The situation in the Strait of Hormuz continues to intensify, with Defence Secretary
Philip Hammond showing that, like his predecessor, he is not shy of pushing back when he gets a shove. Today he warned Iran that any attempt to block the straits, a key shipping lane, would be
‘illegal and unsuccessful’, and would be countered militarily if necessary.
In truth, any conflict over the straits would be very costly for both sides. Iran is likely to have the capacity to strike, in a shock-and-awe attack, at US and British bases in Kuwait, Bahrain and
Oman. But this would be a dramatic escalation of events which would — Tehran must realise — see the leash come off Israel, and probably lead to an all-out aerial attack on Iran. It
would also choke off imports into Iran, sending their economy into freefall.
That said, history is full of miscalculations. And in their haste to celebrate the waning of US power — a major subject of discussion in Tehran — the Iranian government may gearing up
to be make one now. The US might be weaker than it was in the past, but it is not weak; and if the Obama administration sees a clear threat to its allies and interests I doubt it would hesitate to
act. In 2010, the US-Iranian conflict subsided and was replaced, in effect, by an Israeli-Iranian conflict. Now, at the start of 2012, it has again become a US-Iranian conflict.
However, the key for Barack Obama is to internationalise the issue. As I suggested a couple of days ago, a
flotilla should be assembled to police the straits. Why not use the tension to launch a formal UN, EU or NATO maritime mission much like the EU’s anti-piracy Operation Atlanta or NATO’s
similar Operation Ocean Shield? Or it could be done by a coalition-of-the-willing, along the lines of the multinational Combined Task
Force 150, which is run by the United States Fifth Fleet off the Horn of Africa.
Together with this, a new international mechanism should be proposed to manage not just the Strait of Hormuz but also the Arabian Sea with Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, Pakistan, Iraq and Sri
Lanka — a sort of maritime OSCE. The idea is not to create another international organisation for its own sake, but to establish a formal way of managing
the waterways and to isolate Iran further or, if Tehran wants to defuse the conflict, allow them a way to cooperate with the West.
These and other ideas should be discussed at a hastily-arranged summit for foreign ministers — perhaps hosted aboard a ship in the Arabian Sea, or on an island such as Masirah off the east
coast of Oman. This would lend diplomatic heft to the current military posturing. Deterrence is, after all, not just a matter of ships and soldiers, but also the belief that any attack will lead to
an overwhelming, international response.