Importance of Security at Strategic Persian Gulf Waterway

2019/06/18 | Opinion, political

Strategic Council Online: Suspicious explosions of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman waters on June 13 provide an opportunity to reflect on the importance of securing a strategic waterway called the Strait of Hormuz. Dr. Ali Karbalaie Hosseini - International Law Researcher

About the vital importance of this waterway for the global economy, it would suffice to say that the European governments have called for restraint in response to the suspicious blasts. These states fear that any tension in the Strait of Hormuz could disrupt the global trade. About one-third of crude oil exports to the world markets are shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, so if the Strait is shut and trade via the waterway is halted there is no doubt that rising oil prices would put unprecedented pressure on the shaky European economies.

It should be emphasized that this scenario is not stated hypothetically and has a historical background. In fact, a “tanker war” occurred in this same region during the Iraqi imposed war on Iran (1980-88). In the course of the war, hundreds of ships were targeted from the two sides with the Iraqis also hitting oil tankers belonging to third parties during the fighting.

Perhaps, as the Americans have claimed Washington is no longer dependent on the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, but it is well aware that its allies are dependent on this black gold. For the same reason and in order for the global economy to remain effective this waterway is considered vital.

Although attacks on oil tankers during the Iraqi imposed war took place slowly and marginally it was escalated after Iraq threatened in 1981 to attack all ships heading to Iranian ports or setting out from these ports. A Turkish tanker became the first major flotilla targeted by the Iraqis.

The United States got involved in the conflict in 1987, first escorting Kuwaiti ships as a country declaring neutrality in the war. But during the same American intervention, 37 US navy personnel were killed in an Iraqi fighter plane attack on the USS Stark frigate in the same year.

Researchers at the University of Texas at that time wrote that “tanker war in the Persian Gulf at that time led to a drop of 25 percent in commercial shipping traffic and a sharp rise in crude oil prices.” The researchers later calculated that during the attacks, a quarter of the oil tankers that were targeted had been drowned.

Some analysts say there are similarities between the 1980s conflicts and today’s conditions. For example, Gary Sick, an Iran expert who worked at the US National Security Council in the 1980s, says: “The key issue at both times is that Iran has been left out of the oil market.”

But contrary to this view, significant differences are now seen. First, the tanker war in the 1980s was in continuation of a war that had taken place while the tensions today are being pursued at sea with an aim of warmongering. This time, if the US wants to intervene, it will be the main actor from the beginning, and cannot adopt a hit-and-run stance vis-à-vis the events in this waterway, or end any scenario it may have initiated in the first place.

What is certain is that the level of growing tensions would depend entirely on how the Trump administration would act.

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s undocumented remark that Iran was behind the oil tanker attacks shows Washington’s strategically crude calculations especially under conditions that the Japanese owner of the tankers and the Tokyo government’s spokesperson have described the American stance on the incident unconvincing.

Accordingly, the international community has a clear choice to make: to be responsible and prevent America’s tension creating moves with the cooperation of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or to face similar but bitterer results. After all, Washington should well remember the historical lessons learned from the Iraqi imposed war against Iran!

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