The Strait of Hormuz is a strait between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf which connects to the Indian Ocean. On the north coast lies Iran and on the south coast lies the United Arab Emirates and Musandam, an exclave of Oman. The strait is about 90 nautical miles (167 km) long, with a width varying from about 52 nautical miles (96 km) to 21 nautical miles (39 km). It is strategically important as one-fourth of oil consumption of the world passes through the strait and one-third of total global liquified natural gas. The strait contains the islands of Qeshm, Hormuz, and Hegam which are also strategic for Oman and Iran as they have maritime rights in the area as per UNCLOS. Iran has used the strait of Hormuz to its advantage by choking the route used by oil tankers which have led to various confrontations between the west lead by the US and the Iranian authorities.
In the 1980’s, US President Carter proclaimed the Carter Doctrine, stating that the U.S. would guarantee the security of commerce and oil through the Persian Gulf. During this time, Iran and Iraq fought a deadly war which began to reach a deadlock. Iraq was seen to be supported by the US in their invasion in Iran and actively shared military intelligence to help topple the new Iranian regime. By 1984 both sides saw large numbers of casualties which led to Iraq attacking the oil tankers flowing through the region and Iran retaliating leading to a disruption in oil flows and the beginning of ‘Tanker war’. This move was to stop Iran’s main export of oil by attacking every tanker which carried oil from Iranian ports. Iran responded by attacking all tankers moving from the gulf states which were supporting Iraq. As the gulf states were supported by the West, Iran used various military tactics to stop the flow through the strait of Hormuz even planting sea mines. This was the first time the strait was used by Iran as an effective weapon against the West. By 1987, US entered directly into the conflicts in the middle east. This was done by the US navy escorting tankers of its own and its allies through the strait leading to hostilities being increased between Iran and the US. There were various accounts of confrontation like the US naval ship USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine injuring various soldiers onboard and a US warship striking an Iran air flight 655 mistaking it for a fighter plane killing all 290 passengers on board. The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 but tensions between the US and Iran remained for decades to come. In the 1990s, U.S. intervened protecting oil flows after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Iran, the US and GCC led by Saudi Arabia had various proxy wars in the middle east over the years which still exists to this day.
The US and the Iran nuclear deal
The west along with the US was concerned over the Iranian nuclear program which was discovered in 2002. There were reports that Iran had expansive and undisclosed nuclear facilities like in Natanz and Arak. In 2011, a UN report led by the security council revealed that ‘Iran had carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device’. The findings of this report were denied by Iran and it led to more hostilities between the US and Iran. The Obama administration in 2011 put specific sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical industry which led Iran’s oil exports declining sharply. This put significant impact on the Iranian economy as it began to shrink for the first time in a decade in 2012. Iran then started using the strait of Hormuz as its own weapon by stopping the flow of oil. The Vice President of Iran, Mohamad Reza Rahimi was once famously quoted “Not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz”. This was backed by Iranian navy showing a ted day show of force in the region and the US navy following suit with the Pentagon calling the blockade of the strait ‘beyond tolerable’. In 2015, the Joint comprehension plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) was agreed upon by the US and its western allies and Iran which led to sanctions being lifted in exchange for Iran scaling back its nuclear program. This positively affected the economy until 2018 when US President Trump decided to withdraw from the treaty and imposing sanctions gain leading to the strait becoming a flashpoint for aggression yet again.
The US unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehension Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal) on 8th May 2018. This move was followed by extensive sanctions on Iranian oil and attempts made by Trump administration’s constant attempt to corner Iran. This moves impact on the Iranian economy put pressure on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who got elected on the promise on providing better economic growth, to resort to various measures with regard to the strait of Hormuz. The Iranian government started using the tactic to blockade the Strait of Hormuz in order to stop oil transportation from the Gulf states. A British oil tanker called Stena Impero was impounded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard near the Strait which led top initial phases of tension as the US came to its rescue. A US drone was shot down by Iran which led to further tensions between the two countries with US president Donald Trump even coming very close to ordering a strike on Iranian soil.
The discussion with regard to the Strait of Hormuz is very important due to its geostrategic and economic importance. The actions taken by Iran can be compared to the Suez Canal crisis in which Egypt nationalized the Suez canal and took power from France and Britain. This had an immediate effect due to the geostrategic location of the narrow passage and led to the Sinai peninsula being taken over by Israel after a war. The Suez canal had global implications on trade and was a way for Egypt to show its relevance and dominance over the region. This can be attributed in Iran’s attempt to show itself as a very strong regional power against the Gulf states especially Saudi Arabia and the US along with the West. The most important aspect is the trade of oil and Iran has learned how to weaponize this narrow passage to pressure the West for how the US has pressured Iran in the past through imposing Sanctions.
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Madhav Grover is a 3rd year student studing B.A. Global Affairs at the Jindal School of International Affairs.