No one wants an escalation in the Strait of Hormuz

Published: Fri 14 Jun 2019, 10:08 PM

Last updated: Sat 15 Jun 2019, 12:11 AM

The Strait of Hormuz, the narrow shipping lane between Iran and Oman, has fascinated oil traders since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Iran has periodically threatened to close the strait to enemy shipping, while the United States and its allies have pledged to keep it open and maintain freedom of navigation, by force if necessary.
The strait has become a symbolic flashpoint in the region-wide confrontation and indirect conflict between Iran on one side and the United States and Saudi Arabia on the other.
Two oil tankers were attacked and left adrift on Thursday in the Gulf of Oman, just south of the entrance to the strait, stoking fears of a new confrontation between Iran and the United States.
"The Strait of Hormuz is the world's most important chokepoint" for oil, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the independent statistical and analysis arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Roughly 30% of all the world's seaborne flow of crude and products passes through the strait each year, so closure could result in a major disruption of global oil supplies.
During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), both countries targeted tankers - with Iraq attacking vessels loading around Iran's Kharg island in the northern Gulf, and Iran targeting ships further south and in the strait itself.
In the tanker war, the United States, the United Kingdom and several other countries responded by pledging to protect shipping in the central and southern parts of the area and arranging naval convoys.
The strait itself is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, and tankers are confined to an even narrower shipping lane just two miles broad in each direction, with a traffic separation scheme to reduce the risk of collision.
The limited room for manoeuvre substantially increases the vulnerability of slow-moving tanker traffic to attacks from either the shore or hostile vessels within the strait itself. The real problem is that armed conflict in the strait could escalate into a broader conflict between the United States and Iran across multiple sub-theatres.
Concern about armed conflict in the strait is really concern about uncontrolled escalation between the United States and its allies and Iran.
For the moment, the United States is publicly committed to a policy of controlled escalation, employing progressively tighter economic sanctions to force Iran to negotiate on nuclear and other issues.
Senior US officials have reassured their counterparts in Europe, Russia and China that controlled economic escalation is a viable alternative to military confrontation.
The United States has sharply increased economic pressure on Iran by eliminating all waivers for buyers of Iran's crude oil from the start of May and is now threatening the country's petrochemical exports.
Dramatic economic escalation has been followed by a series of attacks on shipping that have been blamed by some on Iran; a missile attack in Baghdad; intelligence reports of hostile activity aimed at U.S. forces; and the deployment of additional US troops to the region. As sanctions relief promised to Iran under the 2015 nuclear agreement has evaporated, Tehran has stepped up nuclear activities and threatened to stop complying with some of the accord's other terms.
The abrupt escalation of tensions seems to have caught at least some policymakers on all sides unprepared and led to a recent scramble to de-escalate.
Top US policymakers appear convinced they have achieved "escalation dominance", allowing them to dial-up and dial-down pressure on Iran at will and precisely without too much risk.
In this scenario, Iran's best option is always to accept the degree of pressure applied by the United States, however unpleasant, rather than risk escalating even further.
Right now, the United States is committed to keeping economic pressure in place, while avoiding an outbreak of direct armed conflict.
That means convincing allies to maintain sanctions while calculating that Iran will continue to abide by most of the provisions of the nuclear agreement and avoid military provocations.
But in such a tense environment, there is always the risk that a minor incident or accident will escalate in ways not planned by top policymakers.
Hormuz is not important because of the volume of oil that flows through the strait daily, but because it is an ultra-tense flashpoint that could spark a much broader conflict both sides insist they do not want.
- Reuters

By John Kemp (Geopolitix)

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