The United States wants NATO allies to help secure free passage for all shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. This strait between Iran and Oman is crucial for the global energy supply — tankers transport as much as 30 percent of the global supply of oil through the territorial waters of Iran, and hence through the Strait of Hormuz. After the seizing of an Iranian tanker off of Gibraltar, attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, the downing of an American drone and the seizing of a British vessel, tensions are rising. The US has officially requested that the Netherlands send a frigate to the Strait of Hormuz – will the Dutch government follow in America’s wake?
The US is implementing a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran, starting with the unilateral US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Draconian sanctions followed. US President Donald Trump even dramatically called off military retaliation, at the last minute, after Iran shot down an American drone. At the same time, Trump threatened Iran with complete destruction, and has recently announced more sanctions.
The recent tension in the Strait of Hormuz began after so-called limpet mines (mines attached to the hull of a ship) damaged a few tankers. The US holds Iran responsible for these attacks. According to Washington, video footage showing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard removing mines which had not gone off confirmed that Iran was behind the attacks.
However, an analysis of International Court of Justice rulings in similar disputes shows that Iran’s responsibility has yet to be proven conclusively. For example, there is no evidence regarding the specific type or serial numbers of the limpet mines used in these attacks or that Iran placed the mines.
UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
Iran, for its part, has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to US sanctions against Iranian oil exports. The strait has two lanes, one for incoming and one for outgoing ships. The incoming lane leads through Iranian territorial waters. On the basis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Iran must guarantee “innocent passage” through its waters. Innocent passage is a principle of maritime law whereby ships are given free passage through the territorial waters of another state, in this case Iran.
According to the treaty, transit is innocent “as long as it does not endanger the peace, order or security of the coastal state.” The treaty further stipulates that innocent passage can be limited if there is “threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of the coastal state or any other course of action that violates the principles of international law.” Can US battleships or those of its allies claim innocent passage if these ships are part of a US policy of escalation?
Dutch participation in the US operation in the Strait of Hormuz would be blatantly inconsistent at a political level. The American escalation is aimed at further undermining the nuclear deal with Iran, a deal that Europe wants to save but the US wants to scrap. Why would European NATO countries cooperate under US auspices in further undermining the nuclear deal?
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok justifiably called the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, “bad news for Dutch and European security.” Participation in the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran and the nuclear deal can’t suddenly change this to good news for Dutch and European security.
Notwithstanding this inconsistency, the Dutch government has so far responded “favourably” to the request to participate in the US coalition. That show of good will is probably motivated by the desire to avoid direct political confrontation with the US. But that argument is not convincing.
The Netherlands should not become militarily involved in a US-initiated escalation with Iran. The marine mission is part of America’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and undermines the political commitment to save the nuclear deal with Iran. The evidence that Iran has attacked commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz with limpet mines is not conclusive. Iran must guarantee innocent passage, but the claim to innocent passage for American frigates is not self-evident while the US is threatening Iran.
Politics trump war
The regime in Tehran deserves neither support nor sympathy. It violates human rights, supports war criminals and finances extremists. Nevertheless, a political strategy for restoring the nuclear deal with Iran and ending the war in Yemen is preferable to military escalation in an already unstable region. This is also in the interest of ordinary Iranians. They long for a free and decent life. They are once again bearing the burden of the sanctions. Many Iranians have already started asking themselves, “Isn’t this already a war?”