Dubai : Efforts to secure safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz are ramping up as the US said a second warship arrived in the area and South Korea may deploy its own unit as part of a multinational force.
The strait is a vital thoroughfare for the energy industry, accounting for about a third of the world’s oil and a quarter of the gas transported by tanker. The US and Europe are both seeking to establish separate maritime security initiatives, and the UK said last week that further measures would be taken to respond to Iran, without giving detail on those plans.
Tensions have flared in the strait in recent weeks as Iran pushes back against US sanctions that are crippling its oil exports. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is still holding a UK vessel it detained earlier this month, the Stena Impero, in retaliation for British forces seizing an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar for allegedly violating sanctions against Syria.
Why is the Strait of Hormuz important?
The Strait of Hormuz is the busiest, most important waterway for the world’s oil industry. More than a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes through the strait, which connects the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and is situated between Oman and Iran. In 2016, the Energy Information Administration estimated that 18.5 million barrels of oil passed each day through the shipping lane, which is only two miles wide.
What’s been going on there?
Over the last several months, the United States has accused Iran of attacking and harassing commercial shipping vessels on the waterway, as well as over the Gulf. And American warships have had close encounters with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In recent weeks, the US and its allies have found themselves responding in a tit-for-tat with Iran.
This isn’t the first time that the Strait of Hormuz has been the site of international conflict. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the waterway became a point of contention for the warring countries. Iran placed sea mines in the paths of ships, and Iraq retaliated by firing missiles at them.
What steps are being taken by various nations?
■ United States: The US has by far the biggest foreign naval presence in the Gulf region. More American warships have arrived to the Mideast amid heightened tensions with Iran, replacing other ships on duty. The Bahrain-based 5th Fleet oversees the Navy’s presence in the Gulf and surrounding Mideast waters. On July 19, the US Central Command announced that it was “developing a multinational maritime effort, Operation Sentinel, to increase surveillance of and security in key waterways in the Middle East to ensure freedom of navigation”. The statement added that “this maritime security framework will enable nations to provide escort to their flagged vessels while taking advantage of the cooperation of participating nations for coordination and enhanced maritime domain awareness and surveillance”.
■ Britain: The UK has deployed the HMS Duncan, one of its Type 45 destroyers, to shepherd British-flagged ships through the strait, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement Sunday. It will operate alongside the Royal Navy’s HMS Montrose Type 23 frigate until late August, it said.
■ South Korea: Meanwhile, South Korea is considering sending its Cheonghae naval unit to the strait for participation in a US-led coalition, Maeil Business Newspaper reported Monday, citing an unidentified government official.
South Korea’s 302-personnel Cheonghae unit includes the destroyer Dae Jo-yeong, an anti-submarine helicopter and three speed boats, according to the latest annual defence white paper. It’s been stationed in the Gulf of Aden since 2009 for anti-piracy operations and has also been utilised in recent years to help evacuate South Korea citizens from Libya and Yemen. The unit’s key missions are to protect vessels, support safe passage and participate in maritime security operations, according to the white paper.
A defence ministry spokeswoman, Choi Hyun-soo, said the government is considering ‘various options to ensure South Korean vessels’ safety’ but nothing has been finalised.
■ Denmark: Denmark said on Friday it welcomed a British government proposal for a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and would consider a military maritime contribution.
“The Danish government looks positively towards a possible contribution to such initiative,” Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said in a statement. “The initiative will have a strong European footprint”.
The backing contrasts with a lukewarm response shown by European allies to a similar American call first voiced at Nato in late June, which was resisted by France and Germany. They worried the US-led military alliance would be dragged into a possible confrontation with Iran.
EU-member Denmark is among the world’s biggest seafaring nations and home to the world’s biggest container shipping firm A.P. Moller-Maersk, which sails in the high-tension area.
“The Royal Danish Navy is strong and capable and would be able to contribute actively and effectively to this type of engagement,” said Danish Defence Minister Trine Bramsen.
A final decision would still need to be discussed in parliament.
■ France: France said on Thursday it was not willing to send extra military assets to the Gulf, but would share information and coordinate its currently deployed assets.
■ Germany: Foreign Minister Heiko Maas did not tell lawmakers that Germany wants to take part in a British plan for a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, a ministry spokesman told Reuters on Thursday.
How has Iran reacted?
Iran on Sunday slammed as “provocative” the British proposal for a European-led naval mission. “We heard that they intend to send a European fleet to the .... Gulf which naturally carries a hostile message, is provocative and will increase tensions,” said government spokesman Ali Rabiei. He said Iran believed the security of the Gulf had to be maintained by countries in the region. “We are the biggest agent of maritime security in the ... Gulf,” Rabiei said, quoted by ISNA news agency.
Oman, which shares the waterway with Iran, said it was in talks with “all parties” to restore stability to the waterway. “We don’t mediate, but in this case we are more concerned than others to ensure the stability of navigation,” Foreign Minister Yousuf Bin Alawi said after discussions with Iranian officials in Tehran. Oman has close ties with Iran.