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Flashpoint / Global

Strait of Hormuz

I. Why it Matters

In recent years, the U.S. and Iranian navies have had numerous tense encounters in the Persian Gulf, where 30 per cent of the world’s seaborne-traded crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz every day. An intentional or inadvertent incident at sea could quickly escalate into a direct military confrontation, and risk shipping through the critical energy chokepoint.

II. Recent Developments

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A U.S. Navy patrol boat fired warning shots near an Iranian vessel, 25 July 2017 AP

III. Background

The Gulf has for decades been an arena for U.S.-Iran friction. This was most dramatically highlighted during the last days of the Iran-Iraq war, when the U.S. navy launched Operation Earnest Will in 1987 to protect U.S.-allied vessels in the area. In Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988, U.S. forces sank or severely damaged half of Iran’s operational fleet days after a U.S. frigate was badly hit by an Iranian mine off the coast of Qatar.

U.S. defence officials tallied 23 “unsafe and/or unprofessional” incidents between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in 2015. The next year, the figure rose to 35. These represent a tenth of all encounters between the two navies, which stood at 300 in 2015 and 250 in the first half of 2016. President Trump had previously threatened that Iranian boats harassing the U.S. navy “will be shot out of the water”.

In turn, Iranian officials have complained about both the U.S. presence and “harassment” by the U.S. navy. The Gulf largely falls within the purview of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) navy, though the regular army’s navy operates there as well.

The most significant recent incident occurred in January 2016, when two U.S. riverine command boats entered Iranian waters around Farsi Island. The IRGC navy detained ten U.S. sailors; several exchanges between then-Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, facilitated the sailors’ release the following morning. In a subsequent investigation, the U.S. navy maintained “that Iran violated international law by impeding the boat’s innocent passage transit and they violated our sovereign immunity by boarding, searching and seizing the boats and by photographing and video recording the crew”.

Iran has also been accused of dispatching weapons to Huthi rebels in Yemen. In 2015, for example, the Saudi-led coalition announced the capture of a munition-laden Iranian fishing boat off the coast of Oman. In February 2016, HMAS Darwin, an Australian frigate, intercepted a boat loaded with nearly 2,000 AK-47s, dozens of rocket-propelled grenades and various other weapons. U.S. officials believed the shipment to be Iranian in origin and bound for Yemen. In March 2016, FS Provence, a French destroyer, intercepted a boat in the northern Indian Ocean containing “several hundred AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, and anti-tank weapons”, again believed to be bound for Yemen. The USS Sirocco and USS Gravely made a similar seizure on 28 March 2016, dubbed by U.S. officials “the latest in a string of illicit weapons shipments assessed by the U.S. to have originated in Iran”.

In February 2017, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly considered intercepting and boarding an Iranian ship to search for contraband weapons, but ultimately decided against it. In September 2017, U.S. Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan noted that there had been no naval interdictions of Iranian arms bound for Yemen for over a year, but that in his judgement Iranian military support for the Huthis was ongoing.

Adding to the sensitivities around the area is the strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz: the U.S. Energy Information Administration refers to the Strait as “the world’s most important chokepoint”. Over the years, Iran has repeatedly threatened to block it. 

Not every maritime interaction between Iran and the U.S. has been adversarial. In October 2017, for example, naval officials from Iran and the U.S. reportedly liaised to facilitate the rescue of Iranian fishermen by the USS Howard.

IRGC detained and later released 10 US Navy troops after their armed boats strayed into Iranian territorial waters. 13 January 2016 FARS NEWS AGENCY

IV. Analysis

No Buffer: Unlike most other U.S.-Iran flashpoints across the Middle East, which involve their respective local allies, the prospect of a naval incident in the Persian Gulf would bring Tehran and Washington into direct confrontation.

A Consequential Clash: A confrontation between the two navies in the Persian Gulf, even if contained, could have broader consequences. Regardless of who provokes a clash, Iran is unlikely to go too far in tangling with the U.S. navy with its superior capabilities. But since in the eyes of Iran’s supreme leader not responding to perceived U.S. aggression only would invite more of it, Iran might choose indirect retaliation against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, which are in close proximity of militias backed by Iran.

Asymmetry as Doctrine: Iran’s navy is no match for its U.S. counterpart. To compensate for their relative technical shortcomings, Iran’s naval forces emphasise smaller, more nimble craft and missiles – a technique that an expert has qualified as “a form of guerrilla warfare at sea”. Both Iran and the U.S. agree that this Iranian asymmetric naval capability is and will remain at the forefront of Iran’s defensive strategy.

IRGC Navy maneuver in Persian Gulf, 8 October 2017 TASNIM

V. Scenarios and Recommendations

An Uneasy Accommodation: While Iran’s foreign minister has taken to social media to question “what the U.S. Navy [is] doing 7,500 miles from home”, a U.S. naval presence in international waters in support of its regional allies and to secure energy flows will not be ending any time soon. Given the nature of the narrow waterway – with shipping lanes in either direction only two miles wide – and rising tensions, incidents are almost unavoidable. Washington and Tehran would therefore both benefit from negotiating an Incidents At Sea agreement.  

Crisis Contacts: While the possibility of an incident similar to the one in January 2016 that led to the detention of ten U.S. sailors is real, there is little at the moment to suggest that the type of swift resolution facilitated by Kerry and Zarif during that episode could be replicated now. Some in Washington took serious umbrage at Iran’s humiliating treatment of the U.S. sailors, while some in Tehran crowed over Iran’s iron-fist protection of its territorial waters. Yet a potential escalation was successfully avoided mainly because of a high-level communications channel and a degree of trust built up between the two sides. Regardless of the two sides’ ability or willingness to resume high-level diplomatic engagement, Iran and the U.S. should establish a military-to-military communications channel to mitigate the risk of future incidents in the Persian Gulf, and lay the basis for negotiating an Incidents At Sea agreement.