The US is leading 10 other nations in stepping up patrols in the Middle East, specifically in and around the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran seized two merchant vessels since late April alone.
The Defense Department “will be making a series of moves to bolster our defensive posture in the Arabian Gulf,” or the Persian Gulf, White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters May 12, according to AFP and other news wires.
“Iran’s unwarranted, irresponsible and unlawful seizure and harassment of merchant vessels must stop,” the US 5th Fleet’s commander, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, said in a statement released after the White House announcement. “US 5th Fleet and our partners are committed to protecting navigational rights in these critical waters.”
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Existing assets already in the Middle East, including aircraft and ships, will be used immediately for “increased rotational patrols to enhance our presence specifically in and around the Strait of Hormuz,” 5th Fleet spokesperson Tim Hawkins said in an interview. New ships or planes were not immediately required to enter the region to increase the patrols, he said.
The 15 ships that Iran harassed, seized or attacked in the region for the past two years “clearly demonstrate an uptick in destabilizing activity by Iran” in the region, he said. He declined to comment on a high-level source saying Iran’s first seizure was a “tit-for-tat” by Iran after the US recently seized the Suez Rajan carrying sanctioned Iranian crude.
Iran has been the focus of US sanctions for years, most recently on its energy industry in 2018 after former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in place since 2015 which restricted Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s crude production was 2.62 million b/d in April, down from 3.83 million b/d in early 2018, according to the Platts OPEC+ survey by S&P Global Commodity Insights.
Iran’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the increased surveillance and ship seizures.
The two most recent seizures by Iran around the Strait of Hormuz “were not isolated incidents,” Hawkins said in a May 11 interview on the base, one day before the White House announcement. “They fit the pattern of unlawful activity by Iran” affecting commercial vessels around the Arabian Peninsula since 2021, he said.
The Panama-flagged Niovi was seized by Iran on May 3 heading for Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast, six days after Iran seized the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker Advantage Sweet while it sailed in international waters in the Gulf of Oman. The Advantage Sweet was transiting the Gulf of Oman on April 27 carrying an 800,000-barrel cargo of Ratawi crude for Chevron loaded at Kuwait’s Mina Saud terminal on April 25, en route to the US, according to S&P Global Commodities at Sea vessel tracker. Chevron declined to comment on the incident.
The Strait of Hormuz is a critical chokepoint through which 30% of the world’s seaborne oil transits, and previous tanker incidents in and around the Gulf have spooked oil and shipping markets, though crude prices have fallen in recent weeks over wider global economic concerns.
Platts assessed Dated Brent at $75.31/b May 12, down from a recent high of $88.21/b on April 12. The VLCC rate for shipping 270,000 mt of cargo from the Persian Gulf to China was $10.33/mt May 12, down from a recent high of $25.64/b on March 10.
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The increased surveillance at the Strait of Hormuz will be conducted through the 11-nation International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) and the eight-nation European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASoH), both formed in 2019 when there was also an increase in destabilizing maritime activity.
Their focus is on security around the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. Additionally, IMSC also focuses on security in the Bab Al Mandab Strait that leads from the Gulf of Aden into the Red Sea.
The countries in the IMSC are Albania, Bahrain, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, the UAE, the UK and the US, while the EMASoH members are Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands and Portugal.
“We are optimistic about the progress we’re seeing in collaborating with regional partners and we are doing so in a way that drives innovation forward through the integration of unmanned systems and artificial intelligence,” Commander Hawkins said. “We’re clear-eyed about threats posed from Iran and that is why our efforts are very important.”