by Shireen T. Hunter
Since Iran’s seizure of a British tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Persian Gulf on July 19, calls have increased for the creation of a naval force made up of several European states to ensure the safety of tankers and other merchant marine vessels. In fact, there is a good chance that some kind of a pan-European force will be created. Even the United Kingdom, despite its seemingly imminent departure from the European Union, has been urging the creation of such a force. But even if the rest of Europe does not contribute, Britain will likely increase its naval footprint in the Gulf.
The United States, too, appears to be considering such a force and would welcome its allies’ cooperation. Yet it is not clear whether a joint Western naval force, either wholly European or with American participation, will indeed be created to enforce freedom of shipping in the Persian Gulf. Some European states, notably France, think that increasing the Western naval presence in the Persian Gulf might be viewed by Iran as too provocative and thus increase, rather than reduce, tensions in the region. Should both of these plans materialize, Britain would be hard pressed to choose between the force organized by Europe or the one set up by the United States.
Eventually, other states, notably China and India, who depend for a good part of their energy needs on the Persian Gulf’s resources, would want to have their naval forces providing protection to their ships. Both China and India also have valid strategic reasons to be present in the Gulf. In particular, with U.S.-China tensions and competition on the rise, Beijing would not want to see its energy supplies potentially become dependent on American and/or European discretion.
Iran, for its part, declared that it was willing to create a coalition with regional states to ensure the safety of shipping in the Gulf. Senior Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, further stressed that Iran has always safeguarded shipping in the Persian Gulf, and especially in the Strait of Hormuz, and will continue to do so. He concluded that therefore there was no need for new coalitions to patrol the shipping lanes. These Iranian positions and statements are in line with Tehran’s traditional view that the security of the Persian Gulf should be the responsibility of the riparian states and not external forces.
However, the challenges posed by Iranian actions are only pushing others to increase their naval presence in the Gulf, something that is in direct opposition to Iran’s declared position, and that could further shift the balance of military power against Tehran.
Britain started the trend of seizing ships when it captured the Iranian ship Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar, ostensibly because it was carrying oil to a refinery in Syria and was therefore in contravention of EU sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Reportedly, this British action was encouraged by the United States as part of its maximum pressure campaign on Iran. This British action angered Iranian authorities, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He indicated that the seizure would not go unanswered.
Soon after Khamenei’s statement, the Stena Impero was seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s naval arm. This act reflected the depth of Iran’s anger. But it also indicated the influence of a strain of thinking in Iran that believes that Tehran’s restraint after the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has only emboldened Washington in the use of its maximum pressure tactics. According to this logic, Iran should adopt a more offensive posture, and in this way increase its bargaining power. Therefore, the seizure of the British ship, in addition to restoring Iran’s pride, was intended to give Iran an additional bargaining chip.
Iran’s Strategy Could Backfire
Thus far however, Iran’s strategy has not been successful. There is no indication that the fear of Iranian interference with shipping in the Gulf has changed any minds either in London or Washington, and it is unlikely to do so. When it comes to Iran, the United States and even Europe are playing a long-term game which is not subject to the ordinary rules of bargaining chips and transactions. In particular, when it comes to the safety of shipping in the Persian Gulf, none of the major players would take any risks. Certainly, they will not allow Iran to control Gulf shipping lanes.
Iran sees its position on the Strait of Hormuz as a strategic asset. However, the value of this asset should not be exaggerated. Iran can cause a temporary closure of the strait with considerable immediate cost for global economy. But the potential long term cost to Iran would be much higher as the U.S. and Europe would do what it takes to reopen the waterway, including attacking Iran militarily and disabling its naval forces. But even if it did not come to that, Iran’s challenges would increase the military presence of other states and lead to Tehran’s encirclement and further isolation.
Most importantly, major states that depend on Gulf energy and shipping would not allow even the impression that Iran can hold them hostage through its control of Hormuz. In other words, by threatening other states’ ships, Iran, instead of increasing its bargaining power, most likely would undermine its own position and might even invite military retaliation. Even if this worst case scenario did not materialize, regional energy exporters would accelerate their efforts to bypass Hormuz. Even more important is the fact Iran, more than almost any other state, depends on the uninterrupted flow of shipping through the strait.
Iran is in the unenviable position that its only real bargaining chip is its ability to cause havoc for all. But the downside of this situation is that the main victim of such havoc would be Iran itself. In this regard, it is necessary that Tehran remembers the fate of its war with Iraq. After eight years of war, more than a million dead and wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic damage, Iran was forced to accept a cease fire after the U.S. bombed its ships and oil platforms in 1989. This cease fire left parts of Iran’s territory and oil fields under Iraqi occupation. It was only Saddam Hussein’s folly in attacking Kuwait in 1991 that led Baghdad to withdraw from Iranian territory.
Nor should Iran be complacent that because of the forthcoming US presidential election in 2020, the Trump administration would avoid military confrontation at any price. Often, presidents have used foreign threats—real or imagined—to garner popular support. In fact, Trump might come to calculate that a military skirmish with Iran could enhance his chances of victory, because in times of war people generally gather around the incumbent leader. Iran’s political elite should also remember how they misread Trump in the first place and hoped that, because he had been a businessman, he would cut a deal with Tehran.
Thus, in the coming monthsIran should avoid miscalculations borne from overestimating its bargaining power, especially through provocative acts, and be guided by prudence rather than by pride and impulse.