image Photo: US 5th Fleet

Khamenei proclaims ‘the Persian Gulf belongs to Iran’

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has proclaimed that the Islamic Republic plays a vital role in maintaining security in the Persian Gulf –  and insisted the strategic waterway “belongs to this nation.”

In an apparent reference to the United States military, Khamenei went on to allege that “the presence of foreign forces” not only threatens regional security but prevents the advancement of initiatives that could benefit local inhabitants.

“The #PersianGulf is our home & the place for the presence of the great #IranianNation. The shores of the Persian Gulf & much of the Gulf of Oman, belong to this nation, & it should be present there. It should demonstrate its power. We’re a powerful nation with a great history,” Khamenei posted on his Twitter account.

Another post read, “The #PersianGulf region can be managed by a wise and rational collective policy that benefits all Persian Gulf countries. The factor that threatens such a proper, wise move is the presence of foreign forces in the region.”

As reported by Iran’s Financial Tribune, Khamenei made a series of posts to mark National Persian Gulf Day. In a similar message, the Supreme Leader declared, “The Persian Gulf belongs to the nations living there. Its security is the duty of these nations, & Iran with its long coastlines has a key role in keeping the security of this region. By God’s grace we will do our part. This is our historical, geographical & regional duty.”

Tehran’s proprietary claims over the strategic waterway come amid spiralling tensions with Washington. The U.S. State Department accused the IRGC Navy (IRGCN) of having “forcibly boarded and detained the Hong Kong-flagged SC Taipei oil tanker in international waters, and sailed the tanker into Iranian waters” on 14 April 2020; and having disrupted 5 U.S. naval vessels conducting a routine exercise by repeatedly engaging in high speed, harassing approaches the following day on 15 April, by repeatedly crossing the bows and sterns of the U.S. ships within just 10 yards of a US Coast Guard Cutter.

The U.S. Navy released a video on 16 April appearing to show multiple Iranian flagged vessels approaching American ships. According to a statement from US Central Command, 11 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval vessels “repeatedly conducted dangerous and harassing approaches” of the USS Lewis B. Puller, USS Paul Hamilton, USS Firebolt, USS Sirocco, USCGC Wrangell and USCGC Maui “while the US vessels were conducting joint integration operations with US Army AH-64E Apache attack helicopters in the international waters of the North Arabian Gulf.”

For its part, the IRGC maintained its forces were conducting drills in the Gulf when they faced “unprofessional and provocative actions” from the U.S. warships. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards then further exacerbated hostilities on 22 April by claiming to have conducted the first successful launch of a military satellite into orbit after several failed attempts. The announcement triggered renewed objections from Washington over Tehran’s satellite program, maintaining it is being used to develop ballistic missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads.

U.S. President Donald Trump issued a Tweet within hours on Twitter, writing that he had “instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, said the military will “apply that clear direction from the Commander in Chief into lawful orders” while underscoring that Iran understood that crossing any lines would provoke a response. During a later press briefing at the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist also described the Tweet as a lawful order, saying “The President issued an important warning to the Iranians. What he was emphasizing is all of our ships retain the right of self-defense and people need to be very careful in their interactions to understand the inherent right of self-defense.”

The following day, the head of the IRGC responded to Trump’s Tweet by vowing to destroy American warships if they threaten Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf.  “I have ordered our naval forces to destroy any American terrorist force in the Persian Gulf that threatens the security of Iran’s military or non-military ships,” Maj.-Gen. Hossein Salami said on Iranian state television. “Security of the Persian Gulf is part of Iran’s strategic priorities.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on his Twitter page that “US forces have no business 7,000 miles away from home, provoking our sailors off our OWN Persian Gulf shores.”

Several days later on 27 April, the Iranian military reiterated its claims that the U.S. naval coalition creates insecurity in the Gulf. The official IRNA news agency reported an official army statement read, “The false coalition from outside the region led by America disrupts regional order and security rather than help preserve stability and security in the region,” stressing that “the only sure way to establish peace and stability in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman is the exit of the American military forces and their allies.”

Qatar’s leader, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, called on all actors in the region to jointly act to de-escalate tensions. He made the statement after discussing the situation in the Persian Gulf in a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. According to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, Rouhani said “Iran carefully monitors all the activities and movements of Americans, but it will never be the side that starts any conflict or tension in the region.”

U.S.-Iranian tensions have soared since 2018, when Trump withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement between the Islamic Republic and six world powers and reimposed damaging economic sanctions.

