After months of increasing tension between Iran and the US, on Tuesday the Morrison government committed a warship, surveillance aircraft and about 200 troops to a US-led convoy to protect ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
But why is this small passage – just 39km across at its narrowest point – so important to the international oil trade and why has it become the stage for the growing conflict between the two powers?
And, more to the point, where is it?
Click through our interactive below to get everything you need to know about the Strait and the events that led to Australia’s involvement.
Just when we thought Australia was getting serious about shifting priorities away from the Middle East to its own neighbourhood, the prime minister has announced another Middle East step up. Australia has committed a warship, surveillance aircraft and defence personnel to help keep the Strait of Hormuz open for shipping.
Australia has a defence force of about 60,000 full-time uniformed personnel and 25,000 in the reserves. So this commitment of about 2,250 personnel is sustainable, for now, as long as security challenges closer to home don’t rapidly escalate.
This also means the operational tempo of border protection or any of the other ongoing operations is not expected to decrease as a result of this commitment. Some of these elements, notably Operation Manitou, will perform more than one role.
Operation Manitou is the Royal Australian Navy commitment of one warship to the Combined Maritime Forces (with 32 participant nations) that operate in and around the Persian Gulf. Australian warships have been doing this on rotation for the best part of 30 years.
Similarly, the Royal Australian Air Force P8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft have been operating intermittently out of the Persian Gulf for years. The extra defence planning personnel announced likely will be drawn from a pool already assigned to support Australian operations, notably attached to US military headquarters semi-permanently based in and around the Gulf.
To be fair, it is not a token contribution. The warship and P8 are capable platforms that have made a tangible difference in the past in countering piracy, smuggling and related security concerns in the Persian Gulf. And, as the prime minister reminded us, the Gulf is the source of much of Australia’s oil.
So, while not a token contribution in one sense, it is not a significantly onerous addition to what Australia has been contributing there for a long time.
However, in international diplomacy, words matter, and small contributions can have significant effects. No doubt, Australian policymakers were mindful of making a contribution that would satisfy the US after declining Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s suggestion to base intermediate-range and potentially nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Australia.
While Australia can sustain this new commitment without a significant surge, there is growing recognition that committing forces to operations in the Middle East detracts from the ability of the ADF to focus on high-priority areas closer to home.
The 2016 Defence White Paper referred to three strategic defence interests. These are: a secure and resilient Australia; a secure nearer region (including the Pacific and Southeast Asia) and a stable Indo-Pacific region; and a rules-based global order.
But China’s increasing illiberalism and regional assertiveness across Southeast Asia and into the South Pacific have generated considerable unease over spreading ourselves too thinly.
My own geostrategic SWOT analysis for Australia points to the need for a more holistic consideration of issues related to looming environmental catastrophe (affecting biodiversity and societal sustainability), a spectrum of governance challenges (such as cyberterrorism and organised crime) and great power contestation.
That paper calls for, among other things, a national institute for net assessment to weigh up how best to respond.
In essence, the prime minister has deftly handled the call for a commitment in solidarity with the United States. But the Strait of Hormuz issue is only one of many looming security challenges. Its emergence at the top of the news pile points to the need for a significant and far-reaching re-examination of our defence and security posture and priorities.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that Australia will lend military support to protect shipping in the Middle East.
The commitment has been long expected, with Australia sending a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff as part of a US-led coalition in the Strait of Hormuz, amid deepening tensions between the US and Iran.
So what is this conflict about, what is Australia’s involvement, and what are the risks associated with it?
What is the Strait of Hormuz?
The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow body of ocean connecting the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Its width varies, but at its narrowest is 39km. It is the main passage for transporting oil from the Middle East out into the Indian Ocean and beyond; a fifth of the world’s oil is shipped through this strait. This includes 15-16% of crude oil and 25-30% of refined oil that is destined for Australia.
Iran and Oman border the Strait of Hormuz. As the littoral states, they have sovereignty over the waters in the Strait of Hormuz, but that sovereignty is subject to navigational rights enjoyed by all states. Ships from all countries have the right to move continuously and expeditiously through these waters without interference from either of the coastal states.
What is the conflict between Iran and the US about?
