Last week, Seumas Milne opined in an analysis in the Guardian that “for months the evidence has been growing that a US-Israeli stealth war against Iran has already begun, backed by Britain and France”. He believed that instances of crippling sanctions, covert support for Iranian armed opposition groups (PJAK), assassination of Iranian scientists, cyber warfare, and so on, are testament to this claim. On December 13, a renowned Iranian columnist argued in Kayhan Daily that Iran should get ready for selective blocking of the Strait of Hormuz.
Hussein Shariatmadari, a top conservative analyst who usually reflects the Iranian Supreme Leader’s viewpoints, argued that animosity from the West towards Iran is getting to a critical point which required a tough reaction, such as depriving the enemies of use of the Strait of Hormuz. He clearly recommended that in the case of sanctions affecting the Iranian Central Bank or a likely embargo on the purchase of Iranian crude oil, Iran should immediately react by blocking the Strait of Hormuz against the enemies.
Such threats are understandable from an economy which is 80% reliant on oil exports. Iran’s supreme leader had already warned that “Iran is not a nation to sit still and just observe threats from fragile materialist powers that are being eaten by worms from inside”; he cautioned that the attackers should prepare for “strong blows and the steel fists” of the military, the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia. Such warnings are murmured every day in the Iranian mass media.
Meanwhile, the US Senate has unanimously approved a new round of economic sanctions on Iran, targeting the country’s central bank and oil industry, despite warnings from within the White House that the move could backfire. The measures, passed by 100 votes to nil, would ban foreign firms from doing business with the Iranian Central Bank. This measure was confirmed by the House by the overwhelming votes of 410-11 and 418-2. Before it can become law, it must be approved by the House and President Barack Obama, although the latter will most likely tread warily in an election year.
The European Union has also recently agreed to impose fresh sanctions on 180 Iranian officials and firms involved in Tehran’s nuclear program. The Ministers and the Summit meeting in Brussels have agreed to work on additional measures that target Iran’s energy sector. They failed to reach agreement to impose an oil embargo against Iran, but the issue has only been suspended until next January. Japan has also joined the sanctions club against Tehran and decided to extend its sanctions which now amount to a total of 267 organizations, 66 individuals and 20 banks under embargo. South Korea has since announced that it will join other Western Powers in sanctioning Iran.
In a counter move, Iran’s top decision-makers propose closing the Strait of Hormuz. In this regard, the Iranian legislator, Parviz Sarvari, told the student news agency ISNA: “Soon we will hold a military maneuver on how to close the Strait of Hormuz. If the world wants to make the region insecure, we will make the world insecure.” Maybe the practicality of such a threat is questionable but even making such statements is a threat to the fragile economy of the West, especially the US. It appears that explosives have been stockpiled in the region; and it just needs a match now being prepared by hawks in the US, Britain and even in Iran.
The reason why Iran is bolding the Strait of Hormuz recently and the West hesitates to apply the so-called crippling sanctions is because the Strait of Hormuz has unique strategic advantages which affect the world economy and political outcomes.
1. The Strait of Hormuz is the only waterway through which eight littoral states of the Persian Gulf have access to international waters.
2. On average, every ten minutes, a giant oil ship passes through this waterway.
3. Nearly 90 percent of oil exports stem from the Persian Gulf and ocean-going ships carrying oil have to pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
4. More than 40 percent of world oil demand is supplied from the Persian Gulf.
5. The weapons purchased by the littoral states in the Persian Gulf from the United States and other European countries reach their destination by passing through the Strait of Hormuz
6. The United States Energy Information Institute predicts that by 2020 the volume of oil exports passing through the Strait of Hormuz will increase to 35 million barrels per day.
Iran believes that its likely enemies have to know that they do not possess all the chess pieces; if Tehran is due to be deprived of its oil exports or faces paralyzing sanctions the Strait of Hormuz will be made less available to the tankers and ships carrying commercial goods or weapons from and to its enemies.
The legal foundation on which Iran may proceed is the Geneva Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (1958). Although Iran is also one of signatories of Law of Sea Convention (1982), it has not ratified it yet, so it is not binding for Tehran; but the 1958 Convention is.
Article 14 of the Geneva Convention (1958) stipulates: “Subject to the provisions of these articles, ships of all States, whether coastal or not, shall enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.”
The Section 4 of the same Article states: “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 these articles and with other rules of international law.”
It is also stipulated in the Section 1 of Article 16: “The coastal State may take the necessary steps in its territorial sea to prevent passage which is not innocent.”
The Section 3 of Article 16 reads: “Subject to the provisions of paragraph 4, the coastal State may, without discrimination amongst foreign ships, suspend temporarily in specified areas of its territorial sea the innocent passage of foreign ships if such suspension is essential for the protection of its security. Such suspension shall take effect only after having been duly published.”
Those principles have been repeated in the articles 17 to 23 of the 1982 Convention on Law of Sea, with minor modifications. But the latter made a fundamental change on the ruling governing international straits which Tehran has not yet accepted.
As those articles (of the Geneva Convention) indicate: ships which are crossing the Strait of Hormuz would only be allowed, if the “security, order, comfort and rights of littoral state (here Iran)” is considered and the innocent passage of the ships should be verified. Section 4 of Article 14, and Section 1 of Article 16 of the Geneva Convention (1958), emphasize that verifying the status of innocent passage of ships through the waterway (here the Strait of Hormuz) is up to the coastal state (Iran).
For those reasons, Iranian politicians concerned about the possibility that Iran’s oil exports may be disrupted by the United States, the European countries and their Asian allies such as Japan, question whether the passing ships carrying oil for those countries can be accounted as “innocent”.
Tehran believes that the answer is definitely no. Iran indicates that it has a legal right to block the enemy’s vessels, thereby preventing the assumption of power to threaten Iran. The passage of vessels belonging to the likely enemies through Iranian territorial waters, especially military vessels and those carrying armaments, is considered prejudicial to a coastal state’s (Iran) security and that blocking them is an Iranian inalienable right.
It may be reasoned that such blocking would only be temporary, but even if temporary it would be disastrous for the world economy and peace, which unfortunately the hawks are careless about. The trend of events support Seumas Milne’s assertion that two ideologically opposed sides are engaging in brinkmanship, with the potential of proceeding to crippling sanctions or war.