Conflict in the Strait of Hormuz – one of the world’s most vital shipping channels – continues to unfold in incremental measures. Iran and the United States have each become defensive of the international waters that border Iran and flow into the Persian Gulf. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was in New York this week to meet with US negotiators to put an end to the turmoil between the two nations. Even Thursday, the second day of Zarif’s US visit, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seized a ship smuggling Iranian oil, although it appeared to be a smaller vessel rather than a large tanker.
“The vessel that Iran towed to its waters after receiving a distress call was later seized with the order from the court as we found out that it was smuggling fuel,” Iranian authorities reported.
Zarif downplayed the event, telling reporters that it happens a few times every week and is done as a countermeasure against smugglers. However, last week Iran also targeted a British tanker which had to be defended by the Royal Navy. As a response, the British military deployed two additional vessels to the strait and the US increased its military involvement. Tankers are frequently escorted throughout the shipping channel and the practice has been justified in a year of tanker attacks, some from Iran, others by an unknown state actor.
Thursday evening, US President Donald Trump revealed that an American naval ship, the USS Boxer, took down an Iranian drone by using an electronic jammer. Trump said the drone approached the ship from a distance of 1,000 yards while ignoring multiple warnings.
“This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters,” Trump declared. “The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, our facilities and interest and calls upon all nations to condemn Iran’s attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation and global commerce.”
That commerce is the largest concern with volatility in the region. A mere whisper of the possibility of closing the Strait of Hormuz seems to cause a spike in oil prices. Wednesday, Zarif addressed the idea in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
“We certainly have the ability to do it, but we certainly don’t want to do it because the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are our lifeline,” Zarif said.
Security is paramount to keeping the passage open, he elaborated, but this means secure transit waters for everyone, not only Western countries. Overcrowding exacerbates the problem. Zarif recalled the 1988 incident in which the USS Vincennes destroyed Iran Air Flight 655, a commercial airline, killing 290 civilians after mistaking it for an Iranian fighter jet. The presence of several navies, oil tankers, military and civilian aircraft, and now drones creates an atmosphere that could easily lead to mishaps on top of the intentional military engagements.
While it’s unlikely Iran would close the strait, Zarif likely mentioned it to keep the idea fresh on the minds of American diplomats so they would remember the stakes involved in their negotiations. Brining up the 1988 incident, a time when the US was patently in the wrong, was a move designed to show the world that America is infallible.
Most importantly, during Zarif’s visit, he made the first effort of either side to reach a substantive deal which would hopefully see an end to the tit-for-tat attacks between Washington and Tehran. As part of the agreement pitched by Zarif, Iran would allow enhanced inspections of its nuclear programme. Furthermore, he said that the Iranian Parliament would ratify the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This component would give inspectors more access to Iranian facilities to verify that no nuclear weapons are in development. Tehran actually already complies with the Additional Protocol as part of the Obama-era nuclear deal, but Zarif hopes that solidifying it through legislation will make his deal more appealing to Trump. Under the previous nuclear deal, Iran was set to ratify the protocol in 2023 in tandem with the US Congress lifting sanctions.
Zarif proposes both sides take those measures now without waiting four more years. The deal he put forth may be enough to win over Trump, but it is still a far cry from the 12-point list of demands that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made last year. Aside from nuclear restrictions, those conditions primarily focus on an end to Tehran’s support for proxy militias, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen whom Saudi Arabia is currently fighting.
Neither Trump nor officials from his administration have issued an official response to Zarif’s proposal yet. Regardless, Zarif’s visit to the US and his willingness to open the negotiation process is a positive sign that an agreement might be achievable.