Threat level raised to critical in Gulf
Are we heading for a new tanker war in the Gulf? Yesterday, we learned that Iranian boats threatened a British oil tanker — before being driven off by a heavily armed Royal Navy frigate.
At its narrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz is just 21 miles wide. Ships pass through it like cars on a motorway, carrying almost a quarter of the world’s oil production every day. It is the only route out of the Persian Gulf and towards the open seas, where that oil goes on to power the global economy.
To the north is Iran, a proud and ancient country with a military of almost one million members. To the south lies UAE, Oman and Iran’s great rival Saudi Arabia. All allies of the United States, which has two military bases nearby.
Now, this small strip of sea has become the focus of the world’s attention as fears rise of a tanker war with Iran.
It started back in May, when the US announced that it was sending a group of navy ships towards Iran. On 12 May, four oil tankers were attacked just off the coast of the UAE. The US blamed Iran, that denied responsibility.
On 13 June, two more tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. This time, the US released a video which appeared to show members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers. Again, Iran denied that it was behind the attacks.
On 20 June, Iran shot down a US spy drone, which it said was in Iranian waters. The US insisted that it had been in international waters. The US retaliated by launching a cyberattack on Iranian weapons systems.
Then, on Wednesday, boats believed to belong to Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps approached the British Heritage tanker and tried to bring it to a halt as it was moving out of the Gulf into the Strait of Hormuz.
HMS Montrose, a British frigate shadowing the BP-owned tanker, was forced to move between the three boats and the ship, said a Ministry of Defence spokesman.
He described the Iranians’ actions as “contrary to international law”.
Guns on HMS Montrose were trained on the Iranian boats as they were ordered to back off, US media reported. The boats heeded the warning and no shots were fired.
This has chilling echoes of 1987.
Back then, the US and Iran came to blows in the same waters. Ships were attacked, crew members killed and injured.
Before it was over, an Iranian airliner had been shot out of the sky by mistake.
Could it happen again?
It’s a feud that has never gone away and which has flared once more in the wake of Donald Trump’s decision to apply “maximum pressure” after walking away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Once again, the waters either side of the Strait of Hormuz have become the arena in which this almost pathological contest plays out.
On the other hand, 30 years on, the US is far less dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Today, Iran has far more to lose (in terms of imports and exports) from a closure of the Strait. For now, another tanker war seems unlikely. But the fact that neither side really wants an all-out confrontation doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
- Is right to be tough with Iran?
- Is war always wrong?
- Write down a question you have about this story and share it with the class. If no one can answer it, see if you can find it out through your own research.
- Imagine you are advising President Trump. Considering everything you have learned in this article, write down three pieces of advice you would give him at his Monday morning briefing.
Some People Say...
“War is what happens when language fails.”Margaret Atwood, Canadian author
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Tensions in the Gulf have already caused global oil prices to rise, and several airlines have suspended flights over the region. Last month, the US came close to a military response when air strikes were planned against Iranian targets radar and missile batteries. However, President Trump called the attack off at the last moment, saying he had been told that 150 Iranians would be killed. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was proportionate,” he explained.
- What do we not know?
- What will happen next, or whether the tension could turn into a war. Although Trump has generally been against getting the US into messy wars in the Middle East, he has hired more hawkish military generals. His national security adviser, John Bolton, wants a regime change in Iran.
- Based on figures from the start of 2018 by energy analytics firm Vortexa.
- Also sometimes called Persia and, officially, the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations and represents the Shia branch of Islam.
- Saudi Arabia
- Officially, the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia, or KSA. It is the largest country in the Middle East, and represents the Sunni branch of Islam.
- Iranian Revolutionary Guard
- A branch of Iran’s military.
- This was instead of military air strikes, which Trump planned and then bailed out of. It is unclear how effective the cyberattack was.