The Strait of Hormuz; Oil Tanker War Revisited

Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker in retaliation for the UK’s seizure of an Iranian supertanker brings back vivid memories of the Tanker War of the 1980s.

Such escalation in international waterways strengthened fears by governments, major international oil consortia, maritime insurance companies and consumers alike. The fears were that the already volatile situation in the Persian Gulf, following recent attacks targeting oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and later the confiscation of the Iranian and British oil tankers, could impact the strategic Iranian-controlled passage way. Some 30% of the world’s oil is transported through the passage, into the Strait of Hormuz, a combination of the words ‘Hormuz’ and ‘Bermuda’.

Stability in the region, as well as safety of oil shipments, are vital for the stability of oil markets and related industries. Jeopardizing this could easily result in catastrophic economic impacts on major world economies. Perhaps the first major challenge to Boris Johnson, the newly-elected British Prime Minister, is to find a way out of this crisis with Tehran, given Iran’s tough response to any type of escalation, first by the US administration, and now by the Brits. President Hassan Rouhani and other Iranian top diplomats and military commanders have reiterated that Tehran seeks no wars or escalation with the West, but stands firm by its right to protect its sovereignty and national interests at any cost.

Some 30 years after the “Tanker War”, and regardless of the different circumstances and balance in regional power and influence, the current tension between major regional and world powers underscores how dangerous the situation is and how explosive it can easily become. Then, American battle ships were escorting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz after Iranian mines damaged vessels in the region. The confrontation then culminated in a one-day naval battle between Washington and Tehran, and also saw America shoot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people.

Although US estimates suggest Iran attacked over 160 ships, while Iraq targeted over 280 other tankers in the late 1980s confrontation, the situation now is much more complicated, and Iran is more defiant than ever, feeling it is militarily capable of shutting down the strategic waterway, blocking any oil exports from the Gulf and inflicting sizeable damage on US and allied targets, regional bases and interests. Shooting down the Global Hawk, the jewel in the crown of US air force’s fleet unmanned aircraft, a few weeks ago, is one robust example that Tehran means business, and lives up to its threat of a swift and painful response if under threat.

The incident put Trump and his hawkish team members, particularly National Security Adviser John Bolton, who is tipped to have trapped the British government in the Gibraltar incident, according to an article in the Guardian by a leading UK journalist, in an extremely unenviable situation before the world as well as the American public opinion.

Deputy Police Commander in Dubai, UAE, the controversial Staff General Dahi Khalfan exclaimed in a tweet he published a few days ago: “Why does (President) Trump always acts like a lion when dealing with Arab countries in the Gulf, but ran like a rabbit before the Iranians”?!

The attacks last May, which were quickly blamed on Iran by both the US and Britain, damaged six oil tankers in suspected limpet mine attacks, explosives that can be magnetically stuck to the side of a ship.  Whereas, the owner of the tanker Kokuka Courageous said its sailors saw “flying objects” before the attack, suggesting it wasn’t damaged by mines and contradicting US claims.

Immediately, top guns in the oil industry sensed the looming danger of a new “Tanker War” in the Persian Gulf, voicing their concerns and warning against potentially catastrophic repercussions on oil markets and economies.  “We need to remember that some 30% of the world’s crude oil passes through the Straits,” said Paolo d’Amico, the chairman of the oil tanker association INTERTANKO. “If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk,” he maintained.

With images and events of the “Tanker War” still resonating in Iran, a recent billboard put up in Tehran’s Vali-e-Asr Square shows US and Israeli ships ablaze and sinking, with captions in English, Farsi, Arabic and Hebrew reading: “We drowned them all.”

The fact that it is almost impossible to separate the currently escalating tension in the waters either side of the Strait of Hormuz, from regional conflicts and clashing interests and agendas of all parties involved, whether in Syria, Iraq, Palestine or with regards to Iran’s nuclear file following President Trump’s withdrawal from the historical deal with Tehran,  stakes are getting higher, and along with them are the risks of an all- out confrontation that could throw the whole region and beyond into the bottomless abyss of the unknown.