Thursday, July 5, 2012

Strait History and Iran’s Options

by Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich

George Santayana wisely said: “"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Oblivious to history and its lessons, America and its Western allies are repeating their actions of the 1950’s -- that of imposing an oil embargo on Iran. The American-led alliance has forgotten the past.

Iran remembers.

When under the leadership of the nationalist Dr. Mossadegh, Iran opted to nationalize its oil industry, the British Royal Navy blocked Iran’s oil exports to forcefully prevent if from nationalizing its oil. In retaliation to Iran’s nationalistic ambitions, and to punish Iran for pursuing its national interests, the British instigated a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil.

In the 1950’s, Iran did not have the military might to retaliate to the oil embargo and the naval blockade was aimed at crushing the economy in order to bring about regime change. The subsequent events is described in The New York Times1 article as a “lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid” when an oil-rich Third World nation “goes berserk with fanatical nationalism.” Iran learnt that sovereignty and nationalism necessitate tactical/military strength and determination.

Not heeding the aftermath of the 1950’s, the American-led Western allies have once again imposed an oil embargo on Iran. In retaliation, Iran has drafted a bill to stop the flow of oil through its territorial waters – the Strait of Hormuz, to countries which have imposed sanctions against it. This bill is not without merit and contrary to the previous oil embargo, it would appear that Tehran has the upper hand and the heavy cost associated with the embargo will not be borne by Iran alone.

Iran’s Legal Standing 

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that vessels can exercise the right of innocent passage, and coastal states should not impede their passage. Although Iran has signed the Treaty, the Treaty was not ratified, as such, it has no legal standing. However, even if one overlooks the non-binding signature, under UNCLOS framework of international law, a coastal state can block ships from entering its territorial waters if the passage of the ships harms “peace, good order or security” of said state, as the passage of such ships would no longer be deemed “innocent”2.

Even if Iran simply chooses to merely delay the passage of tankers by exercising its right to inspect every oil-tanker that passes through the Strait of Hormuz, these inspections and subsequent delays would maintain or contribute to higher oil prices. While higher oil prices would benefit Iran and other oil-producing countries, they would further destabilize the European economy which is already in crisis.

The Military Option 

Although American-led Western allies are flexing their muscles by sending battle ships to the Persian Gulf, Washington’s own war game exercise, The Millennium Challenge 2002 with a price tag of $250 million, underscored America’s inability to defeat Iran. Oblivious to the lesson of its own making, by sending more warships to the Persian Gulf, the United States is inching towards a full scale conflict. The inherent danger from the naval buildup is that unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, the forces in the Persian Gulf are not confined to two leaders who would be able to communicate to stop a run-away situation. Nor would the consequences of such a potential conflict be limited to the region.

Given that 17 million barrels of oil a day, or 35% of the world’s seaborne oil exports go through the Strait of Hormuz, incidents in the Strait would be fatal for the world economy. While only 1.1 millions barrels per day goes to the United States, a significant amount of this oil is destined for Europe. Surely, one must ask why the United States demands that its “European allies” act contrary to their own national interest, pay a higher price for oil by boycotting Iranian oil and running the risk of Iran blocking the passage of other oil-tankers destined for them?

Again, history has the straight answer. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the United States and not the oil-producing countries has used oil as a weapon. Some examples include the pressure the United States put on Britain in the 1920s to share its oil concessions in the Middle East with U.S. companies. Post World War II, the United States violated the terms of the 1928 Red Line Agreement freezing the British and the French out of the Agreement.

In 1956, the United States made it clear to Britain and France that no oil would be sent to Western Europe unless the two aforementioned countries agreed to a rapid withdrawal from Egypt. The U.S. was not opposed to the overthrow of Nasser, but as Eisenhower said: “Had they done it quickly, we would have accepted it"3.

Demonstrably, although Europe is a major trade partner of the United States, the U.S. does not concern itself with Europe’s well being when it comes to executing its foreign policy. This should come as no surprise, especially since the United States sacrifices its own national interest to promote the Israeli agenda and that of the military industrial complex. But this does not explain why Europe would shoot itself in the foot at a time when its economical woes have passed the crisis point.

