Photo Credit:
The Maersk Tigris

This is a significant shift in the character of what’s been going on in the Middle East.  Up to now, the belligerents have been insurgencies and beleaguered central governments.  The wars have inflicted mass-scale destruction, certainly.  But it hasn’t been sovereign states attacking overtly across borders that have inflicted the destruction.  Sovereign states, up to now, have attacked to destroy arms caches (Israel in Syria) or deter ragtag insurgencies (Jordan et al in Iraq and Syria).

Saudi Arabia – along with Egypt, as far as she’ll go – is going to do whatever it takes to defeat the plans of another sovereign state, Iran, in Yemen.  That’s a different order of war.

The Saudi “strait”-jacket. Iran is actively angling for control of two out of three. (Google map; author annotation)

It’s in this context that Iran seized the Maersk Tigris as much to advance her aggressive push toward the Red Sea as to achieve other effects.  The signal Iran is sending is not the one a sleepy West perceives.  It’s not a symbolic fist being shaken at America.  It’s the beginning of a strategy to exercise Tehran’s long-desired veto over the Strait of Hormuz.

The approach, oblique

Iran is keeping the approach oblique: not challenging the U.S. directly, but making it an incident in which U.S. power will be implicated – for better or worse.  It’s a challenge based on a bogus premise, one that’s illegitimate from the standpoint of international convention.  But it’s one that won’t draw fire either.  The seizure of Maersk Tigris is provocative; line-crossing; but without giving anyone an unambiguous justification for shooting back.

Assuming America does not act to enforce international conventions, however, Iran will have proved her point that the conventions are no longer enforced.  Therefore, Iran holds a veto over the SOH now.  She probably won’t take big, disruptive actions quickly.  She’ll try to do things incrementally (watch out for those “environmental inspections”).

But the mullahs will have a new bargaining chip with which to deal a death blow to multinational sanctions.  And the nations of Europe, America’s remaining stalwart allies in sanctions enforcement, are also some of the most concerned about safe passage in the SOH – and about the Iranian alternative to Russia and North Africa as a source of oil and gas.

Wealthy the European nations may be, but not one of them has the power – or the desire – to play the United States’ Pax Americana role and enforce a generalized international-strait regime in the SOH.  They’ll find ways to play ball with Iran, at least for the time being.

In the long run, the post-Pax story of the strait will involve some low-level shooting (which may be a giant headache for some, like the Saudis and the UAE, although perhaps not most Europeans); some bilateral agreements between other nations and Iran – extortion cloaked in amity; some high-level shooting to block Iran’s other moves that are geostrategically integrated with the SOH situation; and fresh efforts (like the notorious Oman pipeline) to reroute trade so that the strait can be avoided.

The shift here is subtle but game-changing; not immediately inflammatory on the order of Germany invading Poland, but destabilizing, and forcing pervasive realignment and adjustment.  Armed force and maneuver will be a big part of that.

The problem of at-risk chokepoints will spread, with Iran’s proof-of-concept move.  The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait between the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea is already in Iran’s sights. The Strait of Malacca is already in China’s (along with the Taiwan Strait, of course).  As fast as things are now moving in the pressure points of the Eastern hemisphere, it is foolish to insist that changes can’t happen in the near future.


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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.