Photo Credit:
The Maersk Tigris
Automated report tracking of Maersk Tigris intercept on 28 April. (Image via @PatMegahan, Twitter)

The post-Pax reality of chokepoint power dynamics

But it won’t be the “concert of nations” they appeal to.  It won’t be the UN, or a world under U.S. leadership, with the U.S. armed forces and American alliances standing behind general guarantees of free and safe passage in global tradeways.


Instead, those who want to continue trading unmolested will have to arrange that with Iran.  Whether the price is a form of fee or tribute, or something more open-ended like support for Iran’s policies, that’s what it means for Iran to exercise a veto over the Strait of Hormuz.  This used to be a common type of extortion, before the Royal Navy drove it out in most of the world’s key chokepoints by the late 19th century.

Iran has been making noises in this direction for several years now.  In 2010, Iranian media reported that forces conducting a naval exercise stopped two ships in the SOH – one French-flagged, one Italian – to perform “environmental inspections,” basically as practice for when Iran would want to exercise a veto in that form.  The Iranian parliament, the majlis, has also several times introduced legislation that would require foreign ships to obtain Iran’s permission to transit the SOH.

Adjusting to a strait held hostage by a local hegemon is not something that would unfold straightforwardly, or along a single path.  The clarity that comes with having a super-hegemon, as the U.S. once was, goes by the wayside when there isn’t one.

It’s not just about the shipping of outside nations, or even of nations inside the chokepoint; it’s about the relations of all the nations around the chokepoint, and the level of resistance they show with each other, or the level of armament and assertiveness they consider necessary.  Outside patrons (like Russia and China) get into the mix.  If a strait is important enough, other major nations (like India and Japan) are motivated to achieve the status of outside patrons.

This isn’t “about” everyone rushing to war or starting to shoot at each other, especially in the Strait of Hormuz.  The nations won’t want to rush to war, at least not with each other.  But now that they can’t count on the United States to keep the SOH open for free and safe passage, geography will look different to them, and force will be seen as more and more necessary.

USS Farragut (DDG-99), first responder on 28 April, 2015 (photographed in the Gulf of Aden in 2010)

That’s one of the chief reasons Saudi Arabia is fighting so hard in Yemen now.  Yemen lies on the Saudi border, yes – but so does Iraq, and the Saudis have been almost entirely silent on events there.  Yemen sits between two of the three straits that ring Saudi Arabia, and from Yemen, Iran can flank Saudi territory and exercise a veto over those two straits.  From Riyadh’s perspective, Iran must be denied a foothold there.

The game, changing

That’s why the Saudis are waging a serious war in Yemen, one in which, just this week, they have twice attacked the main international airport in Sanaa to render it non-operational, so that Iran can’t use it.  This is “war war,” and things are bound to get worse.  The Saudis will destroy as much infrastructure as necessary to deny Yemeni facilities to Iran.


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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.