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Trouble In The Strait
Of Hormuz

Terrell E. Arnold
The Strait of Hormuz has been an important waterway since the earliest development of maritime trade. That means if you scan the pages of histories, or the countless clay tablets that speak of great historic empires in the region, you will find the waterway facilitated trade for all of them. In those days the waterway serviced a diversified trade in whatever supported the communities along its shores and adjacent hinterlands. Much of that was agricultural, especially grains, fruits, wines, and wool, but copper and wood were important goods, while gold, silver and precious stones served both as medium of exchange and trade goods.
Nothing in the historic trade came close to the importance of the modern flow of oil through that narrow passage. On a daily basis the Strait now witnesses the passage of ships carrying 16-18 million barrels of oil and at least 2 million barrels of petroleum products. That amounts to 40% of all the oil that moves in international trade. That means the view in either direction is normally full of shipping. Therefore, as anyone who looks at it quickly notes, any significant disruption of that flow would have immediate impact on the global economy, sharply affecting both energy supplies and prices.
In that context, it becomes terribly important who owns or controls the Hormuz choke point. Iran borders the north side of the Strait. The United Arab Emirates and Oman border the south side. The Strait is so narrow however that the adjacent coastal states are subject to special constraints of the Law of the Sea. In principle, under the United Nations Convention of 1982, all coastal states are entitled to claim coastal waters out to a 12 nautical mile limit, but the Strait is only 21 nautical miles wide at its choke point. The maximum either side could assert a right to is 10.5 nautical miles.
To observe the rights of coastal states while also serving the needs of maritime navigation, special rules have been established for the Strait: A six mile navigation channel has been defined consisting of a 2 mile wide inbound lane, a 2 mile wide separation lane, and a 2 mile wide outbound lane. Nominally, the inbound lane impinges on Iranian territorial waters, while the outbound lane impinges on UAE and Omani waters. The Law of the Sea permits innocent passage in both directions to all maritime users.
As the saying goes, "aye, there's the rub." In present circumstances, what actually is innocent passage? The steady flow of oil and commercial cargo through the Strait obviously qualifies.   However, United States military and a range of contract commercial shipping, as well as coalition member shipping pass through the Strait enroute to Iraq and neighboring states to support the War. That flow qualifies as "innocent" passage to the extent that vessels in transit threaten no state on either side.  All surface shipping to support the war has to come that way, and no one has questioned it.
However, what about the ever-surging flow of US naval vessels that are there overtly to threaten Iran? Much touted in US media are at least three US carrier groups and other naval vessels that are virtually on station in the region for months at a time and have an alleged missions either to show the flag as a threat to Iran or to provide precursor platforms for a future attack. Strictly speaking, do their moves back and forth through the Strait qualify as "innocent passage"?
The situation, to say the least, is ambiguous. The more strident the warlike media play around Iran becomes, the higher grows the risk that someone will misinterpret intentions.
Those tensions play specifically to last week's "confrontation" in the Strait. Both Iran and the United States Navy have been pretty careful up to this stage, given the frequently strident and accusative stance of American official voices and media toward Iran. That Iran would use speedboats to attempt an attack on fully armed ships of the line in broad daylight in the open sea is on its face absurd. That some Revolutionary Guard seamen-reportedly in charge of patrolling the area for Iran-would decide to do something foolish is possible. Recent Navy comments suggest American commanders on the scene did not consider the situation threatening. In that respect, the initial automatic and erroneous Pentagon and media reporting of the incident was unfortunate.
The incident probably will pass because there is nothing in it for either side. However, it underscores the dangers of the situation. American leadership has been goading, threatening or baiting-take your choice-Iran for the whole Bush administration. With persistent urging from Israeli leadership and lobbies, the US is being pushed to neutralize Iran. That means to both prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, if possible, and keep Iran from exercising its natural role (given history, size, location, religion, and resources) as a leading regional political and economic force.
Israel's neo-con supporters in and out of the Bush administration avidly support this agenda. However, it does not serve American interests. All the laments about American dependence on foreign oil aside, normalized political relations will provide the best conditions for the oil producing countries of the Middle East. Warfare won't fix it, and US military domination of the region won't create that peaceful environment. Rather, continued US harassment of Iran and bullying/ occupation of neighboring countries will keep the region in ferment. That will make the risks of a Gulf of Tonkin type incident-contrived or real-a constant concern. Some prankster such as the reported "Filipino Monkey" who abuses the open shipping radio channel, or a genuinely malicious third party can get both the US and Iran in deep trouble. It is time to back off the hostile US Navy posture in the region before it blows up in our faces.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at <mailto:wecanstopit@charter.net>wecanstopit@charter.net
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