On July 19, the Iranian Coast Guard seized the British oil tanker Stena Impero as it traveled through the Straits of Hormuz in a move that the Iranian government said was a response to the British seizing of an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar. This incident comes less than a month after numerous tankers was targeted by explosions as they traveled through the same waterway.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to target Iran as the perpetrator of these attacks and call out the recent seizure of vessels, although Iran immediately denied the attacks and justified its decision on the Stena Impero.
These flashpoints come at a time of strained relations between the West and Iran. Tanker attacks and other operations around the Straits of Hormuz are playing our against the backdrop of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, which has already caused tensions to flare. Although centered around the small area surrounding the Straits of Hormuz, this conflict between the US and Iran is one that has global security implications both militarily and economically.
Strait of Hormuz
The center of recent conflict between the United States and Iran is the Strait of Hormuz, a strip of water separating Iran and the Arabian Peninsula that at its widest is less than 60 miles across. The Strait provides the only access to the Persian Gulf, and as such, it is of vital importance to the economies of gulf states, especially in regards to petroleum production and exportation.
Almost one fifth of global oil passes through the Straits of Hormuz on their way to destinations around the world; as such a vital choke point for global energy needs, the safety of passage through the Straits of Hormuz and the political situations of the states around it are important to all nations.
This is what makes the recent crisis so important and potentially so disastrous. A major conflict in or around the Straits would mean increased risk to tankers moving in the area, and a closure of them altogether could lead to a significant spike in the price of oil worldwide. For this reason, the US and other major powers have a vested interest in maintaining a presence in the region to deter aggression. The importance of the region means that even small conflicts can become major security threats in no time at all.
Tensions between the US and Iran today can be traced back to two main events; the 2012 naval dispute between the two countries and the withdrawal of the US from the Iran Nuclear Deal.
In 2012, Iran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, and the US responded with military exercises in the region. The tension from this event has contributed to the current crisis and deteriorating security situation. More recently, President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Iran Nuclear deal unilaterally on the basis of it being unfair; with this withdrawal came a reinstatement of US sanctions on Iran that have have detrimental effects on the Iranian economy.
Outraged at this move from the US, Iran has begun ignoring certain terms of the accord, such as maximum stockpile levels of uranium. At the same time, Tehran has put pressure on The European Union, which still is party to the 2015 deal, to mitigate the effects of the US sanctions on the economy and fast. The Nuclear Deal has put Iran in a vulnerable position, and some experts think that the recent aggression in the Strait of Hormuz are a sign from Iran that it could disrupt trade if an acceptable deal isn’t reached with Europe and/or the US.
Since the tanker attacks of late, the US and allies have increased military presence in the region as a safeguard against any further provocations. The US and UK are among a handful of countries that have agreed to send military ships to the Strait of Hormuz to protect tankers as they move to and from the Gulf states. In mid-July, the US military shot down an Iranian drone over the Strait of Hormuz, and days later President Trump called off a military strike minutes before it was due to strike and kill an estimated 150 Iranians.
The escalation of military action is a security risk to Iran, the United States, and other gulf states that could be involved in any military conflict. Hopes of a peaceful resolution to this crisis are few, as neither side seems willing to back down. However, for this crisis to resolve in a nonviolent way, the two sides must reach an agreement and mutual understanding.