US/Iran Flare up in the Persian Gulf

Jonathan Power
Jonathan Power is a Foreign affairs
columnist, film-maker and author

“Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary including military force.” President Jimmy Carter 1980.

The world has been through this before and it served no purpose. The threats, the arrogance. Donald Trump should know.

Mr. President, why on earth are you sending a flotilla of ships and 2,500 troops to the Persian Gulf? Why are you so convinced that the mines that exploded on two oil tankers in the Strait of Hurmuz, neither of which were American, are the work of the Iranians?

The Persian Gulf, and in particular the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway (21 miles) that is its entrance, is no longer the jugular of Western economies, much less so than it was in Carter’s time.

Even in Carter’s time the rapid construction of overland pipelines was reducing the Gulf’s importance by the day. Besides, as Iran-Iraq war had revealed, it was not possible to block the strait by sinking ships at its entrance. Its waters run too deep and its currents are too strong, and they will sweep over, any wreckage. Moreover, the war showed that large modern-day tankers are not especially vulnerable targets. Their very size makes them difficult to sink and crude oil is not particularly flammable. Reports that during the Iran/Iraq war, shipping got through, because of the presence of American, British, Dutch and French naval forces were fabrications.

Moreover, today oil is in abundance. The current price is a low 62 US dollars a barrel, and has slipped by over 20% over the past month. A year ago it was 65. OPEC used to take advantage of dangerous situations like the present Gulf crisis to push up oil prices. They no longer do, as its members have learned that they are as much the losers when they help push Western economies into recession.

Moreover, the Western world is not as dependent on Gulf oil as is often thought, even though 30% of the world’s sea-borne oil passes through the Strait. The US has since turned from a big importer of oil to a big exporter. The steady increase in Western Europe of the use of Russian gas also has contributed to making the Gulf countries’ oil exports less significant, at least in the short run, which is all that matters in a situation like this.

At the time when the Carter Administration was building up the sense of panic and anxiety, one of the arguments put forward was that the Soviet Union having invaded Afghanistan was going to push on to the Gulf to grab the oil to make up for its own falling production. It seemed to many a ludicrous idea then, given the mountainous terrain. Now it seems nonsense. Russia will remain for as far as one can see a major oil producer and exporter and has no need, if ever it did, to grab some other country’s oil wells.

Still, even if the US is misreading the situation, it can’t be allowed to just boil over. The international community has to get involved. The Europeans, apart from the British, are being careful not to back the US up in its conviction that the mining of two oil tankers has been carried out by Iran.

By what authority does the US insist on freedom of passage? Is it the Law of the Sea, that carefully negotiated text fathered by the United Nations with enthusiastic participation of the US, which carefully carved out a partition between coastal jurisdictions and traditional areas that belong to freedom of the high seas? Certainly not, because one of the first acts of President Ronald Reagan was to turn his back on nine years’ work and pull the US out of the negotiations. Nothing much has changed in America’s position in the years since.

In short, there is a legal limbo. While the US calls for “freedom of navigation” in the Gulf, much of the world notes quietly that Washington seems prepared to cite international law only when it is in its own interests to do so. If the US can interpret sea law as it chooses, so can everyone else. We know that China has already began to do so in the South China Sea.

The UN Security Council must take urgent action and issue a mandate to a representative group of maritime nations to send in a flotilla under the UN flag. Something similar was done to defeat the pirates off the coast of Somalia more than a decade ago with naval ships sent by countries as diverse as China and the UK.

This is the way to dampen a flashpoint before passions and principalities get out of control.