For much of this year and before 7 October, naval gazers had about four areas to look at. First, the ongoing fight in the Black Sea with the Russian blockade weaponizing hunger despite regular Ukrainian successes there. The Russians were also keeping navies busy in the high north and the North Atlantic.
Second, the Chinese have been repeatedly upping the ante in the South China Sea and then saying “but you did it” after each event. This has been region-wide but escalating and perhaps reached a head ten days ago when they deliberately turned on their active sonar next to an Australian warship with divers in the water. The Aussie divers were ‘lucky’ to only be injured.
Third, Critical Underwater Infrastructure (CUI) was starting to grab headlines as gas pipes, data cables and power interconnectors in various locations blew up or were severed.
Finally, we had the decades-old maritime presence in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. There were operations way back in the ’80s such as Operations Prime Chance and Earnest Will to protect shipping there – and then Praying Mantis against covert Iranian minelaying, continuing on and off to this day with multiple countries and coalitions all chipping in under the watchful eye of the US Fifth Fleet HQ in Bahrain.
Post 7 October, the enormous US-led build-up of warships in the Eastern Med added a fifth front and whilst it has kept things limited there, for now, a sixth front has appeared in the Red Sea and beyond as Houthis fire missiles and drones towards Israel, hi-jack ships by helicopter in the southern Red Sea and employ Somalis to hijack ships by more traditional methods, albeit failed, in the Gulf of Aden.
Given the centrality of Iran to all of this, it is ironic that the one place that has been relatively quiet since 7 October has been the Gulf itself: even the traditional flashpoint, the Strait of Hormuz, the only way in or out of the Gulf, which has Iran on one side of it.
Rather like an English sports team collapsing in the latter stages of a tournament – inevitable and so strangely reassuring – this is changing. Iran is now doubling down on its ‘ownership’ of three contested islands in the Strait, Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb.
This is particularly on point right now, as the US Navy aircraft carrier Dwight D Eisenhower and her accompanying escorts – the Ike carrier strike group – have just passed in through the Strait to the Gulf, accompanied by a French warship and joining several British ones already based out of Bahrain.
I won’t delve too deeply into the history of the islands, suffice it to say the UK formally withdrew from there almost exactly fifty-two years ago to the day, leaving things in a state of flux. Iran moved its navy into Abu Musa before we’d finished packing. Only a few days later, an understandably aggrieved UAE – on the other side of the Strait – took their historically founded counterclaim to the United Nations Security Council which “deferred consideration of this matter to a later date”.
The headline in December 1971 could have been “UK leaves mess, UN fails to resolve” and not for the first time.
The dispute has rumbled on in many forms ever since, but recent developments do suggest that now is the perfect time for those who thrive off disruption and chaos to get involved on as many fronts as possible.
The latest twist is for Tehran to offer up free plots of land to families interested in living on the islands. These families would be further incentivised by building loans and even exemptions from military service. Estimates based on the number of plots to be sold, should they be inhabited by Iranian families of average size (3.3), would see the population grow from around 4000 to c1.7 million. That would be a powerful argument that the islands should be Iranian territory.
Not surprisingly, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries oppose what Iran is doing. China and Russia have also chipped in. In December 2022, China’s view on Iran’s general behaviour towards the islands was, “bilateral negotiations in accordance with the rules of international law, and to resolve this issue in accordance with international legitimacy are required”. This resulted in the Chinese ambassador in Tehran receiving ‘a visit’.
More recently, Russia issued a joint statement with the GCC saying that they “support all peaceful efforts, including the initiative of the UAE and its endeavours to reach a peaceful solution to the issue through bilateral negotiations or the International Court of Justice, in accordance with the rules of international law and the United Nations Charter”. This earned the Russian ambassador a ‘summoning’ in Tehran.
Ranking of diplomatic tellings-off aside, you know that when both China and Russia are suggesting an internationally agreed solution over yours, your plan is unlikely to gain much traction.
Why does any of this matter to us in the UK?
Primarily for the same reason the region has mattered for decades now; because of the flow of hydrocarbons from there to us. Hormuz itself is totemic in this regard as it’s the gateway and if it were to be closed, for whatever reason, petrol stations in the UK would start closing a few weeks later. This is why both the US and the UK maintain naval presence there; to attempt to ensure stability in a resource-critical part of the world. You can throw regional alliances, realpolitik, intelligence relations, weapons sales and historical baggage into the mix, but this is reason number one.
And the contested islands sit squarely in the middle of this strategic chokepoint.
Among the major trade chokepoints around the world Hormuz is unique. Malacca, Suez, Panama, Gibraltar, Danish, Bab el-Mandeb and Dover all have alternative routes around them. Of the remaining two, Hormuz and Bosporus, Hormuz is the only one bordered by a non-NATO state that has dedicated billions of dollars to developing military assets to be able to close it.
And this the Iranians could do. Between their mobile ballistic missile launchers, thousands of fast attack craft and minelayers, they have the capability. It’s worth noting that this remains extremely unlikely – they need trade flowing outbound as much as everyone else needs it inbound. (As an aside, sea currents there ensure many of those mines would end up on their coast.) Holding the islands makes the Iranians militarily stronger: having their sovereignty over them recognised makes them legally stronger.
So what do we do about it? The same as we’ve always done – maintain a diplomatic, naval and military presence there to deter and be ready to react if that doesn’t work. This is exactly why the Ike and her group are in the Gulf right now and not chasing pirates or Houthis further to the west.
It’s the same principle the USS Gerald R Ford group, now joined by Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan, is employing off the Israeli coast – deterring and preparing. Nothing says ‘don’t do anything dumb’ more forcefully than 110,000 tons of nuclear-powered diplomacy with an air wing the size of most national air forces embarked. Houthi shenanigans aside, this seems to be working. In fact, since October 7 there has been a near day-to-day demonstration of the utility of carrier-based air power. Those who are frustrated with the speed of advance of our carriers have a point; those who write them off as obsolete do not.
At a more strategic level, only yesterday in London the Cross-party Members of Parliament, Iran experts and representatives of the Iranian democratic opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) met to discuss this. One subject of discussion was the UK perhaps listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Iranian theocracy’s shock troops – separate from the regular Iranian armed forces – as a terrorist organisation. Getting both the US and the UK to take a more robust stance in recognising the Iranian Regime’s centrality to malfeasance in the region and, critically, within their own countries, ran through the whole meeting.
Iran is the threat behind Hamas, behind the Houthis and behind Hezbollah. Iran is the primary menace in the Gulf, not only to Western interests but others like the Saudis and the UAE. Iran has threatened to assassinate prominent US politicians, and the “al-Quds” force of the IRGC operates, to a greater or lesser degree undercover, everywhere in the world.
If Western governments fail to take this threat seriously for fear of something – elections, economies, their own shadows – they may fail to maintain the maritime power which is the practical countermeasure to the threat. This has been shown these past weeks by a relatively quiet Israel-Lebanon border, by Houthi missiles knocked out of the sky over the Red Sea, by the fact that most of a Marine Expeditionary Unit is poised to act, that a SEAL Team or Tomahawk missiles could pop up out of the deep blue sea without warning anywhere across the Middle East. It’s been shown on a smaller scale by the presence of British and French and many other nations’ warships and marines also.
It’s been said many times in many ways, but money spent preparing for war is not usually money wasted. And Ukraine notwithstanding, in a lot of cases the war to prepare for will be one fought on and from the sea.
Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and warship captain