Given that about one fifth of daily global oil production passes through the Strait of Hormuz, the security and safety of shipping there is critical to the world’s energy and economy. But since the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement and unilaterally slapped sanctions on Iran, US-Iran relations have been in free fall and the security situation has rapidly deteriorated. They have downed each other’s drones and threatened each other with further kinetic actions. Worse, Iran thinks the UK’s seizure of an oil tanker carrying Iran oil was instigated by the US. In response, Iran has seized a British oil tanker. As a result, the risk level for foreign shipping in the region has risen to “critical” — the UK’s highest threat. Now both the US and the UK are proposing multinational efforts to address the situation. But implementation will be politically difficult.
The US is proposing “Operation Sentinel” to “promote maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and de-escalate tensions in international waters throughout the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Oman”. The early focus would most likely be on the main trouble spot — the Strait of Hormuz.
The US has asked the UK, France, Germany, Norway, Japan, South Korea and Australia to participate. The problem with the US proposal is that many prospective extra-regional participants — including US allies — are wary of joining US-led and coordinated military cooperation there. The UK, France and Germany opposed the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and continue to honor the accord. They fear that the US will try to use the effort to press its unilateral “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, including its attempts to totally ban Iranian oil exports. In short, they think a US-led effort will only escalate the situation, thus making it worse for their interests.
The US is trying to allay this concern. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said, “This is not related to the pressure campaign on Iran. It’s focused on freedom of navigation.” The US says that Operation Sentinel “will enable nations to provide escort to their flagged vessels while taking advantage of the cooperation of participating nations for coordination and enhanced maritime domain awareness and surveillance”. In other words, the US will co-ordinate and provide intelligence, but others will have to escort and protect their own flagged ships.
But this concern persists. The evolving US plan is based on a conference held in Poland in February 2019 that was criticized by some countries as having been used by the US to focus on its problems with Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that the US mission is to “convince” Iran that “this piracy, this terrorism, was unacceptable and the regime must change its ways”. In this context, the head of US Central Command General “Frank” McKenzie did not help dispel the notion of US military dominance in regional affairs, saying “Our ability to bring forces into the theater has acted to deter” the Iranians from more hostile acts.
Also looming in the background is the 33-nation naval partnership based in Bahrain and commanded by a US vice-admiral. This particular grouping is committed to maintaining maritime security in the Arabian Sea. But it is focused on counter-piracy. It is not clear that most participants in this multilateral task force would participate in a military coalition escorting others’ tankers through Iranian waters.
Possible participants in the US-led coalition include Japan, China and India. In 2018, about 86 percent of Japan’s annual oil supply passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing to change Japan’s pacifist constitution and public opinion in Japan so that it could to take a more active military role in the world. But even though his ruling coalition won the recent election, it did not maintain the required two-thirds majority to revise the constitution. Moreover, Abe still wants to be a mediator between the US and Iran and its participation would negate his neutrality in Iran’s eyes.
The waters comprising the Strait of Hormuz are under the sovereignty of Iran and Oman. Any initiative to protect shipping there should come from and be led by them.
In 2015, Japan passed legislation permitting it to provide logistical support to multi-national forces if another country is under attack, but only if the situation constitutes an “existential threat” to Japan. Its participation in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia is not a relevant precedent because that involved protection against non-state actors. Sending the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) to participate in a US-led operation would be highly controversial. So, it is not surprising that Japan has so apparently declined to join “Operation Sentinel”. It might be possible to deploy JSDF assets to protect Japanese ships and cargo destined for Japan, but they could not protect other countries’ vessels.
China’s participation is a non-starter; not that it has been or will be asked. It sees Iran as a strategic partner in its Belt and Road Initiative and a critical supplier of its oil. Moreover, China thinks Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is the basic cause of the current crisis. In addition, Law of the Sea issues may prevent participation by countries like China or India because they have the same or similar positions on freedom of navigation as Iran. Indeed, the US often challenges their claims with freedom of navigation operations using US warships and aircraft. Thus, participation in a US-led effort to “protect” shipping in the Strait of Hormuz could undermine their legal position on these issues vis a vis the US.
India purchases the most oil from Iran after China. But it has never participated in foreign military task forces outside of the UN. It will likely escort its own flagged vessels and it may continue to co-ordinate with the US military for logistical support such as refueling. Former Indian naval officer Abhijit Singh of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation thinks that “in a conflict we will be neutral. We will be drawn into it only if our shipping is hit”.
So, this brings us to the UK proposal which some say is complementary to and others say is opposite to that of the US. The UK is desperate to protect its shipping in the Gulf. But it also recognizes the problems with a US-led coalition. As French Foreign Minister Jaean Yves Le Drian said, the European effort is “the opposite of the US policy of maximum pressure.” So, the UK has proposed a European “coalition-lite” which may include countries from the Gulf. It appears that the European effort will, if anything, be only to “monitor and observe” maritime security there.
The French and German foreign ministers have been cautious regarding the UK proposal. They “agreed that safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz is a top priority for European nations, while avoiding escalation in the region.” The UK arrest of a tanker carrying Iranian oil has done nothing to dim the impression that it is doing the US’ bidding, at least in Iran’s eyes. Indeed, some in the EU think this is “a mess of Britain’s own making”. They question if “there a real danger for internal shipping” or if this is just a tiff between the UK and Iran. They may also worry that the election of Boris Johnson as the new Prime Minister of the UK may bring UK foreign policy regarding Iran more in line with that of the US.
Another problem is that most European navies do not have the capability to undertake a sustained overseas effort. For logistical and political reasons, few are likely to participate. Germany has already indicated it will not — at least kinetically. In any case, a fatal blow to the UK proposal may have been struck when Iran rejected the UK plan. Moreover, the main proponent Jeremy Hunt has been replaced as Foreign Minister and the idea has been opposed by some of the incoming Prime Minister’s supporters. Meanwhile, the UK Navy is doing its best to escort its national flag vessels, although it probably cannot protect them throughout the Gulf by itself.
These embryonic efforts have been called “coalitions of the willing”. But at this stage, they are more like coalitions of the “reluctant”. Effective implementation will have to overcome many political and legal obstacles. The waters comprising the Strait of Hormuz are under the sovereignty of Iran and Oman. Any initiative to protect shipping there should come from and be led by them. Indeed, Iran’s position is “either everyone enjoys full security or no one does”.