According to a statement sent to TV7 by the U.S. State Department, “Iran has long used its naval forces to terrorize the international maritime community – this is not a new phenomenon.” Naval provocations detailed by Washington include 22 incidents of “unsafe and unprofessional conduct by the IRGC Navy (IRGCN), many that risked collision” recorded by the U.S. Navy during negotiations of the 2015 nuclear deal. In 2016, 36 similar incidents were recorded, including the January seizure by the IRGCN of two U.S. Navy riverine boats and detention of 10 U.S. sailors for a period of 15 hours, “violating their rights under the Geneva Convention by parading them in front of their propaganda cameras.”

2017 incidents included the forced change of course by the USNS Invincible “to avoid collision with multiple approaching IRGCN fast-attack small crafts in March, the firing of warning shots by the USS Thunderbolt in the Persian Gulf after an IRGCN vessel came within 150 yards in July,  the threatened safety of American pilots and crew as fighter jets landed at night aboard the USS Nimitz by the close flight of an unarmed Iranian drone in August 2017. According to the State Department, President Trump responded to these incidents in October 2017 by announcing “a new Iran policy that made clear the United States would not tolerate the status quo from Iran, nor appease their provocations. Following the President’s announcement, incidents of IRGC naval harassment sharply declined and remained depressed even after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA.”

Tensions further ratcheted higher in 2019. In May, the State Department informed TV7 that “Iran began a panicked campaign of aggression to extort the world into granting it sanctions relief.” Incidents included the placement and detonation of limpet mines by the IRGCN on two Saudi, one UAE, and one Norwegian-registered ships while they were harbored in UAE territorial waters near Fujairah Port on May 12; the June 13 placement and subsequent detonation of limpet mines by the IRGCN on one Norwegian owned ship and a Japanese ship as they transited the Gulf of Oman, the latter of which was partially filmed by the U.S. Navy; the deployment of a surface-to-air missile to shoot down a U.S. unmanned aircraft operating over international waters in the Strait of Hormuz on June 19; IRGCN seizure of the British-flagged, Swedish-owned Stena Impero tanker while it sailed through the Strait of Hormuz on July 19 and temporary detention of the Liberian-flagged Mesdar tanker the same day. The Stena Impero and her crew were held captive by the Islamic Republic “for more than two months as negotiating leverage,” according to the statement, as the Iranian regime simultaneously sought sanctions relief while “focusing its resources and efforts to harass the international maritime community.”

Washington responded “to the elevated risk posed to commercial vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz” by spearheading the creation of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) in August 2019, said the U.S. Statement Department, maintaining that the Iranian mine attacks have ceased after the IMSC coalition of 8 European, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations acted to ensure the freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce through the Strait.

Hostilities spiked again in early January 2020 when a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad killed top Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. Tehran retaliated six days later by firing missiles at Iraqi bases where U.S. troops were stationed.

Vessels operated by some 2,000 international companies and a fifth of the world’s oil pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The shipping industry was said to be rocked by the recent spate of attacks on oil tankers, which are now believed to be on a heightened state of alert.

The Chief Shipping Analyst at BIMCO, which dubs itself the world’s largest shipping association, said that despite the need for added precautions, most shippers have adopted a ‘business as usual’ approach. “They are all of course increasingly worried, but many of them are going with business as they would have done without the attacks,” Peter Sand told the Insurance Journal, adding “but of course with an extra layer of safety and security measures on top of that.” According to Sand, only two companies reacted by halting bookings. He added that if there was a further deterioration through the vital trade route, armed guards could become a feature in Hormuz, as already has aboard vessels sailing through the piracy-infested Gulf of Aden.

Other added security measures could include more expensive, increased speeds through the 3 kilometer wide Strait, or limitation of passage to daylight hours to ensure more effective security.

The Insurance Journal reported that in June 2019 in the wake of a series of attacks, “freight rates for operators in the Gulf rose 10-20%. With increased risks, however, come higher insurance premiums, which are expected to rise 10-15%.”

In the meantime, most of the relevant parties and shippers are maintaining low-profiles and are reluctant to reveal any increased security procedures. Repeated calls and email to multiple major oil companies based in China, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Denmark, Bermuda and Cyprus all declined TV7’s request for comment – as did the Ministry of Defence in the United Kingdom.

The United States maintains a prominent military presence in the Persian Gulf, with the deployment of additional troops, an airstrike carrier and bombers. It is also shrouding its presence in reticence. The sole military source willing to comment, a Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command’s Combined Maritime Forces – U.S. 5th Fleet, simply told TV7 that “there is nothing new to report.”