In recent weeks, Iran has seized the Stena Impero, a British-flagged commercial tanker, as well as a US drone. It also boarded but released a Liberian-flagged, British-owned vessel. These actions have heightened concerns about navigational rights through the strait and the consequences for global oil supply.
Shipping has previously been threatened within the Persian Gulf and along the Strait of Hormuz, especially during the Iran-Iraq war. This conflict was also known as the Tanker War because of the threats to commercial ships transporting oil out of the Gulf. It resulted in the United States and other neutral states providing naval escorts and conducting convoys to protect shipping.
What is Australia’s involvement?
Australia has announced it will be joining an “International Maritime Security Construct” that is focused on ensuring the freedom of shipping lanes and commercial navigation.
This international presence is intended to respond to incidents and threats as they occur during passage through the strait. The prime minister has announced that Australia’s involvement is limited in terms of time and resources and emphasised the importance of de-escalation.
A legal difficulty for Australia is that this sort of convoy relies on a doctrine that is associated with the law of naval warfare, and so would usually only apply if there is an armed conflict between states. Australia is instead maintaining the view that its warships are also exercising their navigational rights through the Strait of Hormuz.
The new mission is cast as an enhancement of previous contributions to counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations. However, these operations have been directed at non-state actors, rather than the naval forces of another country. Iran may claim that their presence constitutes an unlawful threat of the use of force.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instead decided to join the US-led mission. In joining this effort, Australia has emphasised the importance of its multilateral nature. This matters when it is recalled that the oil tankers concerned are typically flagged to a wide variety of states, are owned by nationals from other states, might be chartered by companies from different states and are frequently crewed by nationals from diverse states.
As a result, far more countries than just Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have stakes in these issues.
How does it affect the global oil trade?
The prospect of oil tankers being seized in the Strait of Hormuz will likely increase the insurance premiums on shipping. In addition to seizing ships, Iran has threatened to close the strait.
Concerns also exist that Iranian military forces might hinder passage, or might go so far as mining the strait. Any of these scenarios poses a risk to global oil supply and even the prospect of these actions causes a jump in crude oil prices.
Given that over 90% of the world’s traded goods are carried by ship, every country has a strong reciprocal interest in ensuring freedom of navigation. Iran is using one of the main political tools it has at its disposal to exert pressure in response to current US policies.
Preventing escalation should be the prime concern of all actors and would be the most mutually beneficial outcome.
Australia will commit a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff to an American-led freedom of navigation operation in the Middle East.
Scott Morrison, announcing the long-expected commitment at a Canberra news conference on Wednesday, stressed this was an international mission, but so far the United Kingdom is the only other country to have signed up.
Under questioning, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, said the operation would be United States-led. But Campbell avoided spelling out in detail the rules of engagement in the event of being involved in an incident, other than referring to legal obligations.
Iran has seized ships in recent months, amid escalating tensions.
This week, an Iranian oil tanker was released after being detained by the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on suspicion of taking oil to Syria. The US tried unsuccessfully to have Gibraltar extend the vessel’s detention.
Morrison said Australia had made very clear both to the US and the UK “that we are here as part of a multinational effort”.
“This is a modest, meaningful and time-limited contribution …to this international effort to ensure we maintain free-flow of commerce and of navigation,” he said.
“Australia will defend our interests, wherever they may be under threat, we will always work closely with our international allies and partners.”
Morrison emphasised that the safety of shipping lanes was vital to Australia’s economic interests.
The government had been concerned over incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, he said. “30% of refined oil destined for Australia travels through the Strait. It is a threat to our economy.”
The Australian contribution will be
a P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft for one month before the end of 2019;
an Australian frigate in January 2020 for six months; and
ADF personnel to the International Maritime Security Construct headquarters in Bahrain.
One complication for Australia in finalising the commitment was the fact there was no Australian frigate in the area, with the next deployment not due until January.
Australian ships participate in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.
The Americans were very pressing in their request to Australia to join the force, including in public statements during the recent AUSMIN talks.
Morrison has emphasised Australia wants to see the de-escalation of tensions in the area and separates its commitment to the freedom of navigation operation from America’s other activities in relation to Iran.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated Australia will join a multinational peacekeeping force to protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf, but at this stage he has not indicated what form Australian participation might take.
Speaking to reporters after a conversation overnight with newly-installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Morrison said Australia was “looking very carefully at an international, multinational initiative” to provide a peacekeeping role.
