Summary: competing ideas for increased security in the Gulf “tinderbox”. UK under Johnson backs the US. Legal considerations.
The supertanker Grace 1, renamed Adrian Darya and now under the Iranian flag, has left Gibraltar and sailed into the Mediterranean reportedly heading for Kalamata in Greece, although according to Greek sources Kalamata has received no notification and its port lacks the necessary infrastructure to dock such a ship. With Greece in poor shape to resist US pressure it seems more probable that she will head for the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, with the likelihood that the US will overplay their hand and get into a row with Turkey over the right of free passage of civilian vessels through the Turkish Straits in peacetime. The Black Sea would offer a variety of more or less reputable destinations from Turkey, Russia and Ukraine to Abkhazia and Transnistria.
Meanwhile the British-flagged Stena Impero, assumed to have been seized in retaliation for Grace 1, remains in Iranian hands, a card to be played at the appropriate moment.
There are two separate plans for patrolling the Straits, one led by the US and the other by Europe. (Last month Russia separately proposed an elaborate security concept for the Gulf area – details at link.) A US plan “Operation Sentinel” has been discussed since June; nations would protect ships carrying their own flags, but joint operations would be designed to carry out surveillance. In July the then UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt outlined a separate Europe-led plan which would not be part of the US policy of maximum pressure on Iran “because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement”.
At first the US plan got little or no support, regarded as over-hostile to Iran and risking escalation or provocation. The European proposal, described as British-led, got more backing, according to a Washington Post report “because European nations such as Britain, France and Germany, along with China and Russia, have remained in the nuclear agreement with Iran.” France, Italy and Denmark gave initial support, with Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Poland also showing interest.
But on 5 August the UK under the new Johnson government jumped ship and announced that it would work with the US Navy, apparently the first country to do so, with no reference in the announcement to Europe. The US told US flagged ships that they should send transit plans in advance to the US and British naval authorities. The German Foreign Minister said Germany would not join the US mission.
In the last week Bahrain and Australia have announced that they will also join the US mission. The Chinese ambassador to Abu Dhabi told Reuters that if there was a very unsafe situation China would consider providing a naval escort to commercial ships. The Israeli Foreign Minister told a Knesset committee that he had met a senior Abu Dhabi official to discuss the Iranian threat, and that he had agreed to provide intelligence and assistance to the US-led mission, prompting an Iranian response that Iran reserved the right to confront such a clear threat. The UAE, however, has reportedly broken ranks with Washington, sending a coastguard delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security.
On 12 August the Iranian Foreign Minister said the Straits of Hormuz would become less safe as foreign vessels increased their presence, and accused the US of turning the Gulf region into a “matchbox ready to ignite”. He was visiting Qatar, which hosts the main US base in the region but which is trying not to be drawn into the Washington/Tehran conflict. The foreign minister of Iraq, which also has good relations with both sides, tweeted that Iraq was seeking to reduce tension through calm negotiations; “The presence of Western forces in the region will increase tension.” On 18 August the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards navy said “The presence of America and England in this region means insecurity.”
An analysis of the legal situation by a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg concludes that the UK did not violate Iranian rights by seizing the Grace 1, and that Iran did not have the right to detain the Stena Impero in Omani territorial waters, even as a countermeasure. But it goes on to consider the legality of the Patrol Mission (or missions) in the Straits of Hormuz concluding that “The control and surveillance in this area is an exclusive competence of the coastal States. An international military mission in the strait to control navigation without the consent of Iran is a violation of the law of the sea. It could be justified only as a countermeasure for the infringement of the right to unfettered navigation by Iran. But one should be aware that such an infringement of Iran’s sovereign rights in its territorial waters – even if justified under international law as a countermeasure – will be a further step towards a potential war.”