The Straits of Hormuz;
Globalization, The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the USS Stark Affair


The issues involved in the latest dispute in the Straits of Hormuz immediately seem as though they relate to a straightforward competition which is well underway between Persia and its claims to the leadership of the anti-Western bent within the lands of Islam, and the USA.

Actually, the issue seems much more complicated than that.

It is not exaggerating, of course, to say that blogland, like Oxford, is full of slightly strange people shouting 'and ninthly....' at those captives who did not speed by quickly enough. However, there are clearly at least four issues involved in the latest affair that really should be brought to people's attention.

The reason it has come to prominence, of course, is that yesterday, several Iranian ships were alleged to have threatened American ships. It could all blow up into war either this year or next and a Persian war would be a disaster for just about everyone, even more than most wars are.

The Legal Issue

The first point to note is a rather dry legal one. It involves a cold war hangover, which is of vital importance to the process of globalisation. From 1967 to 1982, the USA worked along with others to produce possibly the most significant trading law of the late twentieth century-the convention on the law of the sea. The idea was to open the trade routes of the world to all states, regardless of claims to national sovereignty. Whilst states would have some control over their coasts, the narrowly defined routes through places like the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Malacca, the Straits of Hormuz, the Torres Straits and elsewhere. The US and UN got their convention, which along with other things deals with seabed mineral discoveries and the right to travel in waters traditionally controlled by states.

The US then failed to join the Convention, preferring to assert its right to sail anywhere and not to be limited in any way. Members of the Senate and those Republicans raised in the Reagan era decided that the treaty was favourable to communist and communist successor states, and placed too much control in international bodies whilst paradoxically defining too tightly the rights of third world countries. Many in the foreign policy establishment disagreed with them.

Some in other countries, especially countries like Canada which are affected by the melting of the northern icecap and the emergence of routes through the North Sea, would like to see trade and mineral discovery regulated. Others agree with the US right and would not.

Nearly 90 per cent of world trade is carried by sea. When the Treaty based on the Convention first started operating in 1994, it was thought that it would both protect the countries that emerged from Empires after 1945--over 100 of the 141 new countries had coastlines or were riparian-- and international trade. The Clinton administration worked as an associated state with the signatories whilst the Senate resisted it.

Recently, the Biden-Lugar Foreign policy Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs in the US has ratified the Treaty and full Senate approval is now being sought. Good news for globalism perhaps, but bad for those who think the US should have a completely free hand.

The Iranian Occupation of the islands of the Straits and the GCC.

The Iranian regime which replaced the Shah after 1980 is currently in occupation of three islands of the Straits has accepted and ratified the UN Convention. However, it did so after occupying Abu Musa Island and the greater and lesser Tunbs. These were islands seized under the Shah or shared with other Gulf states until 1992. It would suit some within the Islamic Republic that Iran should get the benefits of the Strait and the control of the strategic islands whilst provoking a non-signatory from outside to collapse the agreement by militarising the straits. Iran has lined the Straits with silkworm and sunburn missiles and the naval elements of its armed forces have been noticeably belligerent towards any attempts to integrate with the region.

Last year, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which seeks to coordinate six Gulf states and to move towards international law and currency union within the Gulf warned Iran and the USA that it would seek a peaceful settlement to the issue of who could navigate the Straits. The GCC includes Saudi Arabia.

Should Iran therefore stir up trouble, the elements who want no compromise would be vindicated. Those who are not against compromise per se, but who play chess to their advantage (a game Persians invented) would also have the international benefit of the US dealing a huge blow to Saudi Arabia and Europe by shutting the Strait, starting a war and suffering damage whilst Iran sat atop the remaining world oil supplies from the Middle East and, ensconced, could play off a terrified Europe against a split US.

Previous Attacks on US Ships in the Region

The US has suffered attacks from States on its ships in the region before. In 1967, in a still mysterious incident, the USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli war planes in what appears to have been an attempt to draw the USA into the 1967 war. It resisted any retaliation. In 1987, the USS Stark was hit by Iraqi airplanes in the Straits of Hormuz. Since the USA and Iraq were effectively allied at the time, the USA accepted the apology of Saddam Hussein and took no action. 35 sailors lost their lives.

The attacks on the Liberty and the Stark were two of the worst ever peacetime attacks on US ships since world war two. They went unpunished.

In the Straits of Hormuz, between 1984 and 1987, over 300 ships had been attacked in the normal fashion of raids orchestrated by the Iraqis, the Iranians, and from Kuwait. Attacks on ships were a feature of war there and those raised in it would find threatening them normal. The abnormal attack was the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole off Aden by ships associated with Al-Qaeda elements with strong support in Yemen. No attack was ever launched on that state, nor on the Saudi money that had backed Al-Qaeda.

The War Party in the US

The United States is not a monolith. Even within the Bush administration, there are disparate and antagonistic elements. It is fairly clear that a large number of those known as 'neoconservatives' associated with Vice-President Cheney and various right-wing websites are very keen to start a war with Iran. There are others, however, associated with the CIA and the State Department, who are not possessed of that fever. A war would destabilise primary races, probably in favour of Clinton, Giuliani, and McCain, and would force those who supported Obama, Huckabee and Paul (like I did) to consider a security argument. I would tend to dismiss it and to keep supporting them, and their plans to withdraw from war or cut the defense budget; others, particularly citizens with a vote, might not. A conflict in the Straits would therefore be good for the War Party, if a broad term can be used in the USA.

What should be done?

War parties in Iran and America are neutralised by collective action, obfuscation by regional bodies, and cool nerves on the part of the US Navy, which is not associated with Admirals particularly keen on the destruction of their ships by Chinese built missiles. Europeans should involve themselves in supporting the Gulf Cooperation Council whilst China and Russia could restrain Iran.

This latter objective would take advantage of the hold China now has over the US as it commences a quiet revaluation of the Yuan and considers a deployment of the Sovereign Fund in part built up to its present level of over a trillion dollars by US debt. The Russians could also restrain the Iranians, but they may have no interest in doing so because of the coming Kosovo conflict and the US missile Shield in eastern Europe. The Senate should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the US should move to work with others.

The next President of the United States will, if these measures are taken, face a highly dangerous and complicated situation, but not war. If these measures are not taken, we may face oil at $150 a barrel and a devastating Persian War. There is absolutely no need for that.

Comments