The official “story” on what happened last week to two U.S. Navy riverine patrol boats seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been weird and non-credible from the beginning.
The latest emission from authorities is a news release from U.S. Central Command on Monday. Although it does seems to clear up one question, it opens a set of others in doing so.
The big question it clears up is where the U.S. Navy boats were supposed to be during their transit from Kuwait to Bahrain. That wasn’t clear from the administration’s earlier, one- and two-word strangled utterances on the matter (see here and here, including comments sections).
The elliptical references to “mechanical problems” and “navigation error” gave us to understand that the boats were very close to (or inadvertently in) Iranian waters at the time the problems manifested themselves. Indeed, since the range-limited Iranian fast boats did bring off a forcible seizure of the U.S. boats, the incident itself had to take place near Farsi Island. There’s nowhere else in the vicinity that the Iranian boats could have come from. (It can never really have been in question that the incident happened near Farsi Island.)
But since a direct, great-circle-route transit from Kuwait to Bahrain would take the Navy boats nowhere near Farsi Island, an unnoticed navigation error couldn’t be made to fit any rational scenario.
Now CENTCOM has clarified – sort of – that the boats were intentionally transiting near Farsi Island. The question, then, is why.
Map 1 shows an approximation of the direct route from Kuwait to Bahrain that most efficiently follows a great circle path (always the shortest route between two points on the globe), while achieving the maximum avoidance of Saudi territorial waters.
North of Jubail, Saudi Arabia, the offshore Saudi islands make it necessary for a transiting pair like the Navy boats to pass through Saudi waters for some distance (between 15 and 25 nautical miles, it appears, depending on route), in order to get from international waters northwest of the islands to the Manama, Bahrain approach on the other side.
There is nothing unusual about this. It’s called archipelagic transit, and is provided for in the Law of the Sea. The Saudis have in the past been sensitive about “innocent passage” by foreign shipping through their offshore islands in the Persian Gulf, but the context of that has been circumstances like the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf wars in the 1990s and 2000s, and the smuggling trade enabled and sponsored by Iran. Their concern hasn’t been the transits of small riverine craft operated by the U.S. Navy.
The U.S. boats, for their part, are perfectly suited for the kind of transit represented by the most direct route from Kuwait: full of oil platforms, islands, shoals, and the other navigation hazards that make deep-draft ships like oil tankers avoid such an area. (See maps 2 and 3.) It’s what the boats are designed for, and what their sailors do for a living.
It makes sense from every angle, and violates no assumption we can make, for the two boats to take the most direct route from Kuwait to Bahrain.
So why didn’t they?
Avoiding Saudi territorial waters?
Here’s what CENTCOM said, offering a clue:
The two RCBs [riverine command boats] were traveling together since they train and deploy in two-boat elements. They departed Kuwait at 9:23 a.m. (GMT). The planned transit path for the mission was down the middle of the Gulf and not through the territorial waters of any country other than Kuwait and Bahrain.
The last clause is the key: “not through the territorial waters of any country other than Kuwait and Bahrain.”
But that, again, raises the question why it was important to avoid Saudi territorial waters.
This isn’t a minor academic point. Avoiding any waters but Kuwait’s and Bahrain’s requires taking an indirect northerly route around Farsi Island. See Map 1 for clarification; going south of Farsi Island means having to go through Saudi waters, no matter how you slice it.
But going north of Farsi literally adds unnecessary danger to a simple transit.
It puts the two boats between Farsi Island and Iran, in an area where they must perforce be very close to (or in) Iran’s maritime contiguous zone, the buffer up to 24 nautical miles from the coast where a littoral nation has the recognized authority to enforce certain kinds of national rules. Although nations conventionally refrain from such enforcement against the naval vessels of other states, Iran is well known to push the envelope on this and all other maritime matters.
Granted, this area is where most global shipping transits into and out of the northern Gulf — on the Iranian rather than the Saudi side. This is because of the better navigation conditions on the Iranian side of the centerline. Large tankers that need to load at the offshore oil terminals in the extreme northern Gulf typically transit up north of Farsi Island, and then move to and from the oil terminals via well established traffic schemes.
