‘Political piracy’: Iran’s ship seizures aimed at blocking nuclear deal
Washington - The brief crisis over the Iranian seizure of the container ship Maersk Tigris in the Strait of Hormuz on April 28th appears to have ended peacefully with the vessel’s release on May 7th but the threat of further maritime incidents cannot be ruled out in or near the strategic waterway through which about 30% of seaborne-traded oil passes each year.
The Iranian Navy and the naval wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have a long history of harassing maritime traffic, and even Western warships, in the Gulf. Tehran has frequently threatened to close straits.
There are also suspicions that the seizure of the Maersk Tigris was linked to events in war-torn Yemen, where a US Navy flotilla was deployed to block an Iranian convoy suspected of carrying weapons to Shia rebels despite a maritime blockade imposed by a Saudi Arabian-led coalition.
The Iranian convoy turned back before coming to contact with the US ships. But Iran’s navy commander, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, declared on April 26th more flotillas of warships will be sent to the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el Mandeb Strait that links the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The Iranian warships, he explained, are to protect Iranian merchant vessels from “pirates”. He added, “We have no plan to leave the waterway.”
The Gulf of Aden is an emerging flashpoint in the Yemen conflict in which Tehran supports the Houthi rebels that Saudi Arabia is fighting.
But that means that two strategic maritime chokepoints, Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb, are in the cross hairs in the Riyadh-Tehran face off. If either, or both, are closed, oil and gas supplies from the Gulf as well as global trade will be threatened.
The Maersk Tigris seizure was the second incident in Hormuz in a week. Four Iranian gunboats surrounded a US-flagged merchant ship, the Maersk Kensington, on April 24th, but did not try to seize it.
Tehran said the Maersk Tigris, which flies the flag of the Marshall Islands, a Pacific island chain whose defence is guaranteed by the United States, was seized because of a 2005 legal dispute during which an Iranian court had ordered Maersk to pay $3.6 million to an Iranian company for cargo allegedly never delivered.
But the seizure of the container ship cannot be regarded as anything but outright political piracy, a provocation that calls for a more decisive US response than has been evident.
The United States dispatched the guided missile destroyer USS Farragut to escort US-flagged ships through Hormuz. The warship was withdrawn on May 6th after Maersk settled its legal problem and Tehran said the vessel was free to sail.
While these developments could be interpreted as an effort to de-escalate the crisis, the root causes of these incidents remain.
The volatility and factional feuding within the Tehran regime has been heightened by the growing regional rivalry between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia following the US military’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and the US strategic shift to the Pacific.
The seizure of the Maersk Tigris, far from being a commercial dispute, was probably intended to serve political and military purposes.
The IRGC leadership most likely initiated the incident to sabotage President Hassan Rohani’s nuclear diplomacy, which has sidelined the Guards who remain hostile to “The Great Satan” despite the April 2nd framework agreement with US-led powers on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The incident may also have been an attempt to get back at the United States for deploying warships off Yemen. Iran’s regular navy, heavily outgunned, prudently chose to avoid a showdown.
None of this is likely to go away, even if an overall nuclear agreement is reached by June 30th. The struggle goes on in Tehran between the IRGC and Rohani, who has overseen the nascent rapprochement with the United States and is battling to reduce the IRGC’s political and economic power.
The IRGC is determined to protect its highly lucrative business monopolies, so it may well initiate further maritime crises in a bid to sabotage Rohani’s government.
The regional dimension too is highly inflammable, with the conflict in Yemen likely to intensify the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
Regardless of whether a nuclear deal is concluded, the United States cannot afford to leave freedom of navigation through Hormuz to the whims of the IRGC or the feuding between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Much blood risks being shed before a balance of power can be stabilised. And even if it is achieved, there is no guarantee it will prove to be peaceful.