The game of international power dynamics has just shifted in a major way. It will take a little time for the consequences to be visible to the public eye. But I don’t think it will take that much time. We’re talking months, at most, if not weeks. Iran is getting no pushback from the “international community,” and is moving quickly now.
Second, the U.S. Navy will begin accompanying U.S.-flagged commercial ships through the Strait of Hormuz (SOH). This is not the robust use of force it may seem to be, nor is it a repeat of the tanker-escort operation (Earnest Will)* in 1987-88, during the Iran-Iraq war. It’s a tacit surrender, in fact.
The decision to accompany U.S.-flagged shipping in the SOH is a finger in a dike, and what it actually means is that the international convention that has governed safe transit of the Strait of Hormuz for decades has already collapsed. Appointing a U.S. Navy escort in the conditions of 2015 is an acknowledgment that there’s nothing we can do about the chaos that is now cracking the pillars of international order. We can try to protect our own shipping, but there will be no enforcement of a principle of safe passage through international straits, as a basic building block of order among the nations.
The circumstances of 2015 are very different from those of the 1980s. One of the key ways they’re different is that there has been no war-related threat to Persian Gulf shipping in the 2010s. Although Iraq is basically in a civil war, there is no war between nations spilling over into the Gulf, and no generalized threat of mine, missile, or air attacks on shipping.
Instead, Iran is breaching the conventions of the Law of the Sea in order to assert a hegemonic veto over shipping in the SOH.** Iran purports to be at war with no one, and hasn’t claimed a national-defense need to take the unusual and arguably criminal step of detaining a ship exercising the right of innocent passage in an international strait.
Maersk Tigris isn’t an asset of the Maersk Line – the ship’s not owned by Maersk – and neither is the cargo she carries.# Iran has impounded the assets of innocent third parties, in an alleged attempt to collect a debt from 2005 owed by Maersk because of an Iranian court judgment.
A coastal state’s prerogatives in an international strait don’t give it the right to do this. In fact, the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) prohibits what Iran did on Tuesday. The only prerogative it recognizes for a coastal state to stop a ship exercising innocent passage is to enforce national laws which that specific ship may be in violation of. (See Article 28.) According to the reason Iran gave for detaining her, Maersk Tigris is a third party in breach of no Iranian law or judgment.
Commentators have been quite correct to point out that this isn’t the way it’s done. This is a pugilistic power move, characteristic of syndicate crime bosses (and pirates) but not of nation states in the UN era. It will create a ripple of alarm and loss of confidence throughout the Gulf shipping industry: it will make insurance rates go up, and cause trading and shipping nations to scramble to find a reliable status quo again.
The post-Pax reality of chokepoint power dynamics
But it won’t be the “concert of nations” they appeal to. It won’t be the UN, or a world under U.S. leadership, with the U.S. armed forces and American alliances standing behind general guarantees of free and safe passage in global tradeways.
Instead, those who want to continue trading unmolested will have to arrange that with Iran. Whether the price is a form of fee or tribute, or something more open-ended like support for Iran’s policies, that’s what it means for Iran to exercise a veto over the Strait of Hormuz. This used to be a common type of extortion, before the Royal Navy drove it out in most of the world’s key chokepoints by the late 19th century.
Iran has been making noises in this direction for several years now. In 2010, Iranian media reported that forces conducting a naval exercise stopped two ships in the SOH – one French-flagged, one Italian – to perform “environmental inspections,” basically as practice for when Iran would want to exercise a veto in that form. The Iranian parliament, the majlis, has also several times introduced legislation that would require foreign ships to obtain Iran’s permission to transit the SOH.
Adjusting to a strait held hostage by a local hegemon is not something that would unfold straightforwardly, or along a single path. The clarity that comes with having a super-hegemon, as the U.S. once was, goes by the wayside when there isn’t one.
It’s not just about the shipping of outside nations, or even of nations inside the chokepoint; it’s about the relations of all the nations around the chokepoint, and the level of resistance they show with each other, or the level of armament and assertiveness they consider necessary. Outside patrons (like Russia and China) get into the mix. If a strait is important enough, other major nations (like India and Japan) are motivated to achieve the status of outside patrons.
This isn’t “about” everyone rushing to war or starting to shoot at each other, especially in the Strait of Hormuz. The nations won’t want to rush to war, at least not with each other. But now that they can’t count on the United States to keep the SOH open for free and safe passage, geography will look different to them, and force will be seen as more and more necessary.
That’s one of the chief reasons Saudi Arabia is fighting so hard in Yemen now. Yemen lies on the Saudi border, yes – but so does Iraq, and the Saudis have been almost entirely silent on events there. Yemen sits between two of the three straits that ring Saudi Arabia, and from Yemen, Iran can flank Saudi territory and exercise a veto over those two straits. From Riyadh’s perspective, Iran must be denied a foothold there.
