Over the past few months specifically, but across decades if not centuries, the international eye has focused on the Strait of Hormuz. The image below is from Tufts University.
The Strait occupies a key shipping route in the Persian Gulf. An enormous percentage of the world’s fuel travels through the Strait, carried by massive oil tankers. In recent weeks, the freedom of those ships to conduct their business has been stymied by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an arm of the Iranian military and, recently designated a terrorist organization by the Trump administration.
The latest provocation came late last week. A British tanker was apprehended by the IRGC, a direct retaliation for an earlier move by the UK on July 4th, when the Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker near Gilbratar. The Iranians had been threatening to act for weeks.
Separate from the escalations between the UK and Iran, the United States has also faced off with the Iranians. Both parties have destroyed opposing drones coming too close for comfort. There is no doubt that the situation with Iran has ratcheted up in the past month.
Two topics of interest
Two topics come to mind; the first is freedom of navigation.
Conflict in the Strait of Hormuz is nothing new. In fact, the Fletcher School’s chapter on Freedom of Navigation cites the Strait (hence the above photo). Of varying degrees, Tufts says that, “There were 35 close encounters between U.S. and Iranian vessels in 2016, most of which occurred during the first half of the year, and 23 encounters in 2015.”
The United States operates Freedom of Navigation missions routinely. The Tufts site unpacks the rationale with far more specificity, but the gist of FoN is to ensure international waters remain international. It is one of many roles the United States plays in its capacity as the “world’s police,” but it is essential.
Rogue states, left unchecked, could easily block key economic and military chokepoints around the world. The Strait of Hormuz is one such chokepoint. In lieu of repeating an already apt description:
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s key maritime chokepoints.
This narrow seaway connects the Indian Ocean with the Arabian/Persian Gulf. For all of recorded history, the seaway has connected Arab and Persian civilizations with the Indian subcontinent, Pacific Asia and the Americas. For example, before the rise of European seaborne empires in the 15th and 16th centuries, porcelain from China and spices from the Indochina peninsula often passed through the strait on their way to Central Asia and Europe.
Today the Strait of Hormuz separates the modern Iranian state from the countries of Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which have strong defense connections with the United States and Saudi Arabia.
All shipping traffic from energy-rich Gulf countries converges in the strait, including crude oil and liquefied natural gas exports from Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Twenty percent of the world’s crude oil flows through this 21-mile wide waterway.
This maritime chokepoint became an arena of conflict during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Each side in the so-called “Tanker War” tried to sink the other’s energy exports. To avoid being targeted, Kuwaiti oil tankers were reflagged under the U.S. shipping registry.
Although crude oil continued to flow, marine insurance rates for vessels operating in the strait spiked by as much as 400 percent. Those higher costs likely contributed to higher gasoline and diesel prices worldwide.Dr. Rockford Weitz
The Brits, for what it’s worth, have stated that, “When it comes to freedom of navigation, there can be no compromise.”
Freedom of Navigation is an essential feature of the global economy. Without it, the international order devolves and shipping lanes become a free-for-all. Sympathetic nations will have to thread the needle, both reprimanding and punishing Iran enough to discourage this activity, but short of sustained kinetic engagements.
Which leads me to the second focus: Kahn’s Escalation Ladder.
I came across this model for the first time when reading a great, somewhat new book called Destined for War, which explores whether war between China and the United States is inevitable. One of the key topics the author engages is Kahn’s Escalation Ladder, basically a framework of escalations that take two parties from a seemingly small conflict to full-scale nuclear war.
Now, the Escalation Ladder is meant to demonstrate how two nuclear powers might escalate, and as of today the Iranian regime does not have nuclear weapons. But the actions taken by both the UK and USA in reaction to Iranian provocations are likely portents to how escalation could play out in the future, were Iran to weaponize uranium.
Below is the Escalation Ladder. The initial crises is at the bottom, working its way up to nuclear war. Notice that formal declaration of war is rather close to the top. There are a number of relatively minor steps before proper “war,” but taken in sum it becomes almost inevitable.
Another key feature is that the rungs are not necessarily linear. One reading of the ladder suggested to think of it as an elevator: A party involved in conflict could easily jump multiple “rungs” and escalate the situation quicker, particularly if an opportunity to capture some relative advantage presents itself.
It’s a bit too easy, in my opinion, to cast stones from the outside and suggest that the United States (or now the international community, since the UK is involved and remains a signatory and proponent of the Iran Deal) is belligerent and in pursuit of proper war with Iran. While I believe the incumbent administration has taken steps to destabilize the situation we face with Iran, there are also absolute commitments that nearly every nation supports. Freedom of Navigation is one such protection.
Allowing Iran to monopolize passage through the Strait of Hormuz has the potential to sink the world into economic malaise, not to mention requiring exponentially more force to resolve the issue.