Persian Gulf Tensions

U.S. Navy patrol boats carrying journalists to see damaged oil tankers leaves a U.S. Navy 5th Fleet base near Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

For many, many years the Strait of Hormuz has been a flash point for warring factions in a particularly dangerous part of the world, where Persian and Arab cultures brush up upon each other.

In the late 1950s (my, how time flies!), I made two trips on a Navy destroyer through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. On the first such trip, we traveled up the Shatt al- Arab (formed by the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), to Basra, the principle port of Iraq. Iran lies on the other side of this waterway.

Upon mooring, my ship was visited by the American consul, a very friendly and accommodating man who offered to show our wardroom officers, of which I was one (a fresh-caught ensign), some of the local sights. One he steered us to was a nightclub. No alcohol, but some amazing belly dancers.

I struck up a conversation with the consul and mentioned that, as a history buff, I hoped that some day I might come back to this part of the world and see Baghdad and the ruins of Babylon. “Well,” he said, “I’ve got a plane that makes a regular run to Baghdad. It leaves tomorrow morning and returns in two days or so. See what your captain says. If it’s all right with him, you can have a seat on that plane.”

“Are you out of your mind?” my captain said when I approached him on this. He drummed his fingers on the wardroom table and then, much to my surprise, said, “All right. You know when we leave. You get back here, by hook or by crook if need be. I’ll not wait for you.”

And that’s how I came to make my first and only trip to Baghdad and the nearby ruins of Babylon. I booked a hotel, hired a car and driver, and crossed the desert from Baghdad to Babylon. I saw a lot. I never felt farther away from home in my life.

On my second trip to the Persian Gulf, I had other adventures, but that’s a story for another time.

What has my attention now is Iran’s recent attacks on oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. These ships carry some 35 percent of the world’s seaborne oil trade. Some 85 percent of that oil is destined for Asian markets, with Japan, India, South Korea and China being the four largest importers.

If Iran’s attacks on the tankers continue, it conceivably could lead to a closing of the narrow waters these ships pass through. This would seriously impact the world economy, including our own.

The attacks thus far appear to have utilized both mines and surface-to-surface missiles. The former likely were limpets attached secretly while the tankers were in port or at anchor. The missiles could have been launched either by Iranian navy small craft or from ground installations within Iran. U.S. forces already in the vicinity should have relatively little trouble eliminating such threats.

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The dispatch of an additional 1,000 U.S. servicemen and women to the area will have little if any real impact on the balance of forces in the region. There already are 70,000 U.S. troops in this part of the troubled Middle East.

Iran’s economy has suffered severely from sanctions imposed by the United States. Inflation, though not yet as punishing as that in Venezuela, has clearly eroded what little public support governing Iranian mullahs still enjoy. This almost certainly has moved the ruling faction to announce what amounts to a withdrawal from the nuclear agreement Iran entered into with a number of Western states. (The Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the agreement a little over a year ago.)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that the U.S. would forestall “for now” the use of military force against Iran, and that our policy remains to use diplomatic and economic means “to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.”

Good luck with that.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.