Zishan Munir |
Although fantastical statements given out by the likes of Donald Trump or corresponding retaliatory statements made by the leadership of Iran make the rounds in daily headlines across media channels, western and otherwise, they provide us with only glimpses of what is a larger geopolitical and geostrategic conflict. Understanding the main factors that plays a permanent role in shaping the foreign policy of ablest countries such as the US and Iran gives us a useful context in helping us grasp the full depth of these issues.
The most important of these factors is the on-ground reality of geostrategic location vis-à-vis important shipping lanes. In the modern world, the greatest amount of global trade occurs in energy. Chief among the sources of energy is oil. Thus, shipping lanes with significant quantities of oil passing through are of great important to the world economy. The Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman is arguably the world’s most important choke point between shipping lanes. It connects energy-hungry economies of further east in Asia, of America and Europe with the oil-rich middle-east.
Importance of the Strait of Hormuz
According to a report1 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “the Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint because its daily oil flow of about 17 million barrels per day in 2015, accounted for 30% of all seaborne-traded crude oil and other liquids”. According to the EIA, about 80% of the crude oil that moved through this chokepoint went to Asian markets, with China, Japan, India, South Korea and Singapore being the largest destinations.
A chokepoint is defined by the EIA as ‘narrow channels along widely used global sea routes, some so narrow that restrictions are placed on the size of the vessel that can navigate through them’. The Strait of Hormuz is 21 miles wide, but the width that allows for ships to pass through is only 2 miles in either direction. On average, 14 oil tankers pass through this strait every day with an equal number returning to pick up new cargo. The latest oil tankers each carry up to 150,000 deadweight tons.
According to the British Petroleum’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2017, Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) exported 3.7 trillion cubic feet per year of LNG in 2016 via the Strait of Hormuz. According to OPEC, Iran has proven oil reserves of over 155,600 million barrels and the Strait of Hormuz is the only viable option available to Tehran for exporting it. Therefore, the economies off all the Gulf States depend on secure shipment through this strait.
Even a temporary blockage of a chokepoint can send oil prices soaring and unsettle the markets. This is why major nations consider securing chokepoints between trade routes a critical part of their energy security policies.
An analysis of the region around the Strait of Hormuz via a geostrategic lens helps us understand how major nations view the significance of this strait and what they are doing to achieve their interests. These trends clarify what dictates maritime and security policy of the countries with key interests in the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.
The US Navy has the most significant presence in and around the Strait. A report by the American Security Project provides an overview of the total US military bases/ facilities in the Middle East. There are at least 28 such facilities, used by American troops for training, supplies, logistics and refueling. Qatar houses the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US base5 in the Middle East, with over 10,000 troops. The facility can accommodate up to 120 aircraft and boasts one of the longest runways in the region. According to the website 379th Air Expedition Wing, an aircraft takes off or lands there every ten minutes. Doha invested over $1 billion during the 1990s to construct the base.
Bahrain also hosts US troops, most notably the US 5th fleet. The 5th fleet9 is responsible for patrolling the seas across the Middle East and includes two carriers, 103 strike aircraft and approximately 20,000 sailors and marines. Besides Qatar and Bahrain, the US maintains the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base (Azraq) in Jordan, the Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, the Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, the Al-Musannah Air Base in Oman. There are military facilities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt as well. In addition to that, a number of facilities are undisclosed to the public.
The US military bases effectively encircle Iran. Tehran, for its part, also maintains and trains two regular naval forces. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp Navy and the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRGCN and IRIN). Both have similar capabilities but the exact number of carriers, if any, and other combat ships remains classified. Tehran’s total naval forces comprises of hundreds of small ships spread throughout the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGCN boasts Fast Attack Crafts (FACs), Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC) and mine layers. The IRIN, on the other hand, maintains a submarine force as well as surface combatants including Corvettes, hovercrafts and patrol crafts. The Iranian Kilo-class submarine has become the signature attack submarine in the Iranian Navy.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force augments Iran’s naval aviation with the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Forces, include several ballistic missile variants that aid the IRIN and IRGCN. Tehran has developed a new 1300-ton attack submarine known as Besat in addition to 14 North-Korean-designed Yono class midget submarines (SSM) as well as dozens of Fateh-class submarines (SSC). Tehran may be surrounded by US military bases but it has a sizable military and naval force of its own which ensures its regional power status.
US Maritime Strategy
A report by the US Navy outlines a ‘cooperative strategy for 21st Century Seapower’. The document concludes with a consensus on the need to do expand a range of integrated forces and partner forces into Carrier Strike Groups and Amphibious Ready Groups; enhance warfighting effectiveness between allies and partners; and conduct sea control and power projection in a more distributed fashion in littoral environments. The strategy puts particular emphasis on prioritizing capabilities of gaining and maintaining access and where needed, denying access as well, in addition to continuous development and integration of unmanned systems. The development of directed energy weapons such as the electromagnetic railguns are also hinted at. Simply put, there is no sign of the US letting up its control over global sea routes.
Iranian Maritime Strategy
The Iranian Navy is focused on its immediate environment, the Strait of Hormuz in particular. Conduction of short to medium range military exercises are aimed at reinforcing its territorial claims over some disputed Islands, such as the Tunb and Abu Musa islands and demonstrating a capability to block the Strait at will. Iran’s military exercises also show a willingness to increase its control of waters in the Caspian Sea. Along with the Caspian Sea, Tehran also intends to increase its influence further North in the Caucasus, a region that had been in the sphere of influence of the historical Persian Empire.
More recently, Iran has made some long-range deployments into the Mediterranean. This may serve a dual purpose. To provide logistical support to Syria and portray itself as a regional power capable of influencing extra-regional affairs. Tehran is also looking to expand its military-industrial complex by increasing production of missiles and submarines. Iran is the only submarine force among the Gulf Nations. SADRA, a heavy shipbuilding company owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp recently built a supertanker, the Sorocaima, for export to Venezuela.
Iran’s clear observable goals are to ensure dominance over the Strait of Hormuz, influence in the Caspian Sea and the Caucuses and be able to project power in the surrounding region as well. Its growing partnership with the likes of China and Russia indicate a willingness to come out of isolation and play its role on the global stage. Tehran appears to have a clear goal of securing it status as a regional power, first and foremost. Influence over neighboring territories is the primary means to achieve this goal.
The foreign and maritime security policy of states around the Strait of Hormuz is dictated by underlying geopolitical realities. This strait is one of the most important shipping routes in the world, with over one-third of total crude oil in the world passing through it each year. The US, a global power with global ambitions aims to maintain is control of important shipping routes via military presence in and around the Gulf of Oman. Iran, on the other hand, aspires to regional power status and hopes to secure neighboring territories. Tehran continues to demonstrate its military prowess through naval exercises.
Zeeshan Munir is currently serving as Manager Operations as Global Village Space. His area of interests are international law, maritime diplomacy and hybrid warfare.