But given recent experience of Australia too hastily joining an American-led Iraq invasion of 2003, with disastrous consequences, Morrison and his advisers need to ask some hard questions – and set clear limits on any Australian involvement.
It is not clear the extent to which the prime minister and his team have interrogated the risks involved before acceding to an American request for some form of military contribution to policing one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.
Options include sending a warship or warships to join peacekeeping patrols under American command, or stationing surveillance aircraft in the region to monitor ship movements through the Strait of Hormuz.
The operative words in the above paragraph are “American command”.
Any peacekeeping mission might be presented as a multinational exercise, but in effect the preponderance of American power, including an aircraft carrier battle group, means Americans would be in command.
In the Iraq invasion of 2003, Australians operated under broad American oversight, as did the British at considerable cost to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation.
This is not an argument against Australian involvement in protecting a vital sea lane through which passes one-third of the world’s seaborne tradeable oil every day. Rather, it is to make the case for extreme caution.
Morrison and his team need to ask themselves whether there is a risk of being drawn into an American exercise in regime change in Iran. What might be the limits on Australia’s involvement should hostilities broke out in the Gulf?
What would be the rules of engagement? What might be an exit strategy?
What, for example, would be Australia’s response if a warship involved in a peacekeeping exercise was damaged – or sunk – in a hostile act? This includes hitting a mine bobbing in the Gulf waterway, or a limpet mine stuck on the side of a vessel.
What would Australia’s response be in the case of a surveillance aircraft or drone being shot down if it strayed into Iranian airspace?
In other words, there are multiple possibilities of conflict escalating given the concentration of firepower that is planned for the Gulf.
The aim of any international mission to which Australia attaches itself should be to de-escalate tensions in the world’s most volatile region. A military presence cannot – and should not – be detached from a political imperative.
That imperative is to draw Iran back into discussions on a revitalised Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under this 2015 plan, the Iranians agreed to freeze their nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.
Iran was complying with that agreement before US President Donald Trump recklessly abrogated it in 2018 and re-applied sanctions. These have brought Iran’s economy to its knees.
Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA against the wishes of the other signatories, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, was as inexplicable as it was damaging.
Now, the world is facing a crisis in the Gulf of American making, and one that Washington is asking its allies to police.
Morrison has been equivocal about the JCPOA. He would be well advised to reiterate Australia’s backing for the agreement as a signal to the Americans that Australia stands with its allies in its support of international obligations.
These cannot – and should not – be ripped up at the whim of a president who seems to have been motivated largely by a desire to undo the useful work of his predecessor.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this has been an act of self-harm to American interests and those of its allies. It is a crisis that need not have occurred.
Viewed from the distance of Canberra, Morrison and his advisers might have difficulty fully comprehending the risks involved in a potential escalation of tensions in the Gulf.
In a useful paper, the International Crisis Group warns of the dangers of an escalation of hostilities due to a mistake or accident in a highly charged environment.
As Iran Project Director Ali Vaez puts it:
Just as in Europe in 1914 a single incident has the potential of sparking a military confrontation that could, in turn, engulf the entire region.
What should be kept in mind in all of this is that it is not simply stresses in the Gulf itself that are threatening stability, but a host of other Middle East flashpoints. These include ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and heightened tensions between Iran and a Sunni majority led by Saudi Arabia.
Then there is the drumbeat on Capitol Hill. Hawkish Republican lawmakers agitate for pre-emptive strikes against Iran in the mistaken belief such an exercise would be clinical and short-lived.
Further destabilisation of the entire region would result, and possibly all-out war.
The ICG is urging America to redouble its efforts to establish a dialogue with Iran to bring about a resumption of negotiations on a revised JCPOA. This would require Washington making a down payment in good faith by easing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.
It is not clear the Trump administration would be willing or able to make these concessions.
Morrison could do worse than argue the case for “redo” of the JCPOA when he is in Washington next month on a state visit.
Scott Morrison has flagged the government is working with the United States and Britain on details for an Australian role in helping safeguard shipping passages in the Middle East.
Morrison told a news conference in Townsville on Thursday he had spoken to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night and “indicated to him that we were looking very carefully at our participation in this initiative”.
Morrison stressed it would be a multinational operation.
