Iran’s seizure of a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz raises the stakes in that tense, troubled region. Tehran is trying to force the world to address its concerns in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. The act, which looks like officially sanctioned piracy, underscores the growing danger in a waterway that is a lifeline for global energy supplies. The rest of the world must come up with ways to secure passage through the strait — but that is only an interim step. Real stability can only result when the United States and Iran strike a new deal.
The most recent crisis was triggered by the seizure of a British ship, the Stena Impero, by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran claimed that it violated maritime law by polluting the waterway, switching off tracking devices to avoid Iranian monitoring and colliding with a fishing boat. Balaclava-wearing commandos boarded the ship by helicopter. The ship was taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where, in a final insulting gesture, it was shown on Iranian TV flying the Iranian flag.
Days earlier, Iranian ships tried to block another British tanker from entering the strait, forcing a British Navy ship to position itself between the Iranian vessels and the tanker. Iran has also acknowledged the seizure of a United Arab Emirates-based ship, alleging that it was involved in smuggling.
London insists that the Stena Impero was in international waters and that the seizure was retaliation for Britain’s detention of an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar in early July; that ship was held because it was allegedly smuggling oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. Iran may have decided to grab the Stena Impero after the Gibraltar Supreme Court awarded a 30-day extension to continue to detain that Iranian vessel; the seizure came only hours after the ruling.
It is hard to overestimate the impact of instability in the Strait of Hormuz. About 30 percent of the world’s oil and 20 percent of its tanker traffic passes through it, and about 70 percent of that goes to Asia. About 80 percent of Japan’s crude oil imports go through the strait; and India, China and South Korea get large quantities as well. A halt to shipping would be catastrophic but even the risk of instability can do great damage. It is estimated that insurance for tankers sailing through the Strait of Hormuz is now 10 times more than it was before two ships were attacked in June.
The U.S., which has provided security for ships when regional governments have threatened transits, increased its presence in the area as Tehran became more bellicose. Washington has dispatched ships and aircraft, along with more than 2,000 marines. The U.S. is also pressing countries that rely on the region for energy supplies to join an international coalition to help counter Iran. A State Department statement explained that “A multinational effort is needed to address this global challenge and ensure the safe passage of vessels.” The U.S. briefed representatives from more than 60 nations about “Operation Sentinel,” a coalition of the willing to safeguard ships in the area. Washington reportedly welcomes military and financial contributions, with each government deciding which is most appropriate for it.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton is visiting Japan this week, and Iran is high on his agenda. Japan is cautious, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noting that he is waiting “to discern” the Trump administration’s intentions and see what the U.S. wants Japan to do. Regardless of what Tokyo decides, Abe will continue to try to ease tensions by building on Japan’s friendship with Iran.
A military contribution will be difficult, however. Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of Komeito, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, has noted that diplomacy should be a priority. Japan must also study the legal basis for any deployment or financial contribution.
Other governments have been equally circumspect. Ultimately, they fear that they are being enlisted in a U.S. campaign to squeeze Iran and force it back to the negotiating table. The U.S. withdrew from the multilateral agreement that capped Iran’s nuclear program; Iran is furious that it honored the deal yet it was punished while Washington imposed robust sanctions. Tehran has ratcheted up pressure to force other governments to respect the agreement, and warned them against being used by Washington. The U.S. has insisted that any coalition would not target Iran. Iran also warned regional governments that permitting the U.S. to launch attacks from their territory would subject them to reprisals.
The best solution to this imbroglio is talks between the U.S. and Iran, but both sides are digging in, and neither is prepared to make the first compromise that will allow discussions to proceed. Still, with tensions mounting and ample opportunities for miscalculation, every diplomatic channel must be operating and explored. A real crisis is only a matter of time and when that happens, communications will be critical.