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Source: Politico.EU

Aug 21, 2023

Iran’s dangerous jousting in international waters

In July, Iranian forces tried to seize a pair of merchant vessels, only to be deterred by nearby U.S. Navy ships. But how much can be done without triggering armed confrontation is unclear.


Four years ago, the world woke up to the Strait of Hormuz.

On July 19, 2019, commandos from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps boarded the Stena Impero — a Swedish-owned, United Kingdom-flagged tanker traveling in the strait’s Omani waters — and seized the ship and crew.

Two months later, Iran released both the crew and the ship, but shipping companies and insurers were spooked.

Today, anxieties about security in the Strait of Hormuz are mounting once more, with the United States Navy recently dispatching a force of 3,000 sailors and Marines in an effort to keep shipping there safe. The decision follows a recent string of Iranian attacks on merchant vessels, including two in the last month alone. But how much they’ll be able to do without triggering armed confrontation with Iran is unclear.

The seizure of the Stena Impero was so dramatic as to be Hollywood-worthy: Commandos abseiled onto the tanker from a helicopter and clambered aboard from four speedboats that suddenly appeared next to her. The commandos took both the ship and the crew of 23 —citizens of India, the Philippines, Russia and Latvia — to an Iranian port, where they were held as pawns in a standoff with the U.K., which had seized an Iranian tanker suspected of sanctions violations just two weeks earlier.

In January 2021, Iran seized a South Korean-flagged chemical tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. A couple of months later, a missile thought to have been fired by Israel damaged an Iranian cargo ship, and a few months after that, a Liberian-flagged Japanese-owned tanker managed by an Israeli citizen based in London was attacked by drones.

This dangerous jousting has continued in the crucial strait — as well as the neighboring Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman — and there are now signs of an uptick, after Iranian forces tried to seize the two vessels traveling in international waters in July, before being deterred by nearby U.S. Navy ships.

Since 2021, Iran alone has attacked over 20 merchant vessels, according to U.S. Central Command. “In the Strait of Hormuz, the core problem is the adversarial relationship between Iran and the U.S.,” noted maritime analyst Cormac Mc Garry. “Yes, the vessels that have been attacked are not U.S.-flagged ships, but their cargoes are mostly related to U.S. companies, so this a shot across the bow at the United States.”

This is a problem because the perpetrators aren’t pirates who can be relatively easily overpowered or intimidated. And it matters because merchant vessels are protected from nation-state violence in peacetime. But if they feel that guarantee is vanishing, few companies would dare to ship, and the world would have to retreat into autarky.

It also matters because the Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil-transit chokepointsome 30 percent of the world’s crude oil passes through it. Indeed, the chaos in the strait sends the message that nation-states can attack ships with impunity.

And, as ever, the only answer seems to be to call in the U.S. military.

In June, Britain’s Royal Navy, together with the U.S. Navy, came to the aid of a merchant vessel being harassed by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz | Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

The arrival of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps spells good news for the tankers in the Strait of Hormuz — as well as the countries whose citizens work on the ships and the countries of the companies that own the vessels. “The plan is reportedly for the Navy and the Marine Corps to put armed security teams onboard merchant vessels, though it’s unclear which ones,” retired Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, former commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, told me.

But the Revolutionary Guards are a much tougher adversary than pirates.

 “They’re really professional and know what they’re doing,” Lewis noted. “They’re aggressive but professional and understand basic maritime procedures, but they do use weapons against maritime non-combatants. It’s not new behavior, but recently it has been accelerating.”

Indeed, so effective is this Iranian disruption tactic that some other countries may adapt it for their local waters.

“We should be worried about geopolitical flashpoints and how shipping works in those areas,” Mc Garry pointed out. “The Baltic Sea or the Taiwan Strait are not the same thing as the Strait of Hormuz, but shipowners still need to pay attention.”

For example, when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen met with U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in California this April, China dispatched an “inspection flotilla” to the Taiwan Strait, threatening to conduct “inspections” on the 240-some ships that traverse it on an average day. And even before its invasion of Ukraine, Russia spoofed the automated identification systems of vessels traveling in the Black Sea several times. Now that it has joined Iran as a pariah state, Russia could also thumb NATO’s nose by disrupting shipping in the Baltic Sea.

That means the world’s law-abiding nations may need to dispatch their navies to escort merchant vessels — but not even the U.S. Navy, with its 300 ships and some 350,000 active-duty personnel can escort every one of the world’s thousands of commercial vessels. “Escorting merchant ships is hugely taxing on the force and requires a lot of manpower,” Lewis said. “And escorting ships is not a Navy’s main responsibility.”

The world’s seas thus need a few more willing constables.

Britain’s Royal Navy already does its fair share here: In June, for example, together with the U.S. Navy, it came to the aid of a merchant vessel being harassed by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. Other free-trading nations, though, haven’t done much, even though one might have expected action from Greece, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Germany — which, together with China and Hong Kong — own the most ships.

And the so-called flag-of-convenience states, under the flag of which most vessels sail, can’t dispatch their own protection flotillas. (Hint: Panama is the world’s largest shipping nation, measured in vessels’ total value of tonnage.)

If, for instance, Swedish-linked shipping is subjected to more harassment (whether Stena Impero-style or of a different kind), would the Swedish Navy decide to escort commercial vessels? I asked retired Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad, a former Chief of the Swedish Navy. “The Swedish Navy regularly exercises such scenarios, but in nearby waters,” he pointed out. “But Sweden won’t raise its hand and volunteer to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz; our fleet is just not large enough. When we join NATO, we’ll have more latitude to send vessels elsewhere.”

What’s more, it’s unclear how the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps or any other force can thwart Iran’s maritime harassment — which isn’t an act of war — without risking armed conflict with the Islamic Republic. “The Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese — they’re not dumb,” Lewis observed. “They’ll stay in that gray zone [between war and peace]. And they have the liberty to do things that liberal democracies cannot.”

“For 42 days we were hungry and sore / The winds were against us, the gales they did roar,” an old sea shanty goes. Now add to that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Chinese inspections and Russian AIS spoofing. Consumers should really spare a thought for the 1.4 million-or-so commercial seafarers.

 And they should buy more local too — a wise choice anyway.

Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and adviser at Gallos Technologies and a regular columnist for POLITICO.

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