US pours oil into fire in Gulf, mum’s the word for India


The illegal seizure of an Iranian oil tanker off Gibralter by the British Navy on 5th July 2019 is fast acquiring farcical character. Britain acted at the behest of the US; in turn, the US probably acted at the behest of the ‘B Team’. So far, only one top US official has expressed joy over the incident  National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is of course the member-secretary of the B Team. None of the other three members of the B Team  Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu or either of the two Gulf Crown Princes (bin Salman and bin Zayed)) has waded into the controversy.

The original intention behind the
Anglo-American operation was clearly to provoke the Iranians into some
retaliatory action. But Iran refused to be provoked and is biding its time. Had
Iran acted impulsively or rashly, a military conflagration might have ensued,
which would have provided just the alibi for a large-scale US military strike
at Iranian targets. Even Article 5 of the NATO Charter on collective security might
be invoked. The B Team has been angling for just such a window of opportunity.
The US defence secretary’s last visit to Brussels was a mission to rally NATO
support for a military strike against Iran.

Now, Iran is savvy enough to
figure out the Anglo-American game plan. Tehran is indignant and has warned of
consequences, but all in good time. Since Iran refused to be provoked, Britain
made a false allegation that Tehran made an abortive attempt to “intimidate” a
British oil tanker. Tehran, of course, furiously denied the allegation.
Meanwhile, there is a parallel move by the US to assemble a ‘coalition of the
willing’ ostensibly to protect oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, an Iranian
waterway. Therein hangs a tale.

The false allegation by Britain
has been promptly seized by the US Navy to press ahead with its master plan to
establish military escorts for shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. General Mark
Milley, who has been nominated to become chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of
Staff, has bene quoted as saying on July 11 during a testimony before the
Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington that the Pentagon is working to
put together a coalition “in terms of providing military escort, naval escort
to commercial shipping.”

In his words, “I think that that
will be developing over the next couple weeks.” Milley characterised the
project as an assertion of a fundamental principle of “freedom of navigation”,
a coinage Washington uses arbitrarily in its “Indo-Pacific” rule book.

It doesn’t need much ingenuity to
figure out that the US intends to take control of the Strait of Hormuz  although the strait is Iranian-Omani waters
under international law. As the narrowest point of the Strait of Hormuz is
twenty-one nautical miles, all vessels passing through the Strait must traverse
the territorial waters of Iran and Oman. The rights of passage for foreign
vessels under international law will consequently be subject to either the
rules of non-suspendable innocent passage or transit passage depending on the
applicable legal regime.

The topic has come before the
International Court of Justice. The ICJ confirmed the customary international
law rule, used in international navigation that foreign warships have the right
of innocent passage in straits during peacetime, which means that during
peacetime the coastal state could only prohibit the passage of any
foreign-flagged vessel if its passage was non-innocent.

However, the grey area here
(which the US wants to challenge) is that Iran has the legal right as a coastal
state to prevent transit or non-suspendable innocent passage of ships if the
ship that is in engaged in passage through the strait constitutes a threat or
actual use of force against Iran’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, or
political independence, or could be acting in any other manner in violation of
the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United

In strategic terms, therefore, by
precipitating the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker, the US and Britain are
proceeding on a track to create a pretext to challenge Iran’s rights over the
Strait of Hormuz and to take control of the strait. This is also contingency
planning in advance insofar as under international law, if the US were to
attack Iranian territory without a decision of the UN Security Council, the
question would arise whether the provisions for transit passage under UNCLOS
would continue to apply to the Strait of Hormuz or whether Iran could invoke
the laws of war and take action against tankers, especially if they are deemed
to be assisting the enemy.

Suffice to say, it is possible to
see that what might have appeared as a maverick or silly act by Britain off
Gibralter when it seized the Iranian tanker could actually be the tip of a
calibrated project aimed at imposing effectively a naval blockade against Iran.
Indeed, this forms the latest chapter in the US’ ‘maximum pressure’ policy
against Iran.

By the way, a second leg of the
current project is also to seize control of the strategic shipping lanes via
the Bab al-Mandab (off Yemen), which leads to the Suez Canal. (The narrow Bab
al-Mandab connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.) The
US control of the Bab al-Mandab will mean that Iran’s use of the Suez Canal
will come under intense US monitoring. The US has a military base in Djibouti
facing the Bab al-Mandab. (Against this backdrop, the bitterly-fought war in
Yemen falls into perspective, too.)

Of course, all this constitutes
acts that are in gross violation of international law and the UN Charter and
India should keep miles away from the Anglo-American project to impose naval
blockade against Iran on whatever pretext. Indeed, India will be called upon to
take some tough decisions in the period ahead vis-a-vis the emergent situation in
the Persian Gulf.

First and foremost, India should
stay clear of the US-led project to establish military escorts for ships in the
Persian Gulf. There are reports that the Indian Navy has deployed two ships
with helicopters in the Gulf of Oman. Presumably, this deployment will not form
part of the US-led naval flotilla to intimidate and blockade Iran.

Second, there is a strong
likelihood of the US invoking its privileges under the Logistics Exchange
Memorandum of Agreement to gain access to Indian military facilities for the
purpose of refuelling and replenishment of its ships. At the signing of the
LEMOA in 2016, much criticism was expressed by Indian experts that it was a
“strategic mistake”. In an impassioned plea, Bharat Karnad wrote in August
2016: “It (LEMOA) is, perhaps, the most serious strategic mistake made by the
country in its nearly seven decades of independent existence.” Karnad’s
criticism forewarning the serious consequences has turned out to be prescient.

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