IRGC aggression in Strait of Hormuz continues to threaten oil supply chains

By Pakistan Forward

IRGC Navy boats carry out a missile firing exercise in the Gulf. [Sayyed Shahab-o-Din Vajedi]

IRGC Navy boats carry out a missile firing exercise in the Gulf. [Sayyed Shahab-o-Din Vajedi]

The Iranian regime is continuing to threaten oil vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's busiest waterways, with "dangerous" provocations and "acts of piracy".

In early December, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy patrol boat interacted with US Navy ships "in an unsafe and unprofessional manner" in the Strait of Hormuz, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement.

The boat approached expeditionary sea base platform ship USS Lewis B. Puller and guided-missile destroyer USS The Sullivans as they were conducting a routine transit in international waters on December 5.

"The Iranian vessel attempted to blind the bridge by shining a spotlight and crossed within 150 yards [137 metres] of the US ships -- dangerously close, particularly at night," the statement said.

Iranian soldiers in the Strait of Hormuz, on April 30, 2019. [Atta Kenare/AFP]

Iranian soldiers in the Strait of Hormuz, on April 30, 2019. [Atta Kenare/AFP]

A picture taken on May 28 shows loading docks at al-Hodeidah, Yemen's Red Sea port. [AFP]

A picture taken on May 28 shows loading docks at al-Hodeidah, Yemen's Red Sea port. [AFP]

While the two US ships de-escalated the situation with audible warnings and non-lethal lasers, CENTCOM warned that the Iranian navy's actions "violated international standards of professional and safe maritime behaviour, increasing the risk of miscalculation and collision".

"This dangerous action in international waters is indicative of Iran's destabilising activity across the Middle East," said CENTCOM spokesman Col. Joe Buccino.

A few days earlier, on December 1, the USS Lewis B. Puller intercepted 50 tonnes of weaponry bound for Yemen from a fishing trawler on a key maritime smuggling route used by Tehran, US officials said.

The cargo comprised ammunition rounds, fuses and propellants for rockets. The Puller's action represented the "second major illegal weapons seizure within a month" along the route, the Bahrain-based US 5th Fleet said in a statement.

"This significant interdiction clearly shows that Iran's unlawful transfer of lethal aid and destabilising behaviour continues," said US 5th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper.

"US naval forces remain focused on deterring and disrupting dangerous and irresponsible maritime activity in the region."

On November 15, the US Navy said it had scuttled a boat transporting "explosive materials" from Iran to supply the Houthis, with enough power to fuel a dozen ballistic rockets.

Critical oil passageway

With the global energy crisis caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Strait of Hormuz -- a chokepoint through which a fifth of world oil output passes -- has become even more critical.

The strait separates Iran and Oman, linking the Arabian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea.

Most crude oil exported from Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Kuwait and Iraq is shipped through the waterway.

Iran has threatened to close the strategic waterway multiple times in recent years.

If Iran makes good on its threats to close the strait at its narrowest point (approximately 3.2km wide), "the potential scenarios would be absolutely catastrophic, and the region might descend into an unremitting war", Omani strategy analyst Abdul Rahman al-Kathiri told Al-Mashareq in 2019 after such a threat.

"Oil prices would surge at least 20% due to the ensuing shortfall in global supply," he said, noting that Iran is "well aware of these dangers".

Washington has repeatedly accused the IRGC of disrupting maritime traffic in the strait.

In June, a US Navy warship was forced to fire a warning flare to wave off an IRGC speedboat that was reportedly coming straight at it in the Strait of Hormuz.

In the hour-long encounter, the boats came within 45 metres of each other, marking an even closer call than this month's incident.

In May, the IRGC boarded and seized two Greek-flagged oil tankers in the Gulf.

Greece condemned Tehran's detention of the two ships as "tantamount to acts of piracy".

In April, three Iranian ships and several US Coast Guard and Navy vessels were locked in a tense encounter for hours as the US boats travelled out of the Arabian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz.

In January 2021, the Iranian navy seized the South Korean tanker Hankuk Chemi as it transited the Strait of Hormuz. The tanker was seized as Iran sought the release of Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks, and was released four months later.

Regional tension

Iran is also a continuing source of regional tension, as it supports militants across the Middle East, violates international sanctions and is now teaming up with Russia and its war in Ukraine.

On November 21, Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis staged an attack with at least one weaponised drone that reportedly targeted a vessel near al-Dhaba, an oil terminal near Ash Shihr, to the east of the Hadramaut provincial capital of al-Mukalla.

On November 9, the militia attacked an oil tanker while it was docked at Qena port in the southern province of Shabwa, to the east of Hadramaut.

And on October 21, the Houthis attacked al-Dhaba port with two drones, in the first assault of its kind since the truce between the militia and the legitimate government expired on October 2.

US Ambassador to Yemen Steven Fagin on November 21 called on the Houthis to "return to the negotiating table, end the devastating war and play a constructive role in achieving a comprehensive political settlement".

The Houthis' attacks on Yemen's ports would harm only the Yemeni people by worsening fuel shortages, he said, calling on the Iran-backed group to halt its threats to international maritime commerce.

Even as NATO contends with Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, member states -- including the United States -- have been maintaining a presence in strategic areas such as the Arabian Sea.

The Arabian Sea, which sits between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, is the waterway that all Iranian ships must pass to reach world ports, and a key link in Beijing's "string of pearls" -- a strategy to link mainland China to the Horn of Africa via a network of military and commercial facilities.

Meanwhile, Russia has been using Iranian-made drones to hit Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, and other key sites.

The attacks follow new sanctions on suppliers of Iranian drones and warnings that Iran and Russia are entering "a full-fledged defence partnership".

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