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Seizure, Swagger and Sea Denial: Iran and the Strait of Hormuz

B. Poornima

10 September 2023

The Strait of Hormuz situated in the Persian Gulf holds tremendous significance for the global energy supply chains. Iran’s naval forces have recently been engaging in harassing and seizing commercial and military vessels traversing through the region. The situation is escalating fast as the USA and its allies are increasing their military build-up in the Gulf.

Seizure, Swagger and Sea Denial: Iran and the Strait of Hormuz

Nestled within the Strait of Hormuz, an essential link between the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, lies a strategic Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) renowned for its global energy trade significance. At the centre of this dynamic region is a state boasting considerable naval power and influence: Iran.


The naval forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-Navy) have been a major concern for other Gulf states and the United States of America (USA). The USA has large stakes in the Hormuz Strait and seeks to maintain its freedom of navigation in the region. Meanwhile, other regional players have been attempting to reconcile their security interests with the need to engage in diplomatic interactions with Iran. This scenario has resulted in an escalation of the delicate security situation in the region in recent times.


The International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) recently notified “regional mariners of appropriate precautions to minimise the risk of seizure based on current regional tensions”. The notification follows several reports of tankers and containers being seized by the Iranian naval forces without agreeable justification. Against this backdrop, this article delves into Iran’s maritime dominance within the Strait of Hormuz and examines its far-reaching implications for global security and economy.


Iran’s Naval Strategy: Securing Sovereignty and Regional Influence


Primarily geared towards quick response and amphibious landings, the IRGC-Navy is adept at operating torpedo boats and swift patrol vessels in swarms. The primary operational scope of the IRGC-Navy is confined within the Persian Gulf, where their principal duty involves safeguarding Iran’s islands while also securing its oil installations. A restructuring exercise undertaken some years back granted this special force the foremost role in controlling critical parts of the Persian Gulf like the Hormuz Strait. On the other hand, the Iranian Navy operates larger platforms such as destroyers, corvettes, frigates and submarines. This force, the regular Navy has been entrusted the responsibility of the Oman Gulf and the Caspian Sea.


For years, Iran has upheld a crucial naval position in the Strait of Hormuz to preserve its sovereignty and guarantee its territorial security. Over time, the state has utilised its maritime capabilities to safeguard trade routes at sea while ensuring the security of energy resources that traverse these waters. Iran’s naval stance serves as a strong deterrent against potential dangers, highlighting its dedication to protecting its interests in the Persian Gulf. By showcasing its maritime might, Iran solidifies its presence in the Strait and reinforces its status as an influential participant in the larger region.


Displaying Assertiveness through Sea Denial and Interference


Iran occasionally resorts to issuing threats to shut off access to the Strait of Hormuz as a prominent way to project its power. In 2018, President Hassan Rouhani cautioned that if the US attempted to impede their oil exports, Tehran would shut down the vital waterway. When Washington reimposed sanctions on Iranian oil exports the following year, an influential military commander from Iran warned of closing off access to the Strait should such economic barriers persist.


Recent activities conducted by the IRGC-Navy near the narrowest part of this crucial waterway (which spans a mere 33 km) have provoked concern and apprehension among international trade stakeholders in West Asia. Among the affected are American naval vessels passing through or navigating towards their Central Command base in Manama. Beyond issuing verbal threats, Iranian forces have allegedly taken aggressive actions against oil tankers and seized commercial vessels as they traverse the Persian Gulf region. In a similar act in July 2023, Reuters reported that Tehran claimed it had received authorisation from an Iranian court to impound a tanker in the Gulf waters.


In response to the USA’s enhanced naval presence in the region over the years, Iran has bolstered the IRGC-Navy with advanced drones and “several hundred cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 300 to 1,000 km,” among other equipment. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has significantly emphasised strengthening the ‘axis of resistance’, viewed as a key element in Iran’s foreign policy under Raisi, demonstrating the dominance of hardline factions. Consequently, these attacks and escalations also aim to pressure the US into withdrawal, enabling Iran to effectively expand its sphere of influence.


Implications of Iran’s Naval Presence


Iran’s naval forces’ confident display of power raises the likelihood of skirmishes at sea, which could ultimately lead to economic repercussions affecting global energy markets. With increased military manoeuvres in the Strait of Hormuz, there is an alarming prospect for heightened tensions, emphasising the need for adept diplomatic manoeuvres and conflict management mechanisms. In an interconnected world fuelled by trade and shared goals, Iran’s naval activities in the Hormuz Strait have significant implications that warrant thoughtful examination.


The threat of blocking shipments through the Strait of Hormuz or attacks on container ships directly impact the security and safety of ships and their crew members – assets central to successful passage through troubled waters. Scepticism emerged within entities responsible for shipping insurance coverage due to scores of tanker attacks perpetrated between May and June 2019 alone. As a result, premiums skyrocketed alarmingly; some estimates predicted insurance rates for oil-laden vessels reaching or exceeding USD 500,000, a tenfold increase compared to previous levels.


The ripple effect was also felt within global commerce channels as container ships and tankers were weighed down with uncertainty when considering docking at ports in this volatile geopolitical region soon after General Qasem Soleimani’s assassination in early 2020. Mounting premiums added another layer of complexity when market sentiment faltered amidst concerns over potential disruptions to safe transit via the Hormuz Strait. These narrow waterways are already afflicted with latent risks, escalating navigational costs while presenting refiners and consumers with unpredictable financial burdens. Such fallouts may negatively impact the smooth flow of cargo from Persian Gulf territories towards markets worldwide.


Diplomacy and Trust-building: The Road to De-escalation


Previous attempts to ease tensions in the Gulf of Hormuz offer valuable lessons about achieving enduring stability. The USA has employed an amalgamation of economic sanctions, diplomatic endeavours, and military deterrence to counterbalance Iran’s influence. However, this strategy has achieved little in tangible terms. While efforts have been made to negotiate, they have encountered obstacles from long-standing grievances, differing security objectives, and a lack of trust. It is imperative for regional security arrangements to strike a careful equilibrium between individual national concerns and overall stability, emphasising the significance of fostering a conducive atmosphere for de-escalation.


The presence of Iran’s Navy in the Gulf of Hormuz brings about a range of perspectives and consequences, demonstrating its multifaceted nature. From asserting sovereignty to addressing regional security concerns and safeguarding global energy flows, the various interests at play highlight the intricate dynamics of the Gulf. As one navigates through these complexities, it becomes evident that diplomatic engagement, confidence-building and collaboration among the stakeholders are paramount. The future of the Gulf’s development depends on the states’ ability to bridge gaps, promote stability, and collectively shape a maritime environment for all involved parties.


Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

B. Poornima

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B. Poornima is a Junior Research Fellow and PhD research scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. Her research interests include Geopolitics of West Asia and North Africa, Conflict analysis and Cyber security.

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