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Gunboat diplomacy: Iran ramps up aggression in Strait of Hormuz

By Struan Stevenson
A photo made available by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shows Iranian military fires a missile targeting a mock-up of U.S. aircraft carrier in the strategic Strait of Hormuz in 2020. File Photo courtesy of Sepah News/EPA-EFE
A photo made available by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shows Iranian military fires a missile targeting a mock-up of U.S. aircraft carrier in the strategic Strait of Hormuz in 2020. File Photo courtesy of Sepah News/EPA-EFE

June 27 (UPI) -- Gunboat diplomacy is defined in terms of international politics as the pursuit of foreign policy objectives by displaying signs of aggressive naval power, implying the threat of warfare if agreeable terms are not met.

Gunboat diplomacy was a tactic famously utilized by some of the imperialist powers during the 19th century. It is a somewhat outdated concept, although that doesn't seem to have deterred the Iranian regime. Last week, ships from the U.S. Fifth Fleet were sailing through international waters in the Strait of Hormuz when they were threatened by high-speed, head-on assaults by three naval vessels from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

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The U.S. coastal patrol ship USS Sirocco had to fire a warning flare when the IRGC vessels, acting in a hostile manner, came within 50 yards of their ship. The threatening and dangerous behavior lasted for more than an hour before the IRGC boats departed.

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The Strait of Hormuz lies between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, providing the only sea passage to the Indian Ocean for crude oil from many of the world's largest producers. An average of 21 million barrels a day flows through the strait, which is over 20% of global consumption. Around one-third of the world's sea-borne petroleum and nearly all the liquefied gas from Qatar, the leading global gas exporter, passes through this constricted chokepoint only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point.

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With the current global energy crisis caused by Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine, the route has become even more strategically critical. As the theocratic regime faces crisis upon crisis at home and abroad, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, known as the "Butcher of Tehran," have ramped up their aggressive activities in the strait to frighten those they regard as the regime's enemies, even threatening to close the strait altogether.

The most recent naval encounter is not the first. In June 2019, limpet mines were left behind by IRGC commandos following attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The oil tanker Kokuka Courageous was rocked by several explosions that caused extensive damage. An IRGC patrol boat was then filmed moving alongside the tanker as commandos removed an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of the vessel. Following the attack, the Kokuka Courageous, along with the Norwegian-owned Front Altair, were towed to the Emirati coast by U.S. naval authorities.

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In July 2019, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero on the Strait of Hormuz. It was held in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas for two months and only released following international pressure. In January 2021, the IRGC seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in Gulf waters, claiming it had detained the Hankuk Chemi tanker and its crew for allegedly dumping toxic chemicals in the Gulf, a blatantly false accusation. In the same week, explosives experts had to defuse an Iranian limpet mine attached to a Liberian-flagged oil tanker in waters off the Iraqi port of Basra. Sailors on board the MT Pola said they had discovered a limpet mine of the type commonly deployed by naval divers. It had been attached to the side of the tanker and could have caused devastating damage had it exploded, particularly as the MT Pola was refueling another tanker at the time with a ship-to-ship transfer to the MT Nordic Freedom, a Bermuda-flagged tanker.

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In May 2021, an IRGC speedboat armed with heavy machine guns, approached within 150 yards of U.S. warships at high speed, as the Americans traveled through the Strait of Hormuz. Warning shots had to be fired at the IRGC vessel before it finally withdrew. Then in August 2021, a tanker was hijacked by IRGC commandos and ordered to "sail to Iran" -- days after an IRGC drone attack killed a British security guard working with special forces and a Romanian soldier on the MV Mercer Street. A nine-strong armed group climbed on board the Asphalt Princess off the coast of the Gulf of Oman close to the Strait of Hormuz, seizing the vessel at gunpoint. Iran, as usual, denied involvement in the suspected drone attack and the hijacking.

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The mullahs clearly believe that their aggressive conduct will lead to U.S. capitulation over the stalled nuclear talks. They will surely have to think again. Negotiations to reinstate the tattered Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, signed by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015 and torn up by President Donald Trump in 2018, have run aground due to the mullahs' farcical demands. Iran is insisting on the lifting of all sanctions and the delisting of the IRGC as an international terrorist organization.

Using the IRGC to threaten shipping in the Strait of Hormuz is hardly likely to encourage American sympathy. Indeed, the United States knows that the IRGC and its extra-territorial Quds Force is behind all Iran's proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza and is known to sponsor international terror worldwide. The regime's foreign wars and acts of terror are a calculated strategy to distract their enraged and starving population from another nationwide uprising that could sweep the mullahs from power.

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The foolish attempt at gunboat diplomacy has taken place during a disastrous year for the ruling dictatorship in Iran. The economy has collapsed, unemployment is pervasive, inflation is out of control, the Iranian currency is in freefall and over 75% of the 80 million population are struggling to survive on incomes below the international poverty line. There are daily protests in towns and cities throughout Iran.

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Khamenei presides over a pyramid of corruption. The IRGC answers directly to Khamenei. It controls almost the entire economy, including all of Iran's monetary and financial institutions and pays no tax. It is behind the acceleration of the regime's determined efforts to construct a nuclear weapon and its clandestine activities have continued before, during and since the signing of the deeply flawed JCPOA. Sham attempts at bullying the United States into reinstating the deal are doomed to fail, as are aggressive attempts to threaten international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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