Battleground Hormuz: Iranian attacks on Commercial Shipping Vessels

Iran has returned to its expansionist efforts at sea while the Biden administration and the European Union continue as bystanders more concerned about the safe withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan. Many commentators regard the recent turmoil to be a direct result of efforts by the Pentagon to revive its nuclear deal with Iran and lift sanctions against the Iranian regime.


The oil tanker MV Mercer Street was witness to a drone attack on 30 July this year when an armed drone dropped sorties 280km from the port of Al-Daqam in the Gulf of Oman. The attack caused the death of two seamen, one British and one Romanian. The Japanese-owned ship, hoisting a Liberian-flag, is managed by Zodiac Maritime, a British company owned by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer's.


It remains a well recognised fact by many nations including the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and Israel that the Iranian regime was the main perpetrator and is culpable for the deadly attack. In a recent statement issued by the US Department of Defense, after adequate investigation into the MV Mercer Street attack, the US Central Command said that the region was witnessing an increasing number of attacks from Iranian one way attack 'kamikaze' UAVs. Their major targets were not only coalition forces but also targets in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.


Displaying no concern for the attack, the European Union optimistically stated its ambition of reviving the nuclear deal with Iran. Despite the recent fatalities, a senior EU official stated without any sign of condemnation, "We still think that the most likely scenario is an agreement. What I cannot tell you is when and under what conditions. The Iranian leaders will come back the moment they have completed all the different steps in the new administration. So my understanding is that we are talking about sometime at the beginning of September. Even in circumstances of a lack of hostility, there are no signs of remorse from the Iranian side."


This is not the first incident of Iranian attack on commercial oil tankers in the recent past. In May 2019, four tankers were victims of Iranian fire near Fujairah, off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. On June 13, 2019, two tankers, the Japanese Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian Front Altair were targeted by Iranian explosives when sailing through the Gulf of Oman. One tanker was destroyed beyond repair and both were left adrift. Later that week, a video boasting about the seizure of a British Oil Tanker in the Strait of Hormuz Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was broadcast on Iranian television.


It remains no hidden fact that the Iranian regime, with its latest skirmishes in the Strait of Hormuz against commercial vessels, has been in violation of several critical international laws. Iran has violated the internationally agreed UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).Article 1(3) of the UNCLOS, "Straits Used For International Navigation," read in conjunction with Article 44, requires states bordering straits not to hamper transit passage and disseminate information regarding any danger to maritime or aerial navigation in the region of which they have knowledge, prohibiting the suspension of transit passage. UNCLOS also suggests that transit passage means the exercise in accordance with this Part of the freedom of navigation and overflight solely for the purpose of continuous and expeditious transit of the strait between one part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone and another part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone.


In addition, Iran's expansionist tendencies in the Strait of Hormuz stands in violation of the UN General Assembly's "Definition of Aggression," which suggests that all states shall refrain from all acts of aggression including other uses of force against the Charter of the United Nations and the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation. It also clarifies that the blockade of the ports or coasts of a state by another state, and an attack by another state on the land, sea or air forces, or marine and air fleets of another state can also be deemed to be an act of aggression. Despite all this, major geopolitical actors powers including the United States, the EU and UN Security Council have remained silent on the issue.


It must hold paramount importance for the international community not to jeopardise the basic tenet of any international partnership, 'the freedom of navigation in the seas.' The aggression directed towards commercial vessels displayed by the incumbent Iranian regime coupled with recent blockages in the Suez canal point towards the fragility of international shipping and trade and ultimately, International peace. Hence, the international community must take stringent measures to hold Iran accountable for its acts of aggression.