The IRGC seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero on Friday July 19, 2019. This incident was the most prominent in a series of events in which Iran targeted oil tankers in the Gulf, particularly since the escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran after the United States ended the exemptions it had given to eight countries importing Iranian oil exports in early May 2019. Tehran had previously threatened to prevent the countries of the region from exporting their oil and to close the Strait of Hormuz if Iran was prevented from exporting its oil. However, these developments pose major questions concerning Iran’s motives behind its policy of seizing ships. Is the seizure of the British oil tanker accidental or part of a systematic Iranian policy to hinder the movement of oil in the Gulf? If the latter, what is the impact of this policy and what are its implications for the course of the crisis between Iran, the United States and the European countries, foremost Britain? Finally, what are Iran’s options for continuing or changing this pattern of behavior?
First: Legal Justification or a Systematic Strategy?
Iran has been careful about making any official statement that would link its seizure of oil tankers to the escalating tensions between Iran and the United States as well as some European countries. This is reflected in the legal justifications presented by Tehran for its seizure of the British carrier, ranging from allegedly causing environmental pollution to deviating from its legal course, as well as Tehran investigating whether the carrier collided with an Iranian fishing boat. The incident itself reveals the reality of Iran’s systematic policy towards carriers passing through the Gulf region. However, it was suggested by some of the regime’s figures that the British carrier’s seizure was in retaliation for Britain seizing Iran’s oil carrier (Grace 1) while it was crossing the Strait of Gibraltar under the pretext of carrying oil to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in violation of international sanctions imposed on it.
In the wake of tightening US sanctions, the timing of Iran’s escalation policy towards carriers moving across the Arabian and Omani Gulfs indicates that this policy is a result of heightened US pressure on Iran. The crisis in Iran has reached an unprecedented level, as acknowledged by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This means that there is a deliberate Iranian policy to undermine navigation security, particularly in the Gulf region.
Second: Motivations Behind Iran’s Policy of Impeding Oil Tankers
Through its policy of targeting carriers in the Gulf, Iran likely seeks the following:
– Balancing the pressure on its oil exports: Rouhani said that if Iran is deprived of exporting its oil, it will deprive the countries of the region of the same thing. Following the decision of the Trump administration to end exemptions on Iranian oil exports in early May 2019, Iranian oil exports decreased by 300,000 to 500,000 barrels a day, thereby negatively impacting the situation in Iran. In fact, by targeting oil carriers the regime seeks to balance US pressure with corresponding pressure on international oil trade.
-Influencing major powers and their positions through economic pressure: Iran is aware that its disruption of international sea traffic in the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz — one of the most important international shipping lanes in the world with nearly 20 percent of global oil exports passing through it — is a tool it can leverage to counter the challenges posed by the United States and European complacency in dealing with the crisis. Significantly, targeting navigation security in this region will have negative repercussions on oil prices internationally. This will be taken into consideration by major powers when dealing with the Iranian file.
-Testing American reactions: Iran is targeting oil tankers to test regional and international reactions. In particular, Iran seeks to determine the US position and its readiness as well as its willingness to carry out military action against it. The US position of excluding the military option probably gives Iran a greater opportunity to increase its attacks on oil carriers, whether directly or indirectly via seizures.
– Deterring any power wishing to detain Iranian oil carriers: Iran aims to send a political message that it has strong, painful and influential leveraging tools on international shipping lanes. Furthermore, there is a significant cost to be borne by any country that targets Iranian oil exports, which are continuing in violation of sanctions. By detaining the British carrier, Iran is trying to deter countries from detaining any of its oil tankers in the future.
-Threatening to destabilize the regional economy and security: Iran is aware of the role of some major regional powers in the US maximum pressure campaign against Tehran. Therefore, its goal behind targeting oil tankers is to affect the economic stability of these countries since the movement of trade, whether related to oil exports or other fields, is of great importance in maintaining the stability of these states.
Third: Effects and Implications
– The internationalization of maritime navigation protection in the Gulf region: With the increasing threats posed by Iran on maritime security and the economic consequences of Iran’s targeting of regional seaports, the need to form an international alliance to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Gulf and in other important maritime lanes in the region gains greater urgency. In particular, there is a strong American desire as well as approval from some Gulf countries for this international alliance. The freedom of navigation is a crucial issue for major international forces and the Gulf states, which depend on secure shipping lanes for their exports. In the same context, Britain has called upon countries to establish a protection force to ensure maritime navigation in the Arabian Gulf under European command. A group of European countries have consented to the British proposal: France, Italy and Denmark. The Netherlands announced that it is still studying the matter. On the other side, Germany, Poland and Sweden have rejected participating in the proposal, yet they are in favor of the idea of such a force. Undoubtedly, the two parallel proposals by America and Britain will create divisions among US allies. Britain has stressed that the coalition it intends to form will not be integrated into the US maximum pressure strategy against Iran.
At the Gulf level, Sheikh Yusuf Abdullah Al-Sabah, Director-General of Kuwait’s Ports Authority and President of The Arab Sea Ports Federation, confirmed on Wednesday July 24, 2019 that there is Gulf-Arab coordination to ensure the safety of ships crossing Gulf waters.
