The politics of seizing oil tankers

Published: August 15, 2019
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The writer is a PhD candidate at NUST and researcher at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute

The writer is a PhD candidate at NUST and researcher at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute

Arch rivals in the Gulf — Iran and the US with its Arab allies — are entangled in a new geo-strategic competition of seizing and attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. On May 12, four vessels — two Saudi-flagged, a Norwegian-flagged and an Emirati-flagged — were damaged by explosions in Emirati waters, off the port of Fujairah. The US, the UAE and Saudi Arabia seemed convinced that Iran was behind the attack. The UAE presented its findings in the UNSC, but could not convince the council with conclusive evidence to blame Iran. Weeks later, the UK seized an Iranian tanker carrying oil towards Syria, while Iran has seized three oil tankers in less than a month, including a British tanker.

The ongoing tensions have created an enabling environment for the US to further squeeze Iranian influence out of the Strait of Hormuz. In this regard, the US and its allies are trying to establish an international coalition to safeguard the Strait. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the US was working on building a maritime coalition in the Gulf called the “Sentinel”, which would provide better surveillance and intelligence to ships passing through the Strait.

Recently, the US has had discussions with its allies in the Gulf, Asia and Nato countries to join the coalition. Germany refused while some Asian countries appeared reluctant to partake in this American initiative. Senior Iranian officials warned against any attempt to form an international coalition to protect shipping in the Gulf. Iran’s First Vice President said the move would only bring insecurity to the region.

The politics of seizing and attacking oil tankers in the Gulf indicates a greater strategy of the US and its allies. It has painted Iran as a threat to regional peace and stability. The US and Britain have shored up security of their commercial vessels in the region. Britain’s HMS Duncan has joined the Frigate HMS Montrose in the Gulf to protect its vessels along the Strait, while the US has also reinforced its fifth fleet with aircraft carriers carrying B52 bombers. Resultantly, Tehran has been under constant pressure. Overall, this strategy has worked in favour of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. Riyadh and its allies have earned billions of dollars due to the hike in crude oil prices, while their oil tankers are now more secure than ever before.

Keeping in view the ongoing tensions in the Persian Gulf, the American initiative of maritime security is not a need of the hour. The region is already overburdened with dozens of peace and security initiatives. Except for the UN, all other peace and security initiatives by the US and Saudi Arabia have intensified the threat perception of Iran and its allies. For instance, the formation of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) while excluding Iran, Iraq and Syria, increased the threat perception in the Iranian national security paradigm.

The 1,500 miles long coastline of the Persian Gulf makes Iran the largest stakeholder in the maritime politics of the region. Excluding Iran from the proposed American initiative will further add fuel to the fire. It might also disturb the overall commercial activities along the Strait as trade and tensions cannot go side by side. The presence of a US-led maritime Gulf coalition will pose a permanent security threat as any miscalculation from either side can result in a disastrous conflict.

Pakistan cannot turn a blind eye towards its maritime backyard. These developments in the region will have significant diplomatic, economic and security implications for Pakistan. The CPEC’s main focus is on maritime imports and exports. Pakistan will have to come up with a mature and comprehensive plan towards the US maritime initiative in the Gulf. Riyadh might even invite Islamabad to join the initiative. Keeping in mind the geographical proximity, it would be difficult for Pakistan to decide whether it wants to be a part of the initiative. Is Pakistan ready for diplomatic maneuvering amid rising tensions in the Gulf?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2019.

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