Iran rattling sabers in the Persian Gulf
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp Navy (IRGCN) ships attacked US Navy vessels last week. The incidents took place near the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow connector between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. No one was injured in what appeared to be an exercise in harassment. The Iranian speed boats did come close enough to significantly raise the risk of a deadly collision. When one of the Iranian boats came within 200 yards of the American vessel, the USS Tempest. The Americans fired three warning shots and the Iranian decided to call it a day.
There seems to be little official concern on the part of the United States. A state department spokeswoman dismissed the incidents as “unacceptable behavior.” Iranian Defense Minister, General Hossein Dehghan, seemed to suggest that the Iranians were reacting to a perceived threat. “If a foreign vessel enters our waters, we warn them and if it’s an invasion we confront them.”
The American ships in these incidents were operating in International Waters just as they have been since at least 1988. There is nothing new in the situation.
A similar campaign of harassment was carried out from December 2007 through January 2008. In the diplomatic exchanges that followed the naval confrontations, the Iranian threatened to seal off the Strait of Hormuz. That would halt shipping of one third of the world’s oil supply and throw oil markets into a tail spin. The Commander of the US 5th Fleet said that such an action would not be tolerated.
At the end of 2011, Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi threatened to close down the Strait in response to the imposition of sanctions designed to force a halt to Iran’s nuclear development program. Iranian Admiral Habibollah Sayyari stated that the Iran navy could easily shutdown oil shipments through the strait. A spokeswoman for the US 5th Fleet said the US Navy was ready to respond appropriately. Independent analysts concluded that the US Navy could break a shutdown in less than a month.
The Strait of Hormuz was not shutdown in January 2012. On January 9, 2012, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said that Iranian government had never threatened to shut down shipping in the strait. As a matter of fact the Islamic Republic of Iran was a staunch defender of security in the strait.
Nevertheless, by the end of January 2012 a flotilla consisting of six American ships, seven British ships and a French frigate had assembled to help ensure the free flow of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
Tensions in the area seemed to be easing in January 2016 after conclusion of the Nuclear deal with Teheran and the lifting of sanctions. But deep seated, fundamental issues remain. Iran and the Western Powers are locked in a clash of cultures and Mideast oil is vital to the Western Way of Life. Approximately one fifth of the world’s petroleum travels by way of the Strait of Hormuz. Loss of that much fuel even for a short period of time would create an extreme hardship. That fact is well understood on both side of the culture divide.