A vital crossroad for oil trade located in a geopolitically tense region, the Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most important chokepoints. America’s presence in the Persian Gulf is largely motivated by the need to keep the Strait open. Yet, the recent tensions in the area are once again raising concerns about stability in this essential maritime passage.
The strategic significance of Hormuz
The Strait of Hormuz is a U-shaped sea passage that connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and therefore the Indian Ocean. Its width varies from 96 to 39 kilometres. The southern shores consist of the Arabian landmass, and more precisely the peninsula hosting the United Arab Emirates and the Omani exclave of Musandam. To the north lies Iran, and notably the city of Bandar Abbas, which hosts an important naval base. The states around the Persian Gulf host immense hydrocarbon reserves, and this is where the Strait’s geostrategic importance stems from: in fact, around 20% of the global oil shipping transits through its waters. This means that any disruption of trade across Hormuz would have a sensible impact on the price of fossil energy that would hurt entire economies, notably those of Asian countries like China, Japan or South Korea that are heavily reliant on hydrocarbon imports from the Middle East.
To make things more complicated, the Persian Gulf area is a geopolitically-tense region. Iran is America’s staunchest opponent in the Middle East. It actively promotes its agenda throughout the region, it maintains positive relations with Russia and it is hostile to Israel and Saudi Arabia; who in turn are the main allies of the US in the area. Qatar is another problematic country. It is a small but rich state that holds enormous natural gas deposits, but since 2017 it has been put under an economic and diplomatic blockade by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. These powers accuse it of maintaining excessively close ties with Iran and of sponsoring Islamist political movements, including Jihadi groups. This feud is detrimental to America’s foreign policy in the region. Qatar is an ally who hosts the forward headquarters of the US Central Command, which is located at the Al Udeid Air Base and who has competence over military operations in the Middle East and some peripheral states like Afghanistan. Al Udeid is a vast facility that plays a central role for the logistic chain of the US military in the region, and is America’s most important installation along with the home base of the Fifth Fleet’s in Bahrain. Washington is now forced to cope with this fracture among its Gulf allies, where supporting Doha would alienate Riyadh and vice versa. US diplomats have been working to unravel the issue, but as of today the problem remains unsolved.
Besides these regional matters, the Hormuz Strait itself is a matter of contention. As noted before, Iran controls its northern side, and this allow it to easily block the traffic through its waters. This can be done by employing various means such as naval mines, submarines, fast attack boats and anti-ship missiles. Teheran’s threat to close the Strait in the case of an escalating confrontation with Washington is first and foremost a deterrent, as any interruption of the maritime lanes would translate in higher oil prices with sensible consequences on the global economy. In the logic of an open war, this blockade would be part of a broader anti-access / area denial strategy to reduce the capability of US forces to effectively operate in the Gulf all while raising the economic cost of the intervention. In the Hormuz Strait were blocked, the US would be forced to a lengthy, costly and risky operation to restore the freedom of navigation. America would ultimately succeed, but it prefers avoiding such a scenario that brings the risk of getting involved in another thorny war in Middle East.
Finally, close to the western entrance of the Hormuz Strait are situated three islands that are occupied militarily by Iran but claimed by the EAU: Abu Musa, Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb. Since the shipping lanes to and from the Strait of Hormuz must pass close to the islands, controlling them has a notable strategic importance, making of them potential flashpoints in an already tense region.
The action of disturbing the freedom of navigation for achieving strategic purposes has already been used in the past. The “Tanker War” that took place during the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988 saw both warring parties attacking each other’s shipping. Today, many speculate that we may be heading towards a new conflict of the same kind.
US-Iran relations had been improving in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal, which basically stated that Teheran would abandon its quest for nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, particularly those on the oil sector which represents a central source of revenue for the Islamic Republic. However, the situation deteriorated once again when the Trump administration decided to abandon the agreement and reintroduced sanctions in May 2018, claiming that the deal did not give sufficient guarantees that Iran would not obtain nuclear warheads in the future and that the end of the economic restrictions were allowing it to gain money that it used to pursue a foreign policy that was detrimental to the interest of America and its allies.
In the context of this hard-line policy on Iran, in early May 2019 the Trump administration increased the military presence in the Middle East by dispatching several assets; including an aircraft carrier, strategic bombers and a battery of Patriot missiles. On May 12, several tankers were damaged by explosions in the Gulf of Oman. The US immediately blamed Iran, who denied its involvement. Other incidents took place throughout the Middle East in the following days, and the US deployed a small number of additional troops. On June 13, two other tankers were struck in the Gulf of Oman. Once again, the US pointed at Iran and sent more soldiers; even though the Iranians rejected the accusations. Three days later, Iran shot down an American reconnaissance drone, claiming it had violated its airspace; something the US denied. President Trump then ordered an airstrike on Iranian radar facilities, but cancelled to avoid human casualties it just before it was carried out. Instead, the administration opted for a cyberattack that has allegedly disabled the command & control hardware of Iranian missile batteries. A dozen of stealth F-22 Raptors, America’s most powerful air superiority fighter, were also dispatched to Al Udeid. Things assumed a broader scope in July. At the beginning of the month, the UK seized an Iranian cargo in Gibraltar believed to be violating international sanctions by carrying oil to Syria. In retaliation, Iranian boats approached a British ship on July 10 but were repelled by a Royal Navy frigate. On July 18, a US warship jammed an Iranian drone that had approached it. American sources stated it fell into the sea, but Iran says otherwise. The following day, the Iranians managed to capture two tankers. One was rapidly released, but the other is still kept hostage. Iran hopes to use it as a bargain chip to have its own cargo released. This has prompted the British government to order the Royal Navy to provide naval escort to tankers crossing the Hormuz Strait.
In this game of mutual blaming and controversial incidents, it is indeed possible that Iran has carried out the attacks on the tankers in an attempt show its determination and dissuade the US by demonstrating how it can actually threaten maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz and the surrounding waters. As a matter of fact, the bombings have already had an impact on the oil and shipping industry, since the greater risk translates into higher insurance costs. However, Teheran’s approach is hazardous, by the moment that it could lead to further escalation. By the moment, America is trying to rally its allies to set up a multilateral maritime patrol operation; but the UK seems keener on organizing a European mission independent from the US.
Conclusion: Hormuz as a global matter
As we have seen, tensions are flaring up in the Strait of Hormuz, and a further escalation would have consequences on a global scale. Even a simple disruption of the maritime traffic like the one that is taking place is sufficient to raise the price of oil & gas, thus affecting those countries Asian and European countries that rely massively on hydrocarbons import from the Middle East. In the worst-case scenario of an open war, Iran will be capable of causing significant harm: the price of fossil energy would immediately skyrocket and the entire region would be destabilized. Still, America and its allies would ultimately defeat the Islamic Republic and reopen the Strait. The recent incidents are a worrisome trend: new attacks against tankers are not to be excluded and this could pave the way to an escalatory dynamic. But an all-out conflict is an unpredictable scenario that everyone wants to avoid, and all parties should act carefully to avoid this undesired outcome.