Iranian Army chief Ataollah Salehi said “the United States had moved an aircraft carrier out of the Gulf because of Iran's naval exercises, and Iran would take action if the ship returned.”1 Can any nation legally claim control of such a large body of water? If so, what can America do in response?
The Persian Gulf is a flashpoint for many of the world’s problems. Much of the oil flowing from the Middle East passes through the Straits of Hormuz and most of the trade between Europe and Asia takes the shortcut through the Suez Canal. Now Iran is trying to play gatekeeper; deciding who may or may not use “their” pond.
Maritime law is largely settled law. For centuries it has been based on the right of free passage. No nation can claim unlimited control over the waters of the world. The International guideline is a 12-mile territorial extension from the nearest sovereign land.
Some may recall in 1973 Muammar al-Quaddafi had his 200 mile claim out into the Mediterranean Sea marked by the “Line of Death.” He dared the US Navy ships to cross it at their peril. For a number of years the US Navy conducted Freedom of Navigation exercises down to the 12 mile limit. In 1981 two US Navy F-14 Tomcats downed two Libyan Su-22 Fitters after they were fired upon in disputed waters. That incident eventually died down but the Libyan leader never relented. He spent much of his country’s oil wealth trying to build a stronger defense against American incursions. In 1986 He asserted himself again.
United States President Ronald Reagan gave little time or service to the Arab leader’s saber-rattling. He order the services to launch a combined strike of Air Force FB-111’s and Navy carrier strike aircraft to hit those defenses, shoot up his air forces and personally slap him around. On April 15th Quaddafi found out what our tax dollars bought. He quickly found a hiding place while several of his palaces took serious bomb damage.
A few weeks later I was onboard the USS ENTERPRISE (seen here conducting UNREP2 in the Persian Gulf) steaming in the Med. A few cross words from Quaddafi and we turned south along with another carrier. About 2 AM on a clear moonlit night Libyan observers saw both carriers launching strike packages halfway to the horizon. We didn’t actually hit anything that night but Quaddafi got the message; we could come back at any time we wanted.
Fast forward to January 2012. How will the United States respond to the Iranian threat? Don’t look to the White House for leadership. The man in the big chair now is no Ronald Reagan. He has never shown decisive leadership and is largely unwilling to take forceful action on the international stage, especially against Muslims.
If the United States (or other significant naval power) fails to challenge the Iranian claim to sovereignty over access to the Persian Gulf in a timely manner then it will be a de facto recognition of the claim and become legitimized. The fact that no other nation has a fraction of the naval resources as the US means it generally falls to us to enforce the Right of Navigation. Only time will tell if our president has the will to act. I am not holding my breath on this one. I expect it will be in 2013, after the next election before we see anything definite done in the region.
2. UNREP: Underway replenishment, one of several ways a ship at sea gets needed fuel and supplies while on station far from land. Fuel passes through the hoses, dry goods can come over in pallets across guy wires.
3. Photo courtesy of: http://www.acclaimimages.com/_gallery/_pages/0420-0907-3019-1001.html