Maritime Confrontation In The Persian Gulf Threatens To Turn Deadly

“Do not put your life in danger,” crackles a seaman’s voice over the radio. A sobering soundbite to any who doubt the gravity of the situation in the Persian Gulf. Part warning, part threat, it was the message from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to a nearby UK warship, which claimed to be shepherding a British-flagged tanker through international waters. That same day, Iranian commandos seized the merchant vessel – the Stena Impero – marking a sharp escalation in international tensions. Iran’s deepening discord with the West has become a cycle of provocation and reaction – and there’s no clear indication where things might end up.

The deteriorating relations can be traced back to the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a US/Iran nuclear deal that curbed the latter’s atomic programme. Dissatisfied with the financial concessions it entailed, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US and reimposed crippling economic sanctions on the Middle Eastern state. Sporadic military confrontations followed: a downed US drone and an American missile strike aborted at the last minute.

Recent weeks have seen a sharp upswing in friction, however. An Iranian tanker allegedly bound for Syria was seized off the coast of Gibraltar by British Royal Marines, who claimed its passage breached EU sanctions. Weeks later, Iran reciprocated in kind with the Stena Impero. Both the Iranian and British-flagged ships remain in their respective captors’ custody – and both nations allege piracy on the part of the other. 

In the short term, the UK has said it’ll maintain a warship presence to escort merchant vessels through the narrow Strait of Hormuz – the world’s busiest shipping lane. But, as Frank Verrastro at the Center for Strategic and International Studies points out, the “logistics, cost, and deployment” of a support force have been proven problematic by Iran’s capture of the Stena Impero. And while both sides have expressed their desire to avoid a violent confrontation, a more robust military deployment by either – or both – increases the likelihood of that significantly. 

Regardless, the shipping industry is calling for greater protection in the fraught waters. Hormuz is a choke point through which one fifth of the world’s oil moves – securing the route is “imperative for the UK economy and for the wider world,” said Bob Sanguinetti, CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping. Accordingly, a multinational attempt to pacify the shipping lane must be adopted, he added. 

The British government seems to agree with this. Prior to his departure from office, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the UK would develop a maritime protection mission with other European nations – a move endorsed by both the French and Germans. A united European approach would be logical, given their mutual and continued support for JCPOA, despite President Trump’s belly-aching. A concerted effort would serve London’s political interests too, helping dispel the notion that the crisis is a uniquely Anglo-Iranian confrontation. 

This search for shared accountability has limits however – namely, the United States. Washington is seeking its own multilateral alliance to help patrol the Gulf, a mission it has designated Operation Sentinel. And while Trump has vaguely referenced UK-US agreement on the situation, European players – still desperately trying to salvage JCPOA – are keen not to align too closely with the White House on Iran. A further surge in tensions may force their hand however – America’s intelligence and surveillance clout would be essential should a military solution become imperative, experts say.

“Caught between US bullying and the frustration of Iranian nuclear transgressions, Europe has tried to pursue an independent approach,” said Dr Sanam Vakil of Chatham House, a think tank. “But if Iran continues to escalate, it could provoke a greater European-US alignment than would be useful for itself,” she added.

But all sides are committed to deescalation, according, at least, to their public declarations. Belligerent rhetoric comes easily to leaders like President Trump and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, but both know war would be a mutual catastrophe. Rather, Washington wants to project power without committing to another Middle Eastern conflict, and Tehran needs a way to survive its worsening economic nightmare. US sanctions have left the state bereft of trading partners, particularly for its oil output. Protecting their tankers, however illicit their voyages may be, is not irrational.     

Maritime confrontations also offer the state a much needed piece of theatre to sell to the public. The country’s financial crisis is hitting those at the bottom the hardest. Inflation is soaring, with food prices nearing double what they were a year ago. On the streets there is rising clamour for Iran to stand up against global bullies – images of masked soldiers rappelling from helicopters and seizing Western-flagged ships plays well with the disenchanted masses. 

The tensions go far beyond a crowd pleasing spectacle, however. The guns of HMS Montrose, a British warship policing the Strait of Hormuz, were trained on Iranian boats harassing a foreign vessel last week. In a climate so febrile, a miscalculation could be deadly – and the wider implications unimaginably grave. The mutual release of the detained tankers would be a constructive first step in dialling down the crisis, but addressing the grievances borne of JCPOA’s collapse is the only way of consolidating peace. If not, the cycle of provocation, reaction, retaliation is unlikely to be broken, and the risk of war grows unchecked.