Saturday, January 12, 2008

Eavesdropping on Expert Opinions on Hormuz Straits.

My favorite blogger, MarcLord has made a lawyerly post on the Hormuz Straits:

Without his permission, I have stolen excerpts. But you must visit his blog because much devil is in the details that are further discussed in the comments. My excerpts are intended to draw attention to historical FACTs about US aggression against Iran.

With a formal protest lodged by the US, the incident will be taken seriously, yet the case against Iran is a loser. In the second video above, the Iranian patrol boat captain hails vessel 73, which replies to his hail and identifies itself as a coalition warship. The Iranian then requests the vessel's course and speed. The warship replies that it is "operating in international waters," and gives the same reply to repeated requests for clarification of course and speed. The warship's reply is false, since the Straits of Hormuz are only 21 miles at their widest, and much narrower for large-ship navigation. Ships can't pass through there without being in territorial waters claimed by either Oman or Iran under the transit passage provisions of UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. ... [this point is challenged by a caitlyna, commenting on legal aspects of LOS, however ...]

Given past US actions in its waters, and its recent hostile stance, there's abundant basis for Iran to cite the US as a security threat.
  • On 18 April 1988, the U.S. Navy waged a one-day battle against Iranian forces in and around the strait. The battle, dubbed Operation Praying Mantis by the U.S. side, was launched in retaliation for the 14 April mining of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). U.S. forces sank two Iranian warships and as many as six armed speedboats in the engagement.
  • On July 3, 1988, 290 people were killed when an Iran AirAirbus A300 passenger jet was shot down over the strait by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes. There is still lingering controversy about the event, considered among the most controversial tragedies in aviation history.
  • On January 10, 2007, the nuclear submarine USS Newport News, traveling submerged, struck M/V Mogamigawa, a 300,000-ton Japanese-flagged large oil tanker just south of the strait. (Wikipedia credit for links in this paragraph.) The tanker had suddenly slowed before impact, indicating the US submarine was attempting clandestine underwater passage in its prop wash. Hardly innocent transit.

Does legality matter in the Persian Gulf? Not yet, and Iran may have reason to feel contemptuous of the UN's impartiality. Ultimately, however, legality could become very important, and knowing how laws regarding coastal sovereignty are supposed to be handled calls the competing official versions out into clearer, less bullshit-clouded light.
Read MarcLord's post


caitlyna said...

I believe you meant to cite "caitlyna" regarding a comment to MarcLord's post. The point I made was that the LOS Convention recognizes the right of "Transit Passage" for international straits, of which the Strait of Hormuz is one. While the LOS Convention did confirm an extension of the territorial sea from a breadth of 3 nautical miles to 12 n.m., it did this in parallel with other provisions that were needed to get widespread agreement to the increased extent of national control. Relevant here is the right of "transit passage." Under this right, all ships and aircraft may make continuous passage in their normal mode of operation (meaning submarines may be submerged and aircraft may fly in formation) through straits used in international navigation in spite of being narrower than 24 n.m.. The convention specifies that the right of transit passage cannot be suspended. Sea lanes may be established as a safety measure and there are such lanes in the strait. Transit passage is not the same as the more restrictive right of "innocent passage", which involves passage through the territorial sea as a convenience that has been accorded though hundreds of years of practice before being codified.

The Iranians did not challenge the right of the US ships to pass through the strait. Nor did Iran claim that the US ships were threatening their shore. The main source of friction was the maneuvering of the Iranian boats near ships that have been sensitive to the possibility of small boat attacks since the attack on the USS Cole.

It also appears that the situation may have been exacerbated by a third party who transmitted the threat to blow up the ships, a transmission that the Iranians deny making themselves (backed up by the lack of wind noise in that particular transmission in contrast to the requests for information from the Iranian boats). There are reports of such calls in other situations by an anonymous party operating in the strait.

This seems to be a case that has bothered people thousands of miles away far more than it did the people on either the US ships or the Iranian boats, and it has been made a proxy for larger political positioning.

The biggest lesson of the incident is that there needs to be a system to avoid incidents at sea similar to the agreement negotiated by the US and USSR in 1989. In addition, a direct line of communication between senior officers in the US fleet and the Iranian naval command should be be established to avoid confusion that might contribute to conflict.

