Dr. Najam Abbas l

The Persian Gulf has emerged as a major point of contention between different powers specifically the USA and Iran. Relations began to deteriorate since the Trump Administration pulled out of the Iran Nuclear deal in May 2018. The ensuing period has seen a rise in hostilities in the form of sanctions, drone attacks, sabotage of tankers and capture of shipping vessels both in the Persian Gulf as well as the rest of the world’s sipping lanes.

The Chairman of the Russian Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev has voiced concerns that the incident with the UK oil tanker detained by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz gives the US a pretext to expand its military presence in the region. “It is clear by now who is going to use the escalation of tensions in the Strait of Hormuz and in the Middle East on the whole: Pentagon just approved the transfer of troops to Saudi Arabia. The US also announced the development of an international operation aimed to defend the navigation in the Middle East in light of recent events in the Persian Gulf region,” Kosachev wrote. Kosachev added that the speedy preparations of the Sentinel international coalition in the wake of the incident “confirm the assumption that the US was simply waiting for a pretext to expand its military presence in the region, and it finally arrived.”

A report citing Norwegian shipping sources claimed that in the international waters by the Hormuz strait, civilian ships may feel under threat, countries interested in the smooth implementation of oil transportation will call for protection by naval forces led by tactical naval groups. The US and British warships will pose as their backbone. The envisaged areas of constant patrol include the Gulf of Aden, as well as the Straits of Malacca and Oman.

Nikkie Asia Review reminds that the Strait of Hormuz is the most important energy passageway in the world, with a daily oil flow averaging 21 million barrels per day in 2018, or the equivalent of about 21% of global petroleum liquids consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It is especially crucial for Asian economies that are heavily dependent on oil imports from the Middle East.

The US goals amid the current developments were quite evident, wrote the Russian senator pointing out that “Firstly, [the US] needs to stir up tensions around Iran, and Tehran energetically ‘plays along’, in particular with the seizure of a British tanker. Secondly, the key task is to make Iran a problem not just for Washington, which is fixated on that, but for a number of states”. “The recent operation in the Strait of Hormuz has certainly added to the concerns of other important international players, as Germany and France have already expressed their concerns. They are also likely to support the Pentagon’s international maritime operation Sentinel ensuring security of key waterways in the Middle East”.

On 9 July 2019 Gen Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff has announced plans under which US naval forces may lead surveillance efforts for the military coalition in seas off Iran and Yemen. Allies would patrol waters near those US command ships and escort commercial vessels with their nation’s flags. While the US would provide “command and control” ships but the goal would be for other countries to provide vessels to patrol waters between those command ships. The third part of the mission would involve coalition members escorting their countries’ commercial vessels. Dunford said the size of the campaign could be adjusted based on the number of countries that commit to it.  “The expectation is that the actual patrolling and escorts would be done by others,” “So with a small number of contributors, we can have a small mission. And we’ll expand that as the number of nations that are willing to participate identify themselves,” he said.

According to Kosachev, as rattling of the nerves and overbidding will go on, hence the most dangerous will be a factor of chance and its interpretation by the sides along with provocations by third sides,” the United States could not be barred from conducting maneuvers in international waters. Kosachev expects a continuation of this brinkmanship with an equivocal continuation, while hoping that common sense will prevail for both sides’ which he fears is not the most reliable component in the entire configuration.

China, Japan and other countries which all are heavily reliant on the passageway through Hormuz Strait for their oil, “should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey,” Trump wrote on Twitter 24 June 2019. His advice would have only added to the urgency in those countries to determine suitable options for the safety of their ships bring energy supplies vital for their economies. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the United States to avoid any steps that would stoke further tensions with Iran, adding: “Any reckless moves can lead to conflicts fraught with unpredictable and destructive consequences,” Lavrov told German newspaper Rheinische Post.

Head of Russian International Affairs Council, Andrey Kortunov, pointed out that since Washington is an immediate participant in the confrontation in the Persian Gulf today, U.S. naval forces should not form the backbone of the coalition force patrolling the Persian Gulf in the Strait of Hormuz. For the same reason, an international operation, at least at the initial stages, cannot be led by the navies of any regional powers already involved in a confrontation. It is also difficult, given the situation, to imagine that the navies of Iran and Saudi Arabia could interact effectively.

In Kortunov opinion India, China, and Russia could offer their patrolling services, since both India and China are critically dependent on the energy sources transported through the Strait, and Russia could carry out such work thanks to the special role that Moscow plays in the Middle East today. Additionally, such a trilateral initiative would send an important signal to everyone that it is possible in principle to conduct major joint operations involving New Delhi and Beijing and, given the multiple problems in China–India relations, such a signal would not count for nothing. Moreover, joint Russia–India–China actions would give an impetus to reviving the RIC trilateral format. The number of participants in the second stage of operation could be expanded to include the navies of the leading European powers, as well as Japan and South Korea, which also receive a large share of their hydrocarbons via the Strait of Hormuz.

Recommendations for Pakistan

Pakistan should remind the regional and global powers that assuring the interests of coastal states in the region are addressed in even-handed and fair manner will remain a challenge while coordinating the activities between the navies of China and India will not be an easy task. However, such joint deed will allow the two powers to find points to cooperate with each other for larger interest namely peace, stability and prosperity for the Persian Gulf states including Pakistan.

During the US visit, Pakistan’s officials should convey to their hosts in Washington that the only viable way to ease tensions in Persian Gulf is that the US should face up to the concerns of the overwhelming majority of the international community, stop imposing “maximum pressure” against Iran, and create the conditions for the political and diplomatic settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue.

Pakistan’s economy cannot afford oil prices escalating to such a level which will deplete its foreign reserves and will render its recent borrowings from the IMF as inadequate. Pakistan cannot afford to become a party to a fight between neighbours with whom it wishes to maintain equal terms.

Dr. Najam Abbas is a Senior Fellow focusing on Central and South Asia  and a Non resident Research Fellow at the Maritime Studies Forum. He analyzes security issues in the Arabian Sea as well as the overall Indian Ocean Region.