This is not a unilateral initiative by any one country, and it is about safe shipping lanes, it is about deescalating tensions and making sure that the current situation does not worsen.
He said the government had not “made any decisions on this yet. We want to be fully satisfied about the operational arrangements that are in place”. It was very early days and it would be a while before things came together.
In practice though, the government has obviously agreed in principle, subject to satisfactory arrangements being worked out. Its role is somewhat complicated, however, by the fact it does not have a ship in the region.
The US’s request for Australian assistance was discussed at the weekend AUSMIN talks.
Morrison said there were other countries which were in a similar position to Australia – “engaging before making any full decisions”.
He stressed the maritime issue “should be clearly divorced from the broader issues that relate to Iran and the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal that the US pulled out of last year].
“That’s a separate issue. This is about safe shipping lanes and ensuring that we can restore at least some stability to what is a very unstable part of the world at the moment,” Morrison said.
“There has been a very disturbing series of events that we’ve seen in the Straits of Hormuz, and freedom of navigation and safe shipping lanes is very important to the global economy and that is a matter that is as important in that part of the world as it is in many other parts of the world.”
China hits back at Liberal chair of security committee
The Chinese authorities have accused Liberal MP Andrew Hastie of “Cold-War mentality and ideological bias”, after he drew on the example of France’s “catastrophic” failure to comprehend the threat of a rising Nazi Germany in an article warning about the dangers from a rising China.
The West once believed that economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China. This was our Maginot Line. It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940. But their thinking failed catastrophically. The French had failed to appreciate the evolution of mobile warfare. Like the French, Australia has failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbour has become.
Even worse, we ignore the role that ideology plays in China’s actions across the Indo-Pacific region. We keep using our own categories to understand its actions, such as its motivations for building ports and roads, rather than those used by the Chinese Communist Party.
The West has made this mistake before. Commentators once believed Stalin’s decisions were the rational actions of a realist great power.
Hastie referred to action Australia had taken such as foreign espionage legislation and more closely monitoring infrastructure.
But “right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities — our little platoons — then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy said in a statement:
We strongly deplore the Australian federal MP Andrew Hastie’s rhetoric on “China threat” which lays bare his Cold-War mentality and ideological bias. It goes against the world trend of peace, cooperation and development. It is detrimental to China-Australian relations.
History has proven and will continue to prove that China’s peaceful development is an opportunity, not a threat to the world.
We urge certain Australian politicians to take off their “colored lens” and view China’s development path in an objective and rational way. They should make efforts to promote mutual trust between China and Australia, instead of doing the opposite.
Morrison played down the Hastie comments, noting he was a backbencher not a minister.
We will continue to work to have a cooperative arrangement with China. Of course, there is much to be gained from that relationship, particularly from the trade side, but let’s not forget that relationship is far broader than just the economic one.
But equally, our relationship with the United States is a very special one indeed and there is a deep connection on values and that’s of no surprise to anyone.
So we believe we can continue to manage these relationships together, but I don’t think anyone is in any way unaware of the challenges that present there.
The federal government is expected soon to approve a commitment in response to the United States’ request for allies to help protect shipping as tensions with Iran remain high.
Speaking at a joint news conference after the AUSMIN talks, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds on Sunday said the government was giving the request “very serious consideration”.
Although Reynolds said no decision had yet been made, it would be highly unlikely the request would not receive a favourable answer.
Meanwhile, on Sunday it was reported that Iran state TV said the country’s naval forces had seized another foreign tanker and that seven sailors had been detained. The Iranians said the vessel, carrying 700,000 litres of fuel, was smuggling the fuel to Persian Gulf Arab states.
It is not clear what form Australian assistance would take.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said, when talking about a possible request, “it’s not unheard of to have Australian frigates in that part of the world engaged in maritime operations”.
However Australia does not currently have a ship in the region. An alternative would be to help with aircraft.
Reynolds said the Australian government’s position was very clear.
“We are deeply concerned by the heightened tensions in the region and we strongly condemn the attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman,” she said.
“The request that the United States has made is a very serious one and it is a very complex one. That’s why we are currently giving this request very serious consideration.”
US secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the news conference that the US had been very clear that the purpose of the proposed operations had been twofold.
“First of all, to promote the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of commence through all waterways.