– Increasing the military presence of major powers in the Gulf: As the British oil tanker crisis escalated, London announced that it is in the process of sending additional naval vessels to the Arabian Gulf to protect its carriers. In addition, it would increase its military presence if the risks grow. President Trump also called upon Japan and China to protect their own carriers. He also stated that the United States will no longer have to bear the burden of securing navigation in the region alone. Therefore, this would prompt the countries that have significant economic interests to rethink their military deployments in the region.
– Growing tension and regional instability: Undoubtedly, the serious security and economic repercussions caused by geopolitical developments in the Middle East will not only affect the security and stability of the region as a whole, including Iran, but will also have serious implications for the entire global economy. Thus, ensuring the freedom of navigation is of economic, political and security significance for industrial and emerging countries as well as for oil-exporting countries, particularly Iran itself.
– Increasing the likelihood of military conflict: The continuation of the policy of detaining carriers may subject Iran’s naval forces to a reaction from the United States. It will also expedite the implementation of the maritime alliance which America seeks to form to protect maritime shipping in the Strait of Hormuz to preserve its economic interests.
-Oil embargo on Iran: Iran’s policy may prove counterproductive if the United States and other international powers such as Britain continue to detain more ships and Iranian oil carriers passing through international seas. In addition, they can block Iran from exporting oil to China, India and other countries. This would disrupt what little remains of Iran’s oil export revenues following US sanctions imposed on it a year ago.
-Changing the European position: Europe could excessively tighten the conditions necessary to activate the financial mechanisms and banking requirements needed by Iran to face the economic sanctions including the activation of the INSTEX mechanism or the signing of the FATF agreement. In addition, Britain can harden its position on the nuclear agreement more than ever before in response to the detention of the British carrier Stena Impero.
Fourth: The Disruption of Navigation Movement by Iran, and Future Scenarios
A full retreat: One of the possible options for Iran is to retreat from its systematic policy of targeting oil and commercial carriers passing through shipping lanes in the region. This retreat, if it happens, can possibly be explained by the weak legal arguments Iran has used to justify its seizures. The freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz is guaranteed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on The Law of the Sea which grants all states the right of innocent passage through international shipping lanes. Iran is aware of what its policy may lead to given the risks and challenges posed to international trade: the internationalization of the protection of navigation on shipping lanes in the region, a growing military presence in the Gulf, and the possibility of increasing friction not only with the United States but with other powers, not to mention the possibility of pushing European countries and other forces to the American side. These elements may intensify the economic, political and military pressure on Iran.
Therefore, in light of these challenges, Iran may reconsider its policy and cease its hostile practices. This would not, however, curb attempts to internationalize the protection of navigation in the region, which is sponsored by the United States and some regional powers to counter Iran’s threat.
-Ongoing escalation: The second option before Iran is to continue its hostile policies against carriers. Given the severity of the economic crisis faced by Iran, it could use maritime security in the region as leverage to force the United States and the European countries to compromise leading to the lifting of sanctions. Particularly, Iran may resort to this option if the negative effects of sanctions increase, and it deems it impossible to continue its resistance to counter its economic challenges. In this case, the escalation will be an expensive option for Iran at the international level, since it will be condemned by America and the West, and even by some supporters of Iran because it will pose economic and energy challenges for major industrialized nations.
Iran’s ability to attain positive results from this option appears unlikely. However, this option may prove fruitful for Iran given the American position on military confrontation against it, and it may be undertaken as a pressure strategy prior to negotiations. As a result, this option remains attractive to Iran as it allows it to acquire more bargaining chips in preparation for negotiations, in particular leveraging tools in regards to navigation security and regional stability.
Temporary tactic: The third option for Tehran is to use the issue of navigation security in the region as a temporary tactic for achieving specific targets. This is confirmed by the nature of Iran’s attacks on ships, which are still limited and selective. Iran does not officially state that these attacks are a reaction and a challenge to the position of the United States and the other countries involved in the crisis. In addition, the seizure of the ships does not cause significant material losses. In fact, most of the seizure cases have been resolved and the ships have been released. The rest are to be resolved by diplomacy. Iran is also trying to find legal justification for its policy towards the freedom of navigation in the Gulf. This pattern of behavior indicates that Tehran is so far using this policy to exert pressure on the countries involved in the crisis. It also avoids unintended escalation. However, this policy is completely different from Iran’s strategy during the tanker war in the 1980s.
In sum, Iran’s policy towards freedom of navigation remains uncertain. Although the current stage is more in line with the temporary tactic scenario, given the current crisis in which Iran on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other, are testing the limits of gains and losses, it is unlikely to turn towards one of the other scenarios. First, the full retreat scenario is related to reaching a new deal and ending the crisis between Iran and the United States. The indicators of this scenario are visible among the current developments, as both sides have expressed a desire to negotiate and an unwillingness to engage in a confrontation. Second, the ongoing escalation scenario is closely linked to the crisis Tehran is going through at present and its unwillingness to make concessions in order to move forward with America’s conditions. America is perhaps the side which possesses strategic patience by relying on its pressure strategy. As a result, this strategy will over time leave Iran faced with two options: either to negotiate or to face confrontation in which the security of maritime navigation in the region will be an important issue.
The following table shows the attacks against oil tankers since the cancellation of US exemptions on Iranian oil exports.