Haggai Carmon: Attorney and Author

Gunfight in the Strait of Hormuz: Who Will Be Left Standing?

It took only 30 seconds of a gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 to make history, when only Wyatt Earp remained standing at the end of a seven-man gunfight. One hundred thirty years later, is the world facing yet another historic gunfight, this time in the Strait of Hormoz, between Iran and the U.S. and its allies?

On December 27, 2011, Iranian Vice President Reza Rahimi threatened to block the entire oil supply passing through the Strait of Hormuz should the U.S. economic sanctions limit or prevent Iranian oil exports. On Tuesday, January 3, 2012, Iranian Army Chief Ataollah Salehi said the United States moved an aircraft carrier out of the Gulf because of Iran’s naval exercises, and Iran would take action if the vessel returned. “Iran will not repeat its warning… the enemy’s carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf,” he said.

These belligerent statements show that Iran is rattling its saber when its military and political leaders are engaged in an escalating war of words against the U.S. They are saying out loud should the U.S.> and the West continue with the debilitating sanctions — this time hurting Iran’s oil exports, then, they will suffer similar consequences should their oil imports stop.

The strait is a narrow waterway between the Gulf of Oman in the southeast and the Persian Gulf. On the north coast is Iran and on the south coast is the United Arab Emirates and Musandam, an exclave of Oman. At its narrowest point the strait is 34 miles wide.

The strait constitutes one of the world’s most strategically important choke points. About 14 tankers carrying 15.5 million barrels of crude oil pass through the strait daily. In 2011, that amounted to 35% of the world’s maritime oil shipments. The Iranians believe that blocking the strait would allow them to successfully counter the U.S. mega power, in spite of their inferior military force because the U.S. could not logistically bring its superior military power to bear in the narrow strait.

The Iranian’s brinkmanship may be miscalculated. The Strait of Hormuz is not within the territorial waters of Iran. Iran signed the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which defines territorial waters as the belt of coastal waters extending at most to 12 nautical miles from the low-water mark of a coastal state.

Therefore, if Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz it would violate international law, because a naval blockade on the high seas is a breach of the international legal principle of the freedom of navigation. The United Nations Charter, Article 2 (4) prohibits the use of force, subject to an exception under Article 51 of the Charter for the right of a nation to engage in self-defense which can be invoked during an armed conflict. Measures taken by States in the exercise of their right of self-defense are required under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter to be notified to the Security Council. Such notification enables the Security Council to monitor any implications of a naval blockade for international peace. The 1994 San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea provides in paragraphs 10, 67, and 146 useful references in identifying applicable rules. Once a blockade has been lawfully established, the blockading power can attack any vessel breaching the blockade if after prior warning the vessel intentionally and clearly refuses to stop or intentionally and clearly resists visit, search or capture. However, an unlawful blockade is a just cause for a confrontation to break it. Under the present conditions in the strait, Iran has not met the burden of attaching legitimacy to blockading the strait.

From the manner that Iran is escalating its belligerent statements, it is possible that it is seeking to provoke a military conflict with the United States rather than wait for the U.S. to attack its nuclear installations. Therefore, notwithstanding their military inferiority, the Iranians believe they can gain from a limited scale military confrontation. They expect any clashes to be limited and localized to the strait, until the U.N. Security Council intervenes, and the Iranians could declare victory, regardless of the military outcome of the battle. That would be a major miscalculation. The U.S. may regard the naval blockade of the strait as casus belii — a legitimate cause for war, and refuse to limit its operations to the strait, and proceed to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. If such an extended move by the U.S. is taken, then it will also yield a by-product: weakening Syria and Hezbollah, the Middle East cronies of Iran.

The world is anxiously waiting for the next move. If President Obama gives the order, there’s already enough power in the region. The battle group of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis is sailing in the region. Additionally, the U.S. has an impressive presence in the Gulf region: two bases in Kuwait — the Ali Al Salem and Ahmed Al Jaber bases; the Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, and Al Adid in Qatar and the Thumrait in Oman.

Who will blink first? Will Iran act on its warnings and block international waters preventing commercial oil shipments? Will the U.S. move and strike Iran? Whether to attack an enemy militarily is a tough question for every U.S. president, and it’s tougher during an election year. The Iranians are probably gambling on the fact that President Obama will blink first. Iran can’t blink: it has made too many threats to back down unless of course it gets a bloody nose first. Even if the U.S. behaves like the responsible adult, a confrontation might just happen, with only the U.S. left standing.