Freedom of navigation must be safeguarded

Iran's attempts to seize a British tanker have increased the need for a coalition to protect international shipping

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 03, 2014 the British warship HMS Montrose is pictured docked in the Cypriot port of Limassol. Three Iranian ships attempted to "impede the passage" of a British oil tanker in Gulf waters, forcing a UK frigate to intervene, the British government said on July 11, 2019. "Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage of a commercial vessel, British Heritage, through the Strait of Hormuz," a UK government statement said of the incident, which occurred yesterday. "HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away," the statement said.
 / AFP / -
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As tensions simmer in the Gulf, international shipping is bearing the brunt. Weeks after four tankers were sabotaged off the coast of Fujairah in May, two more were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The US blamed both incursions on the Iranians, who have repeatedly threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world’s oil passes.

In response to rising tensions, British frigates began escorting commercial vessels through the strait – and on Wednesday, Britain's prudence paid off. When three Iranian ships attempted to "impede the passage" of a British oil tanker in Gulf waters, a warship pointed its guns at the boats and issued verbal warnings to disperse them. Coming after Gibraltar seized an Iranian vessel taking oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions, which triggered threats from Tehran, it is fortunate that this incident ended peacefully.

Nevertheless, we must not underestimate the risk Iran poses to international shipping. If war is to arise, the spark will likely come on the high seas. As a result, the world must come together to de-escalate tensions and protect freedom of navigation in international waters.

Fortunately, while US President Donald Trump escalates his rhetoric to match Tehran's, his military establishment is doing just that. On Wednesday, Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked allies to send ships to the region to safeguard international shipping.

The UAE, for its part, supports a collective, co-ordinated response to protect vessels and counter Iranian threats in the Gulf, as a senior UAE official said this week.

Only a strong coalition can ensure that oil and other commodities flow unhindered. Given the intransigence of Iran and its proxies, it is not a simple task. The Bab Al Mandeb waterway, off the coast of Yemen, is also under threat, having been attacked in the past by Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The coalition must ensure that the Bab Al Mandeb – through which around 4 million barrels of oil pass daily – is also guarded.

It must also support smaller producers in the region, whose economies depend on the flow of oil. This week, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said hostilities had forced his government to draw up alternative export routes.

Just like its proxies, Tehran says one thing and does another. The harassment of the British vessel coincided with talks between Iran and France in Tehran aimed at saving the flawed 2015 nuclear deal. Similarly, the Gulf of Oman attack last month, in which a Japanese vessel was struck, occurred as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran.

The only way to deal with Iran is a co-ordinated strategy of de-escalation, containment and deterrence. While no one wants war, the flow of international shipping – central to the global economy – cannot be disrupted. As events this week have shown, friendly nations must come forward to join America’s maritime coalition.