Photo Credit:
The Maersk Tigris

{Originally posted to author’s website, Liberty Unyielding}

The game of international power dynamics has just shifted in a major way.  It will take a little time for the consequences to be visible to the public eye.  But I don’t think it will take that much time.  We’re talking months, at most, if not weeks.  Iran is getting no pushback from the “international community,” and is moving quickly now.

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Two points to take this forward on.  First, the Maersk Tigris, the Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship detained by Iran on Tuesday, is still being held by Iran.  The situation remains unresolved.

Second, the U.S. Navy will begin accompanying U.S.-flagged commercial ships through the Strait of Hormuz (SOH).  This is not the robust use of force it may seem to be, nor is it a repeat of the tanker-escort operation (Earnest Will)* in 1987-88, during the Iran-Iraq war.  It’s a tacit surrender, in fact.

The decision to accompany U.S.-flagged shipping in the SOH is a finger in a dike, and what it actually means is that the international convention that has governed safe transit of the Strait of Hormuz for decades has already collapsed.  Appointing a U.S. Navy escort in the conditions of 2015 is an acknowledgment that there’s nothing we can do about the chaos that is now cracking the pillars of international order.  We can try to protect our own shipping, but there will be no enforcement of a principle of safe passage through international straits, as a basic building block of order among the nations.

The circumstances of 2015 are very different from those of the 1980s.  One of the key ways they’re different is that there has been no war-related threat to Persian Gulf shipping in the 2010s.  Although Iraq is basically in a civil war, there is no war between nations spilling over into the Gulf, and no generalized threat of mine, missile, or air attacks on shipping.

Instead, Iran is breaching the conventions of the Law of the Sea in order to assert a hegemonic veto over shipping in the SOH.**  Iran purports to be at war with no one, and hasn’t claimed a national-defense need to take the unusual and arguably criminal step of detaining a ship exercising the right of innocent passage in an international strait.

Maersk Tigris isn’t an asset of the Maersk Line – the ship’s not owned by Maersk – and neither is the cargo she carries.#  Iran has impounded the assets of innocent third parties, in an alleged attempt to collect a debt from 2005 owed by Maersk because of an Iranian court judgment.

A coastal state’s prerogatives in an international strait don’t give it the right to do this.  In fact, the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) prohibits what Iran did on Tuesday.  The only prerogative it recognizes for a coastal state to stop a ship exercising innocent passage is to enforce national laws which that specific ship may be in violation of.  (See Article 28.)  According to the reason Iran gave for detaining her, Maersk Tigris is a third party in breach of no Iranian law or judgment.

Commentators have been quite correct to point out that this isn’t the way it’s done.  This is a pugilistic power move, characteristic of syndicate crime bosses (and pirates) but not of nation states in the UN era.  It will create a ripple of alarm and loss of confidence throughout the Gulf shipping industry: it will make insurance rates go up, and cause trading and shipping nations to scramble to find a reliable status quo again.

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J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.