By: Bahman Aghaee Diba
An Expert in International Law for Sea Affairs
Iran Briefing : The Strait of Hormoz is narrow sea passage which links the Gulf of Oman to the Persian Gulf. Recent threat rhetoric by Islamic Republic officials to close down the Strait of Hormoz in the event that the international community imposes sanction on its oil sector has raised serious concerns about the Strait of Hormoz, which is one of the most important straits for international naval activity. Has Iran practical ability and military capability to seal off the Strait of Hormoz? Under what circumstances might Iran attempt to close down the Strait of Hormoz? What would be the possible reaction of the Arab States of the Persian Gulf? What would be the reaction of those countries which are dependent on the oil and gas exported through the Strait of Hormoz? Has Iran the right, as it is claimed by the Islamic Republic officials, to seal off the Strait of Hormoz in retaliation against countries which might impose sanction on its oil and gas?
From a military perspective, the Strait of Hormoz is a vital route for export and import activity for the regional countries, and it is a vital sea passage for those countries which are dependent on the energy supplies coming from the Persian Gulf. Therefore, any attempt by Iran to seal off the Strait of Hormoz would be considered a clear act of war against oil exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and by those countries which are dependent on the Persian Gulf’s oil and gas such as western European countries, Japan and their allies.
Therefore, it sounds senseless, the Iranian claim that they can close the Strait of Hormoz, which is at its narrowest 50km away from Iran’s coasts, by sinking a few ships.
From a military point of view, Iran’s military strength, specially its naval and air forces, can in no way be compared to the military power of the countries in the Persian Gulf and beyond. Even the United Arab Emirates’ air force is more up to date and modern than that of Iran.
French forces have set up a special unit off the coasts of the Strait of Hormoz to ensure that the Strait of Hormoz remains open, and the U.S. 5th Fleet with its overwhelming air and naval capability has a commitment to keep the Strait of Hormoz unclosed.
For instance, in 1988, in retaliation for mining of oil-carrying tankers by Iran, the American forces waged a battle against Iran, which later became known as Operation Praying Mantis, and seriously damaged Iranian naval forces within a span of few hours.
As a matter of fact, any attempt by Iran to close down the Strait of Hormoz or even to hinder the flow of energy supply from the Persian Gulf, which may take place through attacking international naval routes in order to explode oil and gas pipelines of other countries, not only would be against all international laws but also would amount to the severest possible military reaction by the targeted countries. In such a situation, the pace of the events is so fast that makes it impossible for the international community to find peaceful solution to such dispute.
From a legal viewpoint, those straits used for international naval activities, like the Strait of Hormoz, are subject to the “transit passage” provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which facilitates use of the world’s straits.
According to the law of the treaties, the Iranian government, which is a signatory to the convention but has not yet ratified it, has a legal obligation to observe the provisions of the convention as long as it remains a signatory to the convention.
As a signatory to the convention, Iran has agreed that it fully observes the right to the “transit passage” through the Strait of Hormoz of those countries which have also signed the convention, and it has also accepted to respect the right of the so-called “innocent passage” of other countries in and through the strait.
Iranian officials have recently claimed that the passage of those countries trying to impose sanctions on Iran oil and gas cannot be considered as innocent, thus Iran has the legal right to prevent them from moving through the strait.
However, the following are the legal issues that Iran cannot ignore.
1- Since the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has been for years come into force, the transit passage through the straits which are being used for international naval activity has become part of the international common law and Iran is legally obliged to respect it.
2- The legal regime related to the innocent passage through the straits used for international navigation is dissimilar with the legal regime related to innocent passage through territorial waters, and the coastal states have no right to prevent other countries from moving through the straits.
3- The Strait of Hormoz is divided into three parts. Iran’s territorial water (12 miles from Iran’s coasts), international water and Oman’s territorial water(12 miles from Oman’s coasts). Iranian government cannot make any decision about other parts of the strait even if the decision is made for improving the shipping activities.
4- Major part of the ship’s Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), which separates inbound from outbound traffic to reduce the risk of collision, is located on the Oman’s part of the Strait of Hormoz, and the Iranian government has no legal right to control or seal them off.
Above all, closing the Strait of Hormoz would be ultimately detrimental to Iran itself. Because Iran, like other coastal states of the Strait of Hormoz, is highly dependent on the strait for exporting its oil as well as for importing petroleum products and goods from other countries.
The Iranian government will close the Strait of Hormoz only when it sees no chance of survival, and such an act by Iran would definitely trigger a war in the Persian Gulf.
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