But we are not in normal conditions today, and pushing the envelope of maritime aggression is exactly what Iran has been doing recently. The date of the boat seizure, 12 January, was barely more than two weeks after the rocket-launching incident at the end of the December, when an Iranian boat lobbed rockets into the Strait of Hormuz traffic scheme near an oil tanker and U.S. warships, creating an exceptionally dangerous situation for which there was no conceivable excuse.
It’s not credible that no one in the U.S. Fifth Fleet recognized what a bad idea it was to send two little riverine boats off on their own to transit north of Farsi Island in these circumstances. And yet, it seems that the priority of avoiding a transit through Saudi territorial waters – nominally friendly waters – was higher.
Gulf tensions the highest since the 1980s
Something that’s been ignored by the media is that the geopolitical situation has changed significantly in the Gulf, just in the last two weeks. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have both cut diplomatic ties with Iran, after the attacks in Iran on their diplomatic facilities (which began in response to the Saudis’ execution of a Shia cleric, whom they accused of radical anti-government activities). The Saudis suspended all commercial flights between the two countries on 4 January, and cut off Iranian imports and Iranian pilgrimages to Mecca a couple of days later.
Little has been said about maritime relations between the Gulf nations and Iran under these worsening conditions, but if the Saudis have banned Iranian imports, we can assume that there’s a geographic nexus where the tensions have skyrocketed, starting in the week before Iran seized our boats. That nexus is the territorial waters limit between Farsi Island and Saudi Arabia’s Arabi Island (also rendered Araby and Arabiya), the closest Saudi island to Farsi. (Map 4.)
The line between the territorial waters was agreed on in 1968, and since then has been honored by both sides, even when the Iranian regime changed in 1979. That said, the extraordinary increase in tensions this month between Tehran and Riyadh would make it obviously prudent for third-party shipping to avoid such freighted geographic interfaces.
We can assume that Fifth Fleet wanted no part of sending our boats through that chokepoint – a route that would be unnecessarily long anyway, and would have the added disadvantage of skirting Farsi Island to the south.
But why not send our boats instead along the most direct route, further south?
Have our options been restricted?
I’m left to wonder if we had been warned by an angry Saudi Arabia that an archipelagic transit by our boats would not be accommodated. Although this would have seemed very unlikely to me a year ago, it would also have seemed unlikely that the Iranians would let the Gulf nations’ diplomatic missions be attacked, or that the Saudis would suspend diplomatic relations and commerce with Iran.
It’s worth noting that, according to the news reports, John Kerry’s staffers are working overtime to dissuade other Gulf nations from cutting their ties with Iran. The Saudis can’t be taking that well. They can legitimately see it as siding against Saudi Arabia at a time when Iran is getting more aggressive in the region with each passing week. (The other nations have reasons of their own for trying to find a middle way – but the U.S. administration is clearly letting Iran off the hook entirely and taking sides, rather than exercising leadership to at least balance the concerns of both parties, and enforce the norms of international order.)
It’s hard to account otherwise for our overriding desire to avoid invoking the Law of the Sea custom of archipelagic transit, through an area of Saudi waters that would clearly have been safer for a pair of small riverine boats than the route they took.
Again, this isn’t a minor, arcane point. The routine expectation that archipelagic transit will be accommodated by littoral states is a bedrock principle of the Law of the Sea. The Saudis may have had particular reasons over the years to be wary of extending that accommodation to some parties in the Persian Gulf. But that’s not a mitigating factor for a sea change in expectations that affects the United States, of all nations.
If this is why we took an especially dangerous route to move small boats around in the Gulf, it’s a very bad portent for the international order. The Law of the Sea itself falling apart is a key development that means we’re already in a world war, whether it’s been formally declared, in Westphalian style, or not.
I note, for completeness, that the CENTCOM news release isn’t convincing on the valid question of how 10 Navy sailors could possibly have exhibited the uniquely bad seamanship implied by the official explanation. It remains extremely unlikely that they failed to notice a navigation error taking them into Iranian waters. One mechanical error – earlier disavowed by DOD, now resurrected – between two boats doesn’t so absorb the attention of two boat drivers and two navigators that everyone strays off course.
But it looks like it’s “interesting times” for the U.S. Fifth Fleet today. If, as seems probable, there are important things we’re not hearing about the collapse of the status quo in the Gulf, those things are bound to be affecting maritime operations there. The situation is only going to get worse.