The game, changing
That’s why the Saudis are waging a serious war in Yemen, one in which, just this week, they have twice attacked the main international airport in Sanaa to render it non-operational, so that Iran can’t use it. This is “war war,” and things are bound to get worse. The Saudis will destroy as much infrastructure as necessary to deny Yemeni facilities to Iran.
This is a significant shift in the character of what’s been going on in the Middle East. Up to now, the belligerents have been insurgencies and beleaguered central governments. The wars have inflicted mass-scale destruction, certainly. But it hasn’t been sovereign states attacking overtly across borders that have inflicted the destruction. Sovereign states, up to now, have attacked to destroy arms caches (Israel in Syria) or deter ragtag insurgencies (Jordan et al in Iraq and Syria).
Saudi Arabia – along with Egypt, as far as she’ll go – is going to do whatever it takes to defeat the plans of another sovereign state, Iran, in Yemen. That’s a different order of war.
It’s in this context that Iran seized the Maersk Tigris as much to advance her aggressive push toward the Red Sea as to achieve other effects. The signal Iran is sending is not the one a sleepy West perceives. It’s not a symbolic fist being shaken at America. It’s the beginning of a strategy to exercise Tehran’s long-desired veto over the Strait of Hormuz.
The approach, oblique
Iran is keeping the approach oblique: not challenging the U.S. directly, but making it an incident in which U.S. power will be implicated – for better or worse. It’s a challenge based on a bogus premise, one that’s illegitimate from the standpoint of international convention. But it’s one that won’t draw fire either. The seizure of Maersk Tigris is provocative; line-crossing; but without giving anyone an unambiguous justification for shooting back.
Assuming America does not act to enforce international conventions, however, Iran will have proved her point that the conventions are no longer enforced. Therefore, Iran holds a veto over the SOH now. She probably won’t take big, disruptive actions quickly. She’ll try to do things incrementally (watch out for those “environmental inspections”).
But the mullahs will have a new bargaining chip with which to deal a death blow to multinational sanctions. And the nations of Europe, America’s remaining stalwart allies in sanctions enforcement, are also some of the most concerned about safe passage in the SOH – and about the Iranian alternative to Russia and North Africa as a source of oil and gas.
Wealthy the European nations may be, but not one of them has the power – or the desire – to play the United States’ Pax Americana role and enforce a generalized international-strait regime in the SOH. They’ll find ways to play ball with Iran, at least for the time being.
In the long run, the post-Pax story of the strait will involve some low-level shooting (which may be a giant headache for some, like the Saudis and the UAE, although perhaps not most Europeans); some bilateral agreements between other nations and Iran – extortion cloaked in amity; some high-level shooting to block Iran’s other moves that are geostrategically integrated with the SOH situation; and fresh efforts (like the notorious Oman pipeline) to reroute trade so that the strait can be avoided.
The shift here is subtle but game-changing; not immediately inflammatory on the order of Germany invading Poland, but destabilizing, and forcing pervasive realignment and adjustment. Armed force and maneuver will be a big part of that.
The problem of at-risk chokepoints will spread, with Iran’s proof-of-concept move. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait between the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea is already in Iran’s sights. The Strait of Malacca is already in China’s (along with the Taiwan Strait, of course). As fast as things are now moving in the pressure points of the Eastern hemisphere, it is foolish to insist that changes can’t happen in the near future.
That will alarm many nations. And an America that merely escorts our own flagged ships will be less and less attractive as a leader or even an ally. Amplifying that trend will be the fact that we could run out of assets far sooner than most Americans imagine.
The Navy won’t be running convoys through the strait, or pulling literal “escort” duty. It appears that the Navy will be on-call to monitor Iranian activity in the strait while U.S.-flagged ships are in transit, a posture that can be ramped up to dedicated escort at need, but without naval escort being imposed on U.S. merchant ships as a routine condition of passage (something the president has authority to do).
The profile of operations is thus as open-ended as the timeframe for the requirement. The best way to put it is to say we’ll be having to keep a duty warship in the SOH for escort contingencies.
But Iran can play this game much more cheaply than we can. Iran has only to outgun single merchant ships, at times of her choosing.
We have to be ready at any time to outgun, outmaneuver, and face down everything Iran can deploy from her nearby shore: war planes, missiles, small boat swarms, submarines, mini-subs, mines. Capable as our escort ships are, this is not a job for a single destroyer or cruiser, if Iran becomes seriously aggressive. It’s certainly not a job for a minesweeper or a Cyclone-class patrol craft (PC), which together represent six of the ships available for the task.
And if we have to use the aircraft carrier to give our escort ships enough of an edge, we then face a serious question about policy and misallocation of assets. The carrier wouldn’t be a comfortable solution in any case. But there’s also the problem, with the carrier and all the other ships, that we don’t have enough of them to enforce an escort regime, against Iran’s wishes. Such enforcement involves not just assets but time. We have to be able to keep doing it.
