In 1980 in his State of the Union address President Jimmy Carter said: “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
Dear President Donald Trump: We’ve been here before and it’s as ludicrous this time as it was nearly 40 years ago. Why on earth are you sending in a flotilla of ships and 2,500 troops? Why are you so convinced that the mines that exploded on two oil tankers, neither of which were American, in the Persian Gulf are the work of the Iranians?
The Persian Gulf, and in particular the infamous Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway (21 miles wide, the same as the English Channel) that is its entrance, is no longer the “jugular” of the Western economies, even less so than it was in Carter’s time.
In Carter’s time the rapid construction of overland pipelines was reducing the Gulf’s importance by the day. Besides, as the Iran-Iraq war had revealed, it was not possible to block the strait by sinking ships at its entrance. Its waters run too deep and its currents are too strong. Moreover, that war showed that large modern-day tankers are not especially vulnerable targets. Their very size makes them difficult to sink and crude oil is not particularly flammable. It’s nothing more than a myth that shipping got through during the war because of the presence of American, British, Dutch and French naval forces.
As for the present day, oil is in abundance. The present day price is a low 62 US dollars a barrel, and has slipped by over 20% over the past month. A year ago it was 65. OPEC used to take advantage of dangerous situations like the present Gulf crisis to push up oil prices. They no longer do, as its members have learned that they are as much the losers when they help push Western economies into recession.
Moreover, the Western world is not as dependent on Gulf oil as is often thought, even though 30% of the world’s sea-borne oil passes through the Strait. American shale output, leading to the US turning from a big importer to a big exporter, has had a major impact. The steady increase in Western Europe of the use of Russian gas also has contributed to making the Gulf countries’ oil exports less significant, at least in the short run, which is all that matters in a situation like this.
At the time when the Carter Administration was winding up the sense of anxiety and panic one of the arguments put forward was that the Soviet Union, having invaded Afghanistan, would next push on to the Gulf to grab the oil to make up for its own falling production. It seemed to many a ludicrous idea then, given the mountainous terrain. Now it seems nonsense. Russia will remain for as far as one can see a major oil producer and exporter and has no need, if ever it did, to grab some other country’s oil wells.
Still, even if the US is misreading the situation, it can’t be allowed to just boil over. The international community has to get involved. The Europeans, apart from the British, are being careful not to back the US up in its conviction that the mining of two oil tankers has been carried out by Iran.
By what authority does the US insist on freedom of passage? Is it the Law of the Sea, the great negotiated text fathered by the United Nations with the enthusiastic participation of the US, which carefully chiseled an accommodation between new coastal jurisdictions and traditional high seas freedoms? No, because one of the early acts of President Ronald Reagan was to turn his back on nine years’ work and pull the US out of the negotiations. Nothing much has changed in America’s position in the years since.
In short, there is a legal limbo. While the US calls for “freedom of navigation” in the Gulf, much of the world notes quietly that Washington seems only prepared to cite international law when it is in its own interests. If the US can interpret sea law as it chooses, so will everyone else. Indeed we know that China already has in the South China Sea.
The UN Security Council must take urgent action and issue a mandate to a representative group of maritime nations to send in a flotilla under the UN flag. Something similar was done to defeat the pirates off the coast of Somalia more than a decade ago with naval ships sent by countries as diverse as China and the UK.
This is the way to dampen a flashpoint before passions and principalities get out of control.