy supplies should have a common interest not only in damping political tensions in and around the Gulf but also in securing passage for international shipping through Hormuz Strait under all conditions. One way to do this is to emulate Australia, Japan, Pakistan and Singapore. They send naval vessels to take part in coalition patrol operations with the U.S. and European nations to help counter terrorism and protect sea lanes in the Gulf region.
But Asian governments should also urge the U.S. Congress to vote as soon as possible in support of the Bush administration’s proposal to ratify the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. America’s failure to join most of the rest of the world in upholding this treaty governing activities in the world’s oceans and shipping lanes gives countries like Iran the pretext to challenge U.S. warships as they pass into and out of the Gulf through a chokepoint that is critical to Asia.
Michael Richardson is an energy and security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.