Consider this comparison: in the 14 months of Operation Earnest Will in the late 1980s, the U.S. Navy had at least 32 major combatants – aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and frigates – rotating through the Persian Gulf and involved in the operation. No amphibious ships are included in this total.
Should the SOH escort operation last 14 months, we will not see half that many major combatants – again, excluding amphibs – rotate through the Gulf. Although today’s surface escorts have some advantages in capability over their counterparts from 30 years ago, the warfare mission to which that makes the least difference is escorting merchant ships. Escort operations are a numbers game – if they are to be sustainable and enforceable, and not just a heroic but brief display of force.##
The fear that a brief display is all they will be is fully justified, in light of the Obama administration’s history of weird and tentative military assignments. Such a brief display will do no more than cause Iran temporary annoyance, if it even does that.
But unfortunately, if we tried to do more, our shrinking Navy would quickly find itself overstretched. It takes a very big force to keep “low-level” enforcement operations going for long stretches of time, as we saw with the years of no-fly-zone and sanctions enforcement on Saddam’s Iraq.
We no longer have a Navy or an Air Force sized to perform such extended tasks. We can’t commit force on that kind of resource-intensive, “other than war” basis anymore; we now have to either make big commitments, with a long lead-time, or make a brief show (or not) and then withdraw. (Which incidentally means that threats to contain Iran with force, as an alternative to reducing Iran’s capabilities with force, are empty today.)
This is the situation that concerned me almost exactly five years ago, when I wrote the following in a post on the prospective decline of American naval power – a post that referenced Iranian provocations in the Strait of Hormuz:
Small provocations that go unanswered turn into larger ones. Iran and China have both engaged in such provocations this spring. Today it would take only a moderate portion of our force level to make a show of force and send tacit but unmistakable messages. But if we fail to do that, at the same time we are drawing down our most lethal and effective weapon platforms, the loss of superiority will be catastrophic. Opponents will begin to act because they are no longer intimidated, and because they know it will take longer and longer for us to assemble an intimidating level of force. Allies will begin to consider the wisdom of making other arrangements for their security. The trend has already started. Now is not the time to question the very need for our most capable naval platforms.
Our opponents are, in fact, no longer intimidated, which is why Iran felt free to divert and impound Maersk Tigris. We don’t have the armed force today to enforce international conventions in the Strait of Hormuz. And the truth is, we don’t even have the armed force to meaningfully enforce an escort of our own ships in the SOH, if it comes to that. Which it could; if not before 30 June – the date with destiny on a nuclear “deal” with Iran – then certainly afterward.
* The Earnest Will operation escorted ships, primarily reflagged tankers going to and from Kuwait, through the entire Persian Gulf, and was a formal convoy operation. The tankers didn’t transit except in convoy (they couldn’t be insured otherwise). The Persian Gulf was a war zone at the time, and transiting the Strait of Hormuz was not the sole or even primary focus of peril or protection. None of these conditions apply to the current situation.
** Iran is not a signatory to UNCLOS. Tehran has agreed to implement the fish-stocks management provisions of the treaty, but, like the U.S., has not ratified the treaty in full. This means Iran isn’t in formal breach of a treaty obligation. But she has violated the international convention reflected in the treaty – a convention Iran has honored for decades – and done it for no lawful or urgent purpose.
What these facts do is highlight that Iran is creating a policy crisis, not a situation that can be addressed by rote through “legal” avenues.
# Maersk Tigris is owned by an obscure company named Wide Golf Ltd. To expand on this, I copy below point 1 from my comment (comments section) at the 28 April LU Staff post on the Maersk Tigris incident.
1. Maersk Tigris is managed by Rickmers and is on time charter to Maersk. A number of news outlets have gotten this backward, and it’s a common error. gCaptain is a good source if you need the correct info on things like this:
Or you can consult the Rickmers site, which has news updates on Maersk Tigris posted prominently. The site disclaimer prohibits us from posting its information here, but you can check it for yourself.
The owner of the ship is a company called Wide Golf Ltd., which is probably incorporated in a flag-of-convenience nation (probably RMI, in fact) for the purpose of owning this particular ship. That’s a common arrangement. Before being time chartered to Maersk, the ship was named Wide Golf. You can verify this by the ship’s unique IMO number, 9694581.
## In 1989, a year after Earnest Will ended, the U.S. Navy had 592 ships. In 2015, it has 275. (The Obama administration tried last year to change the way the Navy counts ships, apparently in order to make the total appear larger. That was the effect of changing the counting rules, at any rate. Congress put language restoring the old counting rules in the 2015 Defense Authorization Act, and it is using those rules – the same rules that applied in 1989 – that the current count is 275.)
For previous discussions of declining fleet readiness, start with this post from last year. It has links to prior posts narrating our growing readiness problems since early 2013.