It is possible that the leaders of Western European countries are beholden to special interest groups – the pro-Israel lobbies, as the United States is, or they believe Iran will not call their bluff by ratifying the bill passed by Majlis and their oil will be delivered unhindered; perhaps both. Either way, they are committing financial suicide and their demise may well come before Iran’s resolve is shaken.

Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich
is a Public Diplomacy Scholar, independent researcher and blogger with a focus on U.S. foreign policy and the role of lobby groups.

1 THE IRANIAN ACCORD”, The New York Times, Aug 6,1954, cited by S. Shalom
2 Martin Wahlisch, The Yale Journal of International Law, March 2012, citing UNCLOS, supra note 12, , art. 19, para1, and art. 25, para1. 
3 Stephen Shalom; The Iran-Iraq War citing Kennett Love, Suez: the Twice-Fought War, New York: McGraw Hill, 1969, p. 651 

Saker comment:

My good friend Soraya is making a lot of very interesting points, in particular one which is wholly overlooked by the corporate media: that Iran's legal position about the what constitutes "innocent passage" is rock solid.  Check out what Article 19 of Section 3 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea actually says:
1. Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law.
2. Passage of a foreign ship shall be considered to be prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State if in the territorial sea it engages in any of the following activities:

(a) any threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of the coastal State, or in any other manner in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations;
(b) any exercise or practice with weapons of any kind;
(c) any act aimed at collecting information to the prejudice of the defence or security of the coastal State;
(d) any act of propaganda aimed at affecting the defence or security of the coastal State;
(e) the launching, landing or taking on board of any aircraft;
(f) the launching, landing or taking on board of any military device;
(g) the loading or unloading of any commodity, currency or person contrary to the customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations of the coastal State;
(h) any act of willful and serious pollution contrary to this Convention;
(i) any fishing activities;
(j) the carrying out of research or survey activities;
(k) any act aimed at interfering with any systems of communication or any other facilities or installations of the coastal State;
(l) any other activity not having a direct bearing on passage.
Interesting, no?  All the US saber-rattling and assorted threats against Iran would, in fact, legally allow Iran to prevent the passage of US ships through the strait.  Of course, considering the wholesale disregard and systematic violation of pretty much any and all forms of international law by the US and Israel such legal trivialities will make no difference to them.  The only thing that will matter them is whether or not Iran can shut down the Strait of Hormuz or not.  Unlike most observers, I do not believe it can.   As for the 2002 Millennium Challenge exercise, it was a very controversial exercise designed to validate concept of network centric warfare and not a rehearsal of actual US strike plans on Iran.  Furthermore, from a military point of view any military exercise in which the "good" sides "looses" is a perfect opportunity to learn the important lessons before the real shooting begins.  It would be foolish to expect the USN to attack Iran exactly according to the main lines of a scenario it fully knows will results in a defeat.  In fact, we can be darn sure that having learned all the lessons from that exercise the USN will strike in a very different manner than what was tested already a full decade ago.

I agree that Iran would have the full right to shut down the strait to any vessel deemed in violation of the UNCLOS, and I agree that Iran would be able to shut down the Strait if Hormuz, but what I don't believe in is Iran's capability to maintain the Strait closed for a extended period of time.  Finally, I am also very concerned that any Iranian move to close down the Strait of Hormuz would offer the Zionists a perfect pretext to further demonize Iran and paint it as an enemy of the rest of mankind.

As I wrote in 2007 in my piece Iran's asymmetrical response options, I believe that Iran better asymmetrical responses than closing down the Strait of Hormuz (the 2007 article is in some aspects dated today - in particular in what regards US deployments in Iraq and the Gulf - but its basic rationale still holds, I believe) which could be summed up as "the strategic version of Hezbollah's tactics in 2006": ride out the strikes and reply with missiles on US regional targets.

FYI: here is what shipping in the SOH looks on a typical day (click on image for full size) - already chaotic without any missiles flying; just imagine the panic which would result from any US strike on Iran even without the Iranians taking defensive action at all.
Shipping density in the SOH on 7/5/2012
US "mega base" at Al Udeid, Qatar: an ideal target?