By Sonny Atumah
Britain has joined the United States-led international maritime security mission in the Persian Gulf to protect vessels travelling through the Strait of Hormuz. Heightened tensions between the United States and Iran following attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf would have made the United States to call for a coalition of allies to protect ships passing through the Persian Gulf. Last month, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized a British flagged tanker, Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz for alleged marine violations. It was a matter of tit-for-tat for the Iranians who retaliated two weeks after Britain seized an Iran-flagged oil tanker, the Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar suspected of transporting crude oil to Syria in contravention of European Union sanctions.
The United States decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accord and impose sweeping sanctions on Iran is the root cause of the tensions. Britain, France and Germany supported the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal which the United States was accused of unilaterally nullifying and imposing sanctions on Iran. On Monday Britain joined the United States security mission which has a command and control operational centre in Manama, Bahrain.
The United States Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is tasked with protecting commercial ships and ensuring that the critical waterway remains open. Two weeks ago London excused itself from the United States security mission in the Gulf as it preferred garbed European Union maritime security initiative in an avenue of diplomacy. That it joined the United States to protect oil tankers in the Gulf from seizure by Iran, by shifting away from plans for a European-led mission proposed became the issue. It might have been jettisoned because it was a plan by the immediate past British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Is the government trapped in a web of the tanker debacle that it is now joining forces with America, to put Iran under maximum pressure? The new Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who believes the UK had to respond to the increased threat said: “Our aim is to build the broadest international support to uphold freedom of navigation in the region, as protected under international law.” Britain which called for a European Union, EU-led naval mission is however, exiting the union in its popular Brexit.
Could that be a drawback in rallying support of the European in military campaign? Raab said that the approach of the new government of Boris Johnson to Iran has not changed. To him: “We remain committed to working with Iran and our international partners to de-escalate the situation and maintain the nuclear deal.” And it is patrolling the Gulf with two warships, HMS Duncan, a Type 45 Destroyer, which joined HMS Montrose, a Type 23 Frigate, at the end of last month.
The British posturing may not have assisted the United States which has continued to rally support from allies. The call for Germany to join France and Britain in a mission to protect shipping through the strait and “combat Iranian aggression” is still in the doldrums. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Monday said that Germany would not join a US-led naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz, adding that Berlin favoured a European mission.
European nations that are party to the 2015 nuclear deal still favour Iran being allowed to sell and ship oil, amid a standoff with Britain over the seizure of tankers. Analysts believe the split in the support for the US military mission is showing how key allies have become uneasy about maximum pressure on Iran. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg however said on Wednesday that there had been no formal request for the military alliance to launch a mission in the Strait of Hormuz.
And how strategic is in the Strait of Hormuz that securing it would engender stability of navigation in globe maritime oil? Analysts say it is of global economic and geopolitical significance being the key waterway out of the Gulf. It lies between Oman and Iran, linking the sea passage from the countries on the Gulf (Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) with the Arabian Sea and beyond.
The Strait is the world’s single most important oil passageway. It is a major shipping artery that links Middle East oil producers to markets in Asia, Europe, North America and elsewhere. The strait is the only route to the open ocean for over one-sixth of global oil production and one-third of the world’s liquified natural gas, LNG. It has been at the heart of regional tensions for decades.
The waterway separates Iran and Oman, linking the Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea. The Strait is 33 km wide at its narrowest point, but the shipping lane is just three km wide in either direction. A fifth of the world’s oil passes through the waterway, bounded to the north by Iran, which has been accused of pursuing a policy of disrupting shipping in an attempt to retaliate against US sanctions. Analysts believe that as it has happened severally in the past, diplomacy and not war would solve the Strait of Hormuz debacle.