On June 23, Iran shot down a U.S. RQ-4 drone, which it claimed had crossed into Iran’s territorial sea, and on July 18, Trump announced that the U.S. had shot down an Iranian drone approaching the USS Boxer, which Iran denied. On July 19, Iran reportedly captured one British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in response to Britain capturing its vessel near Gibraltar in early July.
These incidents suggest that competition between the U.S. and Iran for the control of the Hormuz will likely become the defining feature of their continuing confrontation, although observers believe a sizable war between the two might not be inevitable. Neither Iran nor the U.S. has shown any signs of backing down in the confrontation, particularly on the issue of the Hormuz.
Iranians felt humiliated after Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and restored sanctions, but have no meaningful ways to counteract against the U.S. Mohammad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, worked hard to protect Iran’s interests and did win sympathy and political support from the European Union, China, and Russia, but, unfortunately, his hard work has not brought the reward of economic benefits due to Iran from the deal. Iran’s efforts to reduce commitments of the JCPOA did produce some pressure on the EU and other major parties, but did not necessarily bring economic benefits since companies have been too afraid of U.S. sanctions. Demonstrating its ability to control the Hormuz will likely be Iran’s next major countermeasure to put pressure firstly on the EU but also on the U.S. to remove, or at least reduce, sanctions.
And evidence also shows that enhancing military pressure will be the next option for the U.S. The U.S. has launched several efforts to isolate Iran politically, but all have failed. In February 2019, the U.S. and Poland co-organized a conference in Warsaw to isolate Iran, but failed to get other UN Security Council Permanent Members to participate. China, Russia, and France didn’t participate, the British Foreign Secretary was only there briefly, and Germany did not attend. The conference intended to isolate Iran finally resulted in isolating the U.S. itself, a result that was on display during the Vienna meeting about the Iran nuclear issue on July 10. The U.S. proposed the meeting, but most participants criticized the U.S. for withdrawing from the JCPOA.
Economic sanctions on Iran are another instrument that the U.S. has employed as part of its “maximum pressure” policy. The most recent U.S. economic sanctions have been regarded as the toughest in history. The U.S. has cut off Iran’s payment channel, which has made Iran’s foreign trade extremely difficult; it has tried to reduce Iran’s oil export to zero; and it has blacklisted Iranian business institutions and government officials. All these sanctions added together have already covered all the critical sectors of Iran’s economy. That is to say, additional sanctions would not make much difference.
The U.S. always regards military pressure as the last resort in pushing forward its objectives in international politics. With this mentality, the U.S. will increase its military pressure on Iran in the next stage. The U.S. has never spared its efforts to take military actions against Iran, and will depend more on military means in the future.
I argue that the Hormuz will be the focal point of the confrontation. Iranian politicians have frequently threatened to close the Hormuz if Iran cannot export oil, and now its oil export has been reduced to the lowest level in history. Iran’s threatening should not be regarded as a bluff. Iranians are sitting on the east side of the Hormuz everyday watching tankers carry the oil of its major enemies through the Strait while its own oil has no buyers. Their anger is easy to imagine. Powered by this kind of emotion, Iran can try measures to control the channel, and even disrupt the transportation. In response to Iran’s behavior, the U.S. is enhancing its presence and increasing military activities in the Hormuz. The situation has become very dangerous.
The tensions in the Hormuz are good for nobody. Approximately 21 million barrels of oil go to the global market via the Strait every day. Almost all countries have a stake in the security of the Strait since they are either a consumer or a supplier. The full or partial disruption of oil supply from the Hormuz will not only undermine the economy of Asian, American, and European economies but will also undermine that of Gulf oil producers. The destruction of global oil markets as a result of the disruption of the oil supply will mean a disaster for everybody.
On the one hand, the international community will have to prepare for bad weather. In particular, Asian economies like China, India and Japan will have to prepare, since the largest proportion of the oil via Hormuz goes to Asian markets.
On the other hand, despite extreme difficulty, the international community should work together to make the Trump administration change its policy toward the nuclear deal and Iran. That might be the only way out of the crisis. Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to Tehran in June is appreciated, but, unfortunately, he didn’t push for U.S. to change its policy.