‘Threats-counter threats’and ‘tweets-counter tweets’ between United States and Iranianleaders have reignited fears of a clash between the two protagonists. Amid soaring tensions, United States and Iran have upped the antein the Persian Gulf and ordered their naval forces to respond to any attempt by the opposite force should they be threatened.
It all began after a flotilla of nearly a dozen boats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) made “dangerous and harassing approaches” against the US Navy and coast guard ships operating in the Gulf region. On 15 April, Iranian boats came within “50 yards of the USS Lewis B. Puller and within 10 yards of the bow of the Coast Guard cutter Maui”. The US Navy described these maneuvers “unsafe and unprofessional” and accused the Iranian vessels of “repeatedly crossing the bows and sterns of the U.S. vessels at extremely close range and high speeds...” Attempts to establish communication contact with the boats failed and according to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, theIranian vessels departed the area after nearly an hour-long uneasyand anxious exchange.
The above incident invited a sharp tweet from President Donald Trump; “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” As anticipated, the counter-tweet by Major General HosseinSalamiread; “Iranian naval forces have been ordered to target any US "terrorist" vessels or warships should they harass Iranian civil or military vessels”.
This type of naval rendezvous is not new and in the past, in January 2017, USS Mahan, a U.S. Navy guided-missile naval destroyer had fired three warning shots at Iranian fast boats operating in the Strait of Hormuz after they came within 900 yards (800 meters) of the ship.At that time, aWhite House spokesman had warned that the actions of Iranian vessels was “not acceptable given that the USS Mahan was operating in international waters,”
There are at least three important issues related to the current standoff and merit elaboration. First, the US military buildup in the region. Ever since the US and Iranian missile strikes at each other after the assignation of General QasemSoleimani in January 2020, the US had been reinforcing its strike capability in the region through deployment of military aircraft in the region and operational exercises and training of US forces. In March, the US Navy and Air Force conducted coordinated exercises involving patrol ships, P-8A Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft and AC-130 gunshipsthat are armedwith 30mm Gatling gun and precision-guided munitions.
At the time of the current standoff on April 15, the US forces were practicing coordinated operations with Army AH-64E Apache tank-busting attack helicopters. The Apaches helicopters can fire Hellfire laser-guided missiles or shoot guns are not only potent but most suitable for strafing smaller boats compared to surface ships who may have difficult in trying to hit a fast boat that is making sharp and rapid manoeuvers on the water.
Second, Iran launched a satellite called Nouronboard an unknown satellite launch vehicle Qassed about which not much is known in open sources or heard of about before. It is still not certain if it is for military (intelligence gathering system) use or just an earth observation satellite. Major General Hossein Salami, the head of the IRGC has stated that Iran has made a “major breakthrough in the field of expanding territory and strategic intelligence …The deployment of this multi-purpose satellite in space, both in the field of information technology and intelligence battles, can produce strategic added value for us, and in intelligence warfare, it creates powerful grounds for us.” however, IRGC Aerospace Force commander Brig-Gen Amir-Ali Hajizadeh tweeted that the launch was for peaceful defence purposes. US Secretary of State Pompeo was obviously not convinced and said that the United Nations should evaluate if the launch by “a terrorist [organization]” was “consistent with that Security Council resolution”.
Third, is about Straits of Hormuz. It is not surprising that Iran issued its usual threat of blocking the Strait which has been the feature of the earlier standoffs between the US and Iran. The IRGC Navy Commander Rear Admiral AlirezaTangsiri has hinted that “If Iran’s benefits in the Strait of Hormuz, which according to international rules is an international waterway, are denied, we will close it,”
This is despite the fact that demand for crude oil is low, price of oil has tumbled andthere is a near glut in the international market. The land based storage tank capacity has touched the brim, and countries and companies are now renting empty vessels for storage. As of 01 March 2020, nearly 153 million barrels of oil was in storage onboard ships and the cost of renting a supertanker is about US$4.50 per barrel/month i.e. US$9 million for an average-size tanker holding 2 million barrels.There are at least 60 supertankers holding nearly 160 million barrels of oil onboard.
The ongoing tensions come amid the global Corona-19 pandemic in which both sides are badly affected by the virus. There is huge loss of life in both countries, yet, the protagonists are not willing to surrender their strategicambitions and the past animosity continues to simmer and may even get further aggravated.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is a Consultant, Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.