Will Iran Block the Hormuz Strait?
by Ali Omidi
December 26, 2011
Last week, Seumas Milne opined in an analysis in the Guardian that "for
months the evidence has been growing that a US-Israeli stealth war against
Iran has already begun, backed by Britain and France". He believed that
instances of crippling sanctions, covert support for Iranian armed
opposition groups (PJAK), assassination of Iranian scientists, cyber
warfare, and so on, are testament to this claim. On December 13, a renowned
Iranian columnist argued in Kayhan Daily that Iran should get ready for
selective blocking of the Strait of Hormuz.
Strait of HormuzHussein Shariatmadari, a top conservative analyst who
usually reflects the Iranian Supreme Leader's viewpoints, argued that
animosity from the West towards Iran is getting to a critical point which
required a tough reaction, such as depriving the enemies of use of the
Strait of Hormuz. He clearly recommended that in the case of sanctions
affecting the Iranian Central Bank or a likely embargo on the purchase of
Iranian crude oil, Iran should immediately react by blocking the Strait of
Hormuz against the enemies.
Such threats are understandable from an economy which is 80% reliant on oil
exports. Iran's supreme leader had already warned that "Iran is not a nation
to sit still and just observe threats from fragile materialist powers that
are being eaten by worms from inside"; he cautioned that the attackers
should prepare for "strong blows and the steel fists" of the military, the
Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia. Such warnings are murmured every
day in the Iranian mass media.
Meanwhile, the US Senate has unanimously approved a new round of economic
sanctions on Iran, targeting the country's central bank and oil industry,
despite warnings from within the White House that the move could backfire.
The measures, passed by 100 votes to nil, would ban foreign firms from doing
business with the Iranian Central Bank. This measure was confirmed by the
House by the overwhelming votes of 410-11 and 418-2. Before it can become
law, it must be approved by the House and President Barack Obama, although
the latter will most likely tread warily in an election year.
The European Union has also recently agreed to impose fresh sanctions on 180
Iranian officials and firms involved in Tehran's nuclear program. The
Ministers and the Summit meeting in Brussels have agreed to work on
additional measures that target Iran's energy sector. They failed to reach
agreement to impose an oil embargo against Iran, but the issue has only been
suspended until next January. Japan has also joined the sanctions club
against Tehran and decided to extend its sanctions which now amount to a
total of 267 organizations, 66 individuals and 20 banks under embargo. South
Korea has since announced that it will join other Western Powers in
In a counter move, Iran's top decision-makers propose closing the Strait of
Hormuz. In this regard, the Iranian legislator, Parviz Sarvari, told the
student news agency ISNA: "Soon we will hold a military maneuver on how to
close the Strait of Hormuz. If the world wants to make the region insecure,
we will make the world insecure." Maybe the practicality of such a threat is
questionable but even making such statements is a threat to the fragile
economy of the West, especially the US. It appears that explosives have been
stockpiled in the region; and it just needs a match now being prepared by
hawks in the US, Britain and even in Iran.
The reason why Iran is bolding the Strait of Hormuz recently and the West
hesitates to apply the so-called crippling sanctions is because the Strait
of Hormuz has unique strategic advantages which affect the world economy and
1. The Strait of Hormuz is the only waterway through which eight littoral
states of the Persian Gulf have access to international waters.
2. On average, every ten minutes, a giant oil ship passes through this
3. Nearly 90 percent of oil exports stem from the Persian Gulf and
ocean-going ships carrying oil have to pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
4. More than 40 percent of world oil demand is supplied from the Persian
5. The weapons purchased by the littoral states in the Persian Gulf from the
United States and other European countries reach their destination by
passing through the Strait of Hormuz
6. The United States Energy Information Institute predicts that by 2020 the
volume of oil exports passing through the Strait of Hormuz will increase to
35 million barrels per day.
Iran believes that its likely enemies have to know that they do not possess
all the chess pieces; if Tehran is due to be deprived of its oil exports or
faces paralyzing sanctions the Strait of Hormuz will be made less available
to the tankers and ships carrying commercial goods or weapons from and to
The legal foundation on which Iran may proceed is the Geneva Convention on
the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (1958). Although Iran is also
one of signatories of Law of Sea Convention (1982), it has not ratified it
yet, so it is not binding for Tehran; but the 1958 Convention is.
Article 14 of the Geneva Convention (1958) stipulates: "Subject to the
provisions of these articles, ships of all States, whether coastal or not,
shall enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea."
The Section 4 of the same Article states: "Passage is innocent so long as it
is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal
State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with these articles and
with other rules of international law."
It is also stipulated in the Section 1 of Article 16: "The coastal State may
take the necessary steps in its territorial sea to prevent passage which is
The Section 3 of Article 16 reads: "Subject to the provisions of paragraph
4, the coastal State may, without discrimination amongst foreign ships,
suspend temporarily in specified areas of its territorial sea the innocent
passage of foreign ships if such suspension is essential for the protection
of its security. Such suspension shall take effect only after having been
Those principles have been repeated in the articles 17 to 23 of the 1982
Convention on Law of Sea, with minor modifications. But the latter made a
fundamental change on the ruling governing international straits which
Tehran has not yet accepted.
As those articles (of the Geneva Convention) indicate: ships which are
crossing the Strait of Hormuz would only be allowed, if the "security,
order, comfort and rights of littoral state (here Iran)" is considered and
the innocent passage of the ships should be verified. Section 4 of Article
14, and Section 1 of Article 16 of the Geneva Convention (1958), emphasize
that verifying the status of innocent passage of ships through the waterway
(here the Strait of Hormuz) is up to the coastal state (Iran).
For those reasons, Iranian politicians concerned about the possibility that
Iran's oil exports may be disrupted by the United States, the European
countries and their Asian allies such as Japan, question whether the passing
ships carrying oil for those countries can be accounted as "innocent".
Tehran believes that the answer is definitely no. Iran indicates that it has
a legal right to block the enemy's vessels, thereby preventing the
assumption of power to threaten Iran. The passage of vessels belonging to
the likely enemies through Iranian territorial waters, especially military
vessels and those carrying armaments, is considered prejudicial to a coastal
state's (Iran) security and that blocking them is an Iranian inalienable
It may be reasoned that such blocking would only be temporary, but even if
temporary it would be disastrous for the world economy and peace, which
unfortunately the hawks are careless about. The trend of events support
Seumas Milne's assertion that two ideologically opposed sides are engaging
in brinkmanship, with the potential of proceeding to crippling sanctions or
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RDr. Ali Omidi is Assistant Professor of International Relations in the
University of Isfahan, Iran Read more articles by
> Ali Omidi.
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Received on Mon Dec 26 2011 - 15:52:01 EST