“Number two, is to prevent any provocative actions by Iran that might lead to some misunderstanding or miscalculation that could lead to a conflict.
“When we first advanced this idea several weeks ago, we had good response from some of our allies and partners. We continue to develop that idea,” he said.
The AUSMIN talks were attended by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Reynolds, Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper.
Esper also met Morrison on Sunday afternoon and Morrison had Pompeo to dinner on Sunday night.
Many are worried about the risk of war between the U.S. and Iran. But the truth is, the U.S. has been fighting with Iran for decades in an economic war waged via sanctions – which is about to get a lot worse.
Whether or not a shooting war does break out, the United States’ economic war has already been intensifying over the past year. On June 24, Trump imposed “hard-hitting” new sanctions on Iran in response to the attack on the drone.
Existing sanctions have already devastated innocent Iranians. Not only that, they’ve undermining long-accepted principles of international cooperation and diplomacy, a topic I’ve been researching for the past 25 years.
Carrots and sticks
Many nations have recognized that sanctions work best as tools of persuasion rather than punishment.
Sanctions by themselves rarely succeed in changing the behavior of a targeted state. They are often combined with diplomacy in a carrots-and-sticks bargaining framework designed to achieve negotiated solutions.
Indeed, the offer to lift sanctions can be a persuasive inducement in convincing a targeted regime to alter its policies, as was the case when successful negotiations involving the U.S. and Europe led to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. That deal ended sanctions in exchange for Tehran shutting down much of its nuclear production capacity.
A year ago Trump withdrew the U.S. from that accord and not only reimposed previous sanctions but added further restrictions, including so-called secondary sanctions that penalize other countries for continuing to trade with Iran.
Multilateral vs unilateral sanctions
In an increasingly globalized world, unilateral sanctions like these – in which one country goes it alone – are rarely effective at achieving their end result, which in this case is regime change.
Multilateral sanctions involving several or many countries have greater impact and make it more difficult for targeted individuals or regimes to find alternative sources of oil or other goods. And getting authorization through the United Nations or regional organizations provides legal and political cover.
When the U.N. Security Council imposed targeted sanctions on Iran in 2006 over its illicit nuclear activities, for example, members of the European Union were able to join the U.S. and other countries in applying pressures that brought Iran to the bargaining table. That’s what led to the negotiated nuclear deal nine years later.
The U.S. circumvented this voluntary multilateral process when it withdrew from the accord and unilaterally imposed “extraterritorial secondary sanction.” These barred nations or companies that buy Iranian oil or other sanctioned products from doing business in the U.S.
Although most countries disagree with the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal and some reject such sanctions as an infringement on their own sovereignty, they are powerless. They cannot afford to lose access to dollar financing and the U.S. economy and thus are forced against their will to do Washington’s bidding.
Life is becoming increasingly difficult for working families struggling to make ends meet. There are indications that the new sanctions are inhibiting the flow of humanitarian goods and contributing to shortages in specialized medicines to treat ailments such as multiple sclerosis and cancer.
Cargill and other global food giants have halted shipments to Iran because of the lack of available financing.
Punishment of the Iranian people seems to be a deliberate policy. When asked recently how the administration expects sanctions to change the behavior of the Iranian government, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged they won’t be able to do that and instead suggested it’s up to the people to “change the government.”
In other words, the pain of sanctions will force people to rise up and overthrow their leaders. This is as naïve as it is cynical. It reflects the long-discredited theory that sanctioned populations will direct their frustrations and anger at national leaders and demand a change in policy or the regime. Sanctions have never worked for this purpose.
The more likely result is the classic “rally around the flag” effect. Iranians are critical of their government’s economic policies, but they also blame Trump for the hardships resulting from sanctions. Governments subjected to sanctions are adept at blaming economic hardships on their external adversaries, as Iran’s religious and elected leaders are doing now against the United States.
Tehran is likely to respond to tightening sanctions by giving greater authority to companies associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a major branch of the Iranian military, further empowering the very hard-line forces Washington claims to oppose.
The White House is ignoring these realities and adding to the already draconian sanctions, while threatening and making preparations for military strikes, hoping that economic pain and military pressure will make Iran’s leaders cry uncle. There is no sign of surrender yet from Tehran, nor is there likely to be, until the two sides pull back from the brink and agree to negotiate a diplomatic settlement.