Iran’s use of the Strait of Hormuz is coldly calculated

Behind the escalations of the Iranian side in the Gulf are carefully crafted moves and a coldly calculated strategy.
Saturday 27/07/2019
Hijacked. The British-flagged tanker Stena Impero, anchored off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, July 21. (AFP)
Hijacked. The British-flagged tanker Stena Impero, anchored off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, July 21. (AFP)

DUBAI - The last two months have witnessed escalating tensions in the Gulf with magnetic mines exploding on tankers, surveillance drones shot out of the sky and oil cargo seized.

With the seizure of the Stena Impero, a British-flagged oil tanker, Tehran has indicated, in deeds as well as in words, that, being geographically tied to the Strait of Hormuz, it views the security of the waterway as its “own responsibility.” Iranian officials have spoken about the country’s commitment to “securing” the highly strategic strait.

What Tehran is implying is that the vital passageway of the strait, which connect the region’s hydrocarbon exports to the global economy, can only be effectively secured if Iran is co-opted — and not otherwise.

Every day, approximately one-third of the world’s crude and by-products traded by sea, along with all of Qatar’s liquefied natural gas exports, traverse the Strait of Hormuz. Crude oil produced in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran is mainly shipped via these waters.

Yet, it is true that geography of the Strait of Hormuz is such that Iran assumes what some may see as an outsized role in its “security,” if it chooses to do so.

Iran has a vast coast along the Gulf and its territories overlooking the Strait of Hormuz provide highly strategic vantage points from which to conduct surveillance of maritime traffic.

Iranian forces can identify vessels passing through the strait more or less in real time and can reach that traffic with their fast boats within a matter of minutes of them being dispatched.

Of course, technology plays an important role and Iran has undoubtedly developed systems of growing sophistication over the years but the underlying advantage for Iran is the geography of borders and topography of the environment.

Despite having less sophisticated technology than the United States and its allies, Iran can utilise its geographic advantages to project sea power that is highly agile and highly manoeuvrable. As a result, Iran’s naval forces are highly mobile: They can literally appear out of the blue in a swarm and disappear into it just as quickly.

It is not possible for oil tankers, large merchant ships or large naval vessels deployed to provide convoy security to move fast enough when faced with fast boats such as those operated by Iran.

There are other options available to naval forces and commercial shippers facing growing risks due to Iran’s behaviour that could enhance maritime security, although the practical efficacy of these options is less straightforward.

For example, reinforcing naval deployments for maritime patrolling and to provide convoy protection for commercial shipping are measures that have already been stepped up by the United States, the United Kingdom, India and others. Yet it is not possible for shipping to only move in large convoys or to always have naval escorts for protection all the time.

Alternatively, enhancing information exchange and communications between navies, port authorities and shippers can create a better shared awareness of the operational environment, threats and best practices during incidents. Specific threats can be mitigated against by providing early warning or advice on what options are available to a vessel facing a potential incident. However, there are important cultural, operational and security challenges associated with greater information-sharing and communication in such a congested area.

Therefore, while various options are available, they come with limits and, even then, cannot offer what can be categorised as a “complete” solution. Short of that, many of the options available are not sustainable over long periods because of the high costs they entail, in particular for lengthy military operations.

Beyond the cat-and-mouse play of securing freedom of navigation at sea is another intriguing reality of the standoff against Iran. As the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies reinforce naval deployments in the area for maritime security, a greater number of potential high-value military targets become available to Iran if the crisis unexpectedly deteriorates towards a direct military confrontation.

Dozens of sites along Iran’s coast and on islands in the Gulf, including disputed ones, serve as storage and launch installations for a range of anti-ship weapons. As a fairly compact operating environment, almost all large military vessels in the Gulf theatre are exposed to Iran’s anti-ship weapons and face the potential risk of being sunk.

If the possibility of military confrontation with Iran was to become real and serious, most military vessels would likely be moved into safer positions where they would be less exposed to attack.

Behind the escalations of the Iranian side in the Gulf there are carefully crafted moves and a coldly calculated strategy.