Context lacking in BBC report on developments in Strait of Hormuz

On April 30th a short report appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “US Navy to assist US-flagged ships through Strait of Hormuz“. The article’s subject matter is portrayed as follows:SoH story

“Defence officials have said that US Navy ships will accompany US-flagged commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz, to make sure they are not interfered with by Iran. […]

The US navy will not be escorting the ships – a different procedure from accompanying them. Instead, it will monitor the area as the ships pass across the strait.”

The BBC report does not expand on the meaning of the term “monitor”, but some explanation of what that means in practical terms has been provided by retired US Navy officer JE Dyer:

“The Navy won’t be running convoys through the strait, or pulling literal “escort” duty.  It appears that the Navy will be on-call to monitor Iranian activity in the strait while U.S.-flagged ships are in transit, a posture that can be ramped up to dedicated escort at need, but without naval escort being imposed on U.S. merchant ships as a routine condition of passage (something the president has authority to do).

The profile of operations is thus as open-ended as the timeframe for the requirement.  The best way to put it is to say we’ll be having to keep a duty warship in the SOH [Strait of Hormuz] for escort contingencies.”

CNN adds:

“Pentagon officials provided clarification Thursday afternoon that not every ship will necessarily be accompanied by the Navy. But this is still a significant change in the U.S. military posture in the Strait.

The classified plan was approved by the Pentagon earlier Thursday, according to a senior defense official.

While the Navy maintains a routine ship presence in the Persian Gulf and the North Arabian Sea, this new effort specifically requires an armed warship to be in the narrow channel between Iran and Oman when a U.S. commercial vessel passes through.”

The BBC report notes the incidents which took place last week in the Strait of Hormuz:

“Iranian patrol boats surrounded a US cargo ship in the