Monday, July 29, 2019

The Current Merchant Shipping Crisis in the Persian Gulf Examined

Military Expert Looks at the Situation Today
Shipping News Feature
PERSIAN GULF – Following the success of our recent piece on the situation with regard to shipping in the region (one of our most read ever), as the conflict escalated after the seizure of the British flagged (but foreign owned and crewed) tanker Stena Impero we asked military tactical expert Ed Nash and lead writer at Military Matters, to give an overview on the current situation. He writes:

’With tensions in the Gulf still aggravated by recent actions such as the seizure of a British flagged oil tanker by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the British Royal Navy has announced that a new Type 45 destroyer, the HMS Duncan, is now on station in the area to support the existing RN frigate there, the HMS Montrose. In a statement the British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, said:

”Freedom of Navigation in the Strait of Hormuz is vital not just to the UK, but also our international partners and allies. Merchant ships must be free to travel lawfully and trade safely, anywhere in the world. I’m pleased that HMS Duncan will continue HMS Montrose’s fine work in helping to secure this essential route.

”While we continue to push for a diplomatic resolution that will make this possible again without military accompaniment, the Royal Navy will continue to provide a safeguard for UK vessels until this is the reality.”

The move comes on the heels of the reaction by the Iranians to the British proposal for the EU to dispatch a naval force to protect shipping in the Gulf from hostile action. However of late commentators in and around the Royal Navy have been openly critical when the British government has missed its own opportunities to help avoid a situation they believe was always likely to develop.

These critics say the seizure of a vessel carrying Iranian oil off Gibraltar was bound to bring reprisals, yet in April two 815 NAS Wildcat helicopters, part of the decade long Operation Chobdahar, dedicated to piracy duties and based in Oman near to where the Stena Impero was taken, were withdrawn from the country. These craft could carry the new Martlet missiles, tested earlier this month and which successfully hit a fast moving skiff during a trial off the Welsh coast.

Rapid deployment of such weaponry would go a long way to dissuade any similar attacks. As stated the Ministry of Defence now intends to shadow every British flagged merchant vessel as they pass through the Strait of Hormuz and beyond to prevent any further seizures. Thoroughly denouncing the plan for the EU to join in supporting British forces, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said that:

”We heard that they intend to send a European fleet to the Persian Gulf which naturally carries a hostile message, is provocative and will increase tensions.”

This occurs while emergency talks are ongoing in Vienna to try to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was agreed in 2015 to stop Iranian production of nuclear material that could potentially be used in nuclear weapons.

However, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, Abbas Araghchi, has made a clear link between the tanker row and Iran’s apparent intention to resume operations of a heavy water reactor, critical for the production of plutonium, which the deal had seen mothballed. Araghchi said on Iranian state TV:

"Developments have occurred, such as the seizure of the tanker carrying Iranian oil in Gibraltar , which in our view is considered a breach of the JCPOA. Countries party to the JCPOA must not create any obstacles in the way of Iran exporting its oil."

Though the addition of a new, and powerful, warship for protection will be welcome news to the freight community and ship owners, it is unlikely that many of the concerns of crews, and the maritime unions that represent them, will be assuaged. The situation would have likely not escalated had the Gibraltarian authorities released the Grace 1 after her detainment, with a guarantee she would not sail for Syria with her cargo of Iranian oil.

The delicacy of the situation is complicated by the fact that considerable pressure is now coming to bear on the Iranians as US sanctions start to bite. According to Chinese customs data, oil imports from Iran sank almost 60% in June from a year earlier. So far Chinese imports of Iranian crude are down 30% for the first six months of this year.

Additionally the Americans and Iranians continue to compete against one another throughout the region, not just in the Gulf. The US has made it plain that they have no intent on leaving Syria and Iraq until Iranian forces and influence have been removed.

Now there is potential overspill as Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) reports that one of its soldiers was killed in clashes on July 26 with a number of ‘anti-revolutionaries’ near the western border with Iraq, thought to be Kurdish rebels.

As pressure continues to mount on Iran, a natural method of striking back is via attacks on the critical oil shipments that stream through the Gulf constantly. Any shipping in the area needs to be fully alert to the threat, and there is a real risk of the conflict worsening given the myriad factors which have both direct and indirect effects on the complex political and military relationships in the region.’

Photo: A Martlet missile at the moment of firing heads for a fast moving target beyond visual range.

Profile: Ed Nash is an English writer with a first class degree in Military History. As well as writing extensively on a range of conflicts, his book ‘Desert Sniper’ about his personal experiences fighting ISIS whilst serving with the Kurdish militia, has been called ‘the perfect book for those who wish to see war from the inside’ by no less than Roman Polko, acting chief of Biuro Bezpieczeństwa Narodowego and former commander of Poland’s leading special forces unit Jednostka Wojskowa 2305 (JW GROM).