While some people object to US activities in Iraq or to rising tensions between the US and Iran, the incident in the strait of hormuz appears to be the result of tensions rather than the cause of them.

Naj said...

Caitlyna, forgive my miswriting your name. I am dyslexic, especially with names! :)

Thank you for repeating your comment here.

I concur with Marclord that Americans have no business to be in the Hormuz, neither now, nor in the future.

The sooner America leaves the Middle East, the sooner peace and prosperity will be restored to the ME.

Renegade Eye said...

caitlyna: Your ideas about how to establish communication between vessels, seem too sensible for either side to adopt.

Brother Tim said...

Having U.S. Carrier Groups in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz serve only as a provocation. Were Iran, China, Russia, or any other country, to send warships into the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. would be screaming bloody murder.

It's Pandora's Box, and the Idiot-in-Chief is hell-bent on ripping off the lid. God help us all.

MarcLord said...

Hi guys,

I had meant to weave caitlyna's comments into a post by now, but as an employer, dad, chauffeur (and on this particular weekend, football fan), life got in the way. So I'm pleased to see Naj (thank you, friend) put up my flawed, admittedly amateur analysis about warships passing through the Straits of Hormuz, and I'm happy to be the fall guy to generate some more knowledge, particularly by way of caitlyna's clarifications.

First, I think we can all agree sending warships through those Straits without careful procedure is like carrying boxes of nitroglycerin in your car trunk. Big boom waiting to happen. Next, it should be obvious from the videos that the personnel in both navies have acted very professionally so far, and have devised their own procedures ad-hoc. They have no intention of shooting at each other, but do engage in gamesmanship at the behest of their governments. Finally, it would appear in this incident, that the respective staff were able to defuse a psy-op transmitted by parties who wished to escalate vessel proximity into a casus belli, or war itself.

I am quite thankful such did not occur, as certain belligerents on both sides, those who advocate carring nitroglycerin in our trunks, still devoutly wish such a conflagration to occur. So I have a more specific question for caitlyna, one I'm still somewhat unclear on:

If Iran did challenge the right of US warships to pass through the strait, what might happen? On the one hand, the large warships are a clear threat to security and sovereignty, and the USS Cole attack provides only one countervailing instance to that. On the other hand, the particular Law of the Sea provisions (seem to) deem the Straits of Hormuz immune to transit passage options, borne on "hundreds of years of practice." To my mind, that boils down to "hundreds of years of weak Mid-east sovereignty," and I am well aware of US legalities on the Barbary Coast which date back to Jeffersonian times. Is there any wiggle room here, and caitlyna, what's your guess? I certainly respect your opinion and viewpoint(s).

Personally, I would much rather see the Law of the Sea evolve in this particular case than have evolution inflicted upon it. What would happen if Iran forced the issue legally? Militarily, the scenarios are decidedly unattractive. Practically, the US is waving red flags in front of a bull every day. I have not written in detail about what would happen if push came to shove, but suffice it to say there is no known defence by surface ships against Shrike missiles which can alter their courses on their way to target.

For the record, I consider it the height of foolhardiness to send extremely expensive, heavily manned, unfortunately symbolic surface ships close to a hostile shore chock-blocked with missiles, trajectory-altering missiles, against which there is no known defense. Antiquated tactics get killed off horribly, and that's what the US is practising in the Gulf. Does Iran have any legal option under UNCLOS?

caitlyna said...

I just received a copy of the Iranian press conference on January 13th (it's 6200 words in length so I won't post it here). From their perspective the transit of the three ships was perfectly normal and proper. Their objection is with Washington for creating an incident where none occurred. While I think the circling of the Iranian patrol boats was provocative, they didn't pose a threat (though I bet the CIC watch officers were sweating up a storm trying to be sure they didn't miss anything).

Renegade, I had thought you might be right, but the Iranians gave me some hope in their conference. Apparently on the tactical level the US and Iran have worked out radio protocols for making inquiries on one channel and switching to a less busy one for further communication. I expect that the navy will work on that regional navy hot line after this.

Nothing I am saying in explanation of law and practice is an excuse for the political use of this case. I was very reassured by the Iranian press conference that the people who have the weapons at their fingertips are being much more responsible than their boss in Washington.