On July 19th the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero sailing in Omani waters through the Hormuz Strait was captured by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The move came nearly two weeks after British Royal Marines Commandos seized an Iranian supertanker, near Gibraltar, believed to be carrying oil to Syria – a contravention of European Union sanctions.
Britain responded by advising all British-flagged shipping to avoid the Strait. It also dispatched HMS Duncan, a Type 45 guided-missile destroyer, in the area (to replace HMS Montrose), and tasked it with protecting navigation through the Strait.
HMS Duncan is outfitted with Harpoon missiles that give it significant anti-ship capabilities. These could come handy in case Iranian vessels attempt another seizure of British or European ships. Moreover, HMS Duncan carries a contingent of Royal Marines and can also accommodate further forces in the form of Special Boat Service (SBS) operators.
Nevertheless, as former British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt stressed in his speech to the British Parliament, the ship covers an operating area of 19,000 nautical square miles, while the Gulf spans an area of nearly 100,000 nautical square miles. It is thus unrealistic to expect that HMS Duncan will be able to singlehandedly protect traffic.
Hence, and in complement to the above, Britain has proposed the assemblage of a European naval task force assigned with safeguarding freedom of navigation through the waterway of the Hormuz Strait. The proposal was met with cautious agreement by several EU member states–amongst them Denmark, Italy, and France, with some others also showing interest. France, in particular, has a history of putting its money where its mouth is: It was one of the first nations to join the coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), even deploying its nuclear aircraft in the region. More recently, it has dispatched warships in the Eastern Mediterranean to protect its energy interests against Turkey’s truculence.
The Hormuz Strait is of geostrategic importance because it is the water passage from the Gulf to the Indian Ocean: it therefore is one of the world’s most important oil chokepoints with a third of the world’s seaborne oil (18.5 million barrels/day) passing through it.
Nevertheless, the Strait itself is not critical for EU’s energy security–that distinction now goes to Russia, Norway, and the U.S. Additionally, given Britain’s impending exit from the EU bloc and in order to be untrammeled from the lengthy bureaucracy associated with deploying an EU mission, if such a naval task force were formed it would have to be outside the confines of the EU. Lastly, in some of the aforementioned European countries, parliamentary approval would be required to dispatch troops abroad.
Nonetheless, if such a naval coalition were indeed dispatched Iran’s tit-for-tat move will have proven impolitic. Given the already tense relationship with the U.S. and with discussions between the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) signatories–sans the U.S.–happening in an effort to salvage the agreement, Iran will gain nothing by providing a reason for EU countries to establish a coordinated naval military presence aimed at constraining Tehran’s actions in the area: That would only increase the likelihood and the cost of a potential miscalculation.