Securing the Strait of Hormuz in the face of Iranian aggression is an international obligation
While President Hassan Rouhani’s recent speech was a timely reminder of why the international community needs to take the Iranian threat seriously, the nation’s recent actions in the Strait of Hormuz should also be a wake-up call about how far the regime in Tehran is prepared to go to destabilize the region.
For years, Iran has threatened to “close the strait.” The warning lights are flashing. In the past few months there has been a catalog of Iranian aggression aimed at commercial shipping; from limpet mines to 18th-century style piracy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy has been busy.
When the British tanker, Stena Impero, was commandeered last month there was finally a brief, laser-like focus on the strait and a real push by the UK and the US to form a coalition to secure this vital shipping lane. Sadly, the enthusiasm did not last long. As the days went by after the tanker was pirated, Europeans began to use their differences with the Trump administration over the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, to mask their own lack of political will and ability to deploy a military force. The US withdrew from the deal in May 2018.
The international community needs to wake up to the fact that securing the Strait of Hormuz is an international obligation. Not only are the issues of international norms and the rule of law at stake, there will be huge economic consequences if the free flow of oil and gas from the Gulf is restricted or stopped altogether.
For example, Japan, the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), gets 30 percent of its gas delivered through the Strait of Hormuz. It also gets 80 percent of its oil from the Gulf. Imagine the effect on the Japanese economy if these desperately needed resources were not available. The economic shock waves would be felt around the world.
There are some American politicians and policymakers who dismiss the idea that the US should play any significant role in keeping the strait open because the US imports so little oil and gas from the region. This is a shortsighted and strategically inept view. The US might not depend on Middle Eastern oil or LNG, but the economic consequences arising from a major disruption of supplies would ripple around the globe.
There will be huge economic consequences if the free flow of oil and gas from the Gulf is restricted or stopped altogether.
It is also time for the Europeans to get their heads out of the sand. The problem with Europe is that it views everything regarding Iran through the lens of keeping the moribund JCPOA on life support. For whatever reason, Europe is unable, or indeed unwilling, to craft a foreign policy on Iran that is nuanced and sophisticated enough to differentiate between the varying challenges Tehran presents to the region and the world.
The Europeans should be willing to help defend the rule of law and do whatever is necessary to keep international shipping lanes open. Instead, they dither while coming up with excuse after excuse. It is extraordinary that many across Europe would rather slight US President Donald Trump than genuinely take measures to keep the Strait of Hormuz free form Iranian harassment.
But if the Europeans finally do get on board, there is an existing framework in place that could allow for the smooth and speedy creation of an international force. Although it is not well known outside of security and defense circles, the Combined Maritime Forces is a 33-country coalition of the willing headquartered in Bahrain. Commanded by a US admiral, with a British naval officer as his deputy, it has been conducting various security, counterterrorism and counterpiracy operations in the Gulf and the wider region since 2004. It should be obvious to everyone that this is the best framework for any new security operation in the strait.
After all, we know that the Combined Maritime Forces works because the various maritime security operations that fall under its umbrella have largely been a success. It also has broad international representation. European countries such as Greece, Belgium and Denmark already participate. So do Asian countries, including Malaysia, Singapore and Japan.
The force also includes regional countries. This is crucial. The Gulf states are at the tip of the spear when it comes to Iranian aggression — and often have the most to lose in the event that the free flow of oil and gas is restricted or stopped.
Just last week there was a report that Iran had commandeered another tanker. Meanwhile, there has been no indication that the Iranians will release the Stena Impero or its crew, who were taken on July 19. And Rouhani’s recent speech was nothing more than a belligerent and defiant rant, showing that the impact of Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign is being felt hard by the regime.
There is no doubt that behind the scenes, US officials and their British counterparts are working hard trying to build a coalition to keep the strait open.
The free flow of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz is not only US strategic priority, it is an international priority. With the global economy so interdependent and connected, there is truly no such thing as energy independence in the 21st century.
US leadership is essential for a successful maritime force to be established in the Strait of Hormuz, but Europeans must be willing to look beyond their issues regarding the JCPOA. Instead, when the Americans tried to act, most European countries remained silent, burying their heads in the sand like ostriches.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey