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Hormuz is a tricky waterway to police

Gregory Clough & Morgan D. Bazilian (Geopolitix)
Filed on November 30, 2019 | Last updated on November 30, 2019 at 09.36 pm

While China relies heavily on oil from the Strait of Hormuz it is also sensitive to concerns from Iran.

Renewed conflict in the Strait of Hormuz pushed the United States to establish an international coalition for maritime security to ensure safe passage of shipping traffic and guarding against further disruption in oil supplies. While such security coalitions have been successful in the past, applying the same approach in the Middle East may not improve conditions and could even exacerbate tensions.

The Strait of Hormuz is the primary shipping route for one-sixth of global oil production and one-third of the world's liquefied natural gas. On June 13, two international shipping vessels came under attack while transiting the Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Iran. The United States was quick to accuse Iran of perpetrating the attacks and offered compelling evidence. The incident was followed by a number of other maritime incidents which escalated tensions between the United States and Iran.

In recent years, the primary concern for the global shipping industry was over threats to vessels in the Red Sea transiting the Bab Al Mandeb due to the conflict in Yemen.

Houthi militants supported by Iran have claimed responsibility for several attacks on shipping vessels including an attack on two Saudi oil tankers in July 2018. That incident led Saudi Aramco officials to suspend all oil shipments through the Bab Al Mandeb. While the Saudi's resumed oil shipments in the Red Sea, the Iranians and Houthis have continued to threaten Saudi Arabian assets in the region, most recently with a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities.

To address maritime insecurity in the Gulf region, the United States has worked to establish a collaborative maritime security operation. The success of the international coalition that emerged in 2010 to confront the piracy crisis off the Coast of Somalia has been cited as precedent. While that international collaboration was largely a success, Hormuz poses other challenges. There are some key differences between the 2010 and current coalitions:

Geography: In the Indian Ocean off the Coast of Somalia, the shipping vessels transit the coast relatively far from the territorial waters. As many of the attacks were happening beyond territorial waters, the international community was not violating the territorial waters of Somalia when it initiated its efforts. In contrast, operations in the Strait of Hormuz would potentially occur in the territorial waters of Iran or the UAE or Oman.

Role of governments: Somalia welcomed international actors to the region. In 2008, the United Nations passed the first resolution to respond to piracy and robbery by non-state actors against ships in the region and established one of the most successful examples of international collaboration as global powers came together. In contrast, the Strait of Hormuz is under the sovereignty of Iran and Oman. Neither country has welcomed the presence of an international coalition. In fact, Iran has been explicit in its rejection of an international coalition.

Nature of the attacks: Military actors executing technically advanced attacks in Hormuz introduced a complexity that was not present in Somalia. Maritime threats are coming from landmines, remote controlled vessels, and jamming GPS.

Role of key international actors supporting the mission: The US has established Operation Sentinel to increase surveillance and security in the Gulf region and has asked more than 60 countries to provide assistance. France and Germany have both so far declined approaches from the US to join the mission, and Russia has explicitly rejected the operation. Additionally, China's role in the coalition is not entirely clear.

While China relies heavily on oil from the Strait of Hormuz - and the country played a key role in ensuring security off the coast of Somalia - it is also sensitive to concerns from Iran.

The lack of international support for Operation Sentinel offers a glimpse into the challenges of establishing an effective international maritime security coalition in the region. While it is tempting to transfer the successful model used to counter piracy off the Coast of Somalia, the two environments and time periods differ and understanding the stark differences will be key to avoid further escalation of conflict.

-Yale Global

Gregory Clough is strategy and operations manager with the Payne Institute, Colorado School of Mines. Morgan Bazilian is director of the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines.


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