Tensions In The Gulf: How Might The Situation Progress?

Forces News has been speaking to Neil Brown, an expert in Gulf geopolitics.

The commanding officer of HMS Montrose has said the vessel has escorted British ships safely through the Strait of Hormuz more than 20 times in the past month.

It adds to a series of developments in the region in recent weeks.

Neil Brown, who served in the Royal Navy for 30 years, and was also Director for Defence and Security in the Cabinet Office, is an expert in geopolitics in The Gulf. 

Forces News asked him about the current tensions in the region.

Why is the Strait of Hormuz so strategically important?

"The Strait of Hormuz was important before oil, and will be important after oil, in terms of the stability of the Gulf region and the wider Middle East.

"Obviously the headline figure is that 20 million barrels of oil a day pass through the Strait of Hormuz and they are vital for the global economy."

Iranian supertanker Grace 1, which was detained off the coast of Gibraltar earlier this month on suspicion of travelling to Syria.

There has been criticism that the Royal Navy does not have enough ships to meet threats in the region currently. How does its strength compare now with the 1980s and 1990s when Britain last had a permanent presence there?

"Well things are very different - Iran is a very different country.

"In the days of the Armilla patrol as was during the Iran-Iraq tanker war, Iran's threat really was in the Strait of Hormuz and the area closest to it.

"Today, Iran's military capability extends right across the Gulf itself and in the Arab peninsula.

"We saw a missile test only last week, and Iran's wider capability today extends through proxies - to the Yemen, to militias in Iraq and to Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, so Iran militarily is a very different beast.

"The other element to this obviously is the Royal Navy is a very different beast to the early '80s - there are certainly fewer escorts and that's the subject of much debate at the moment.

"In the days of the Armilla patrol, we routinely had three present for escorting duties.

"Today, as a result, I guess, of 10 years of more of UK focusing on current ops in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have in the Army, and the Navy and the Air Force, capabilities which are significantly diminished on where I think any of the service chiefs would like them to be."

The British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized by Iran earlier this month (Picture: Stena Bulk).

Does there need to be an international response and does the involvement of the US muddy the waters?

"Politically, the involvement of the US is a complicating factor.

"Many European countries in particular, and even some of the Gulf states are a little concerned about what President Trump's administration are really trying to do.

"They walked away from the nuclear deal with Iran last year, they're employing a policy of 'maximum pressure' on Tehran.

"Some used to talk about regime change, although that is less in the vocabulary today.

"So that is a complicating factor, and especially because a number of the European countries are under pressure from Tehran to keep the nuclear deal alive.

"Operationally, the obvious solution is international response and building it on US and UK experience, in working in that part of the world, but politically there will be some ambition to bring in Europeans and other partners."

HMS Duncan arrives in the Gulf (Picture: MOD).
The Royal Navy's HMS Duncan has arrived in the Gulf to protect British-flagged ships travelling through the Strait of Hormuz (Picture: MOD).

What is your best estimate on how things are going to progress in the medium term?

"Well I think the ambition for the west has to be to focus on the Straits themselves, and on the key issue of freedom of navigation.

"The one area which is uncontestable is that Iran has no right to stop commercial or military movements through the Straits, and that should be the area in which there is the widest possible international consensus in order to ensure that the economic threat, and the military threat, is minimised.

"But beyond that, then we have, I'm afraid, a very long process of confrontation as opposed to conflict, when we're trying to see how the US in particular move with Tehran towards either a renegotiation of the JCPOA nuclear deal or its replacement.

"So in the short to medium term, I'm afraid, it's a continuing period of tension, it's high-readiness forces in very close proximity in a difficult operational environment, it's a risk of miscalculation and it's a risk of an oil shock which will have a wider impact far beyond the Gulf."