- The Strait of Hormuz has been an important waterway since
the earliest development of maritime trade. That means if you scan the
pages of histories, or the countless clay tablets that speak of great historic
empires in the region, you will find the waterway facilitated trade for
all of them. In those days the waterway serviced a diversified trade in
whatever supported the communities along its shores and adjacent hinterlands.
Much of that was agricultural, especially grains, fruits, wines, and wool,
but copper and wood were important goods, while gold, silver and precious
stones served both as medium of exchange and trade goods.
- Nothing in the historic trade came close to the importance
of the modern flow of oil through that narrow passage. On a daily basis
the Strait now witnesses the passage of ships carrying 16-18 million barrels
of oil and at least 2 million barrels of petroleum products. That amounts
to 40% of all the oil that moves in international trade. That means the
view in either direction is normally full of shipping. Therefore, as anyone
who looks at it quickly notes, any significant disruption of that flow
would have immediate impact on the global economy, sharply affecting both
energy supplies and prices.
- In that context, it becomes terribly important who owns
or controls the Hormuz choke point. Iran borders the north side of the
Strait. The United Arab Emirates and Oman border the south side. The Strait
is so narrow however that the adjacent coastal states are subject to special
constraints of the Law of the Sea. In principle, under the United Nations
Convention of 1982, all coastal states are entitled to claim coastal waters
out to a 12 nautical mile limit, but the Strait is only 21 nautical miles
wide at its choke point. The maximum either side could assert a right to
is 10.5 nautical miles.
- To observe the rights of coastal states while also serving
the needs of maritime navigation, special rules have been established for
the Strait: A six mile navigation channel has been defined consisting
of a 2 mile wide inbound lane, a 2 mile wide separation lane, and a 2 mile
wide outbound lane. Nominally, the inbound lane impinges on Iranian territorial
waters, while the outbound lane impinges on UAE and Omani waters. The Law
of the Sea permits innocent passage in both directions to all maritime
- As the saying goes, "aye, there's the rub."
In present circumstances, what actually is innocent passage? The steady
flow of oil and commercial cargo through the Strait obviously qualifies.
However, United States military and a range of contract commercial
shipping, as well as coalition member shipping pass through the Strait
enroute to Iraq and neighboring states to support the War. That flow qualifies
as "innocent" passage to the extent that vessels in transit threaten
no state on either side. All surface shipping to support the war
has to come that way, and no one has questioned it.
- However, what about the ever-surging flow of US naval
vessels that are there overtly to threaten Iran? Much touted in US media
are at least three US carrier groups and other naval vessels that are virtually
on station in the region for months at a time and have an alleged missions
either to show the flag as a threat to Iran or to provide precursor platforms
for a future attack. Strictly speaking, do their moves back and forth through
the Strait qualify as "innocent passage"?
- The situation, to say the least, is ambiguous. The more
strident the warlike media play around Iran becomes, the higher grows the
risk that someone will misinterpret intentions.
- Those tensions play specifically to last week's "confrontation"
in the Strait. Both Iran and the United States Navy have been pretty careful
up to this stage, given the frequently strident and accusative stance of
American official voices and media toward Iran. That Iran would use speedboats
to attempt an attack on fully armed ships of the line in broad daylight
in the open sea is on its face absurd. That some Revolutionary Guard seamen-reportedly
in charge of patrolling the area for Iran-would decide to do something
foolish is possible. Recent Navy comments suggest American commanders
on the scene did not consider the situation threatening. In that respect,
the initial automatic and erroneous Pentagon and media reporting of the
incident was unfortunate.
- The incident probably will pass because there is nothing
in it for either side. However, it underscores the dangers of the situation.
American leadership has been goading, threatening or baiting-take your
choice-Iran for the whole Bush administration. With persistent urging from
Israeli leadership and lobbies, the US is being pushed to neutralize Iran.
That means to both prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, if
possible, and keep Iran from exercising its natural role (given history,
size, location, religion, and resources) as a leading regional political
and economic force.
- Israel's neo-con supporters in and out of the Bush administration
avidly support this agenda. However, it does not serve American interests.
All the laments about American dependence on foreign oil aside, normalized
political relations will provide the best conditions for the oil producing
countries of the Middle East. Warfare won't fix it, and US military domination
of the region won't create that peaceful environment. Rather, continued
US harassment of Iran and bullying/ occupation of neighboring countries
will keep the region in ferment. That will make the risks of a Gulf of
Tonkin type incident-contrived or real-a constant concern. Some prankster
such as the reported "Filipino Monkey" who abuses the open shipping
radio channel, or a genuinely malicious third party can get both the US
and Iran in deep trouble. It is time to back off the hostile US Navy posture
in the region before it blows up in our faces.
- The writer is the author of the recently published work,
A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist
on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US
Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman
of the Department of International Studies of the National War College
and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency
Planning. He will welcome comment at <mailto:email@example.com>firstname.lastname@example.org