Since the mid-seventies, the Strait of Hormuz has been considered a major political commodity in the region. The Shah of Iran [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] used to refer to himself as the region’s police officer so that he may discipline the socialist Iraq and he also used to pledge to protect oil tankers against any terrorist threats. However, after he was ousted by [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s revolution and Tehran’s policy began to threaten with blocking the strait, the Iranian ‘police officer’ departed and was replaced by Western troops.
The Gulf peninsula has become the area most congested with battleships and nonstop maneuvers while all the states that overlook it have become embroiled in a constant state of security and military tension. All this vast amount of tension needs is a tiny spark for it to flare up into a fourth war.
A few days ago, Iran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz as a response to any action taken against it. The Iranians have previously been more defiant when they threatened with closing down the naval gateway if no international resolution was issued to ban oil export. For its part, the US guard was no less adamant about using force to confront any attempts to close down the strait.
It is likely that most countries worldwide would support the use of force to protect the strait for two reasons; firstly, because most of the Gulf oil goes to the majority of Asian countries through this route, most notably China, Japan and India, in addition to European countries, which would support a war to protect the strait – if the need arose.
Secondly, because the strait does not fully belong to Iran, such as the case with Sinai; instead, it is an international passage and the Sultanate of Oman overlooks it as well. The Strait of Hormuz represents the only exit for Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman overlook the Gulf of Oman, and Saudi Arabia overlooks the Red Sea.
The aforementioned states have previously devised both overt and covert plans to confront the oil apocalypse. In the 1980s, Saudi extended a pipeline network to transfer its oil to the Red Sea and built underground oil reserves, most of which hire oil tankers as oil reservoirs while at sea as a precaution in the case of war.
There are no expectations for there to be a separate war over the strait; rather, it will be part of an all-out war, whether the strait is the cause or the outcome. Iran that threatens with blocking the strait believes that it will harm American interests when it fact it would be forcing neutral states worldwide, such as China and India, to support the “battle of liberating the strait” and securing navigation safety in the entire Gulf.
Perhaps the objective of Iran’s frequent threats is to stir up fear amongst the Gulf States over the repercussions of any US strike against it so that they it turn may pressure Washington into preventing any military action – however, this is having an opposite effect from the desired one.
With time, the Gulf states are starting to become aware that there is a strong likelihood of confrontation due to the failure of the European concessions offered to Iran coupled with the flexible proposals made by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and as a result of Iran's explicitness in demanding political clout as a price to any agreement with Washington on the nuclear issue. This was clearly indicated in the last round.
Perhaps these states believe that military confrontation is a bad choice; however putting the Gulf up for political auction may be worse. This will bring the formula of gains and losses back into the game over the Gulf’s security and politics.
* Published in the London-based ASHARQ ALAWSAT on July 8, 2008. Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed is the general manager of Al-Arabiya News Channel. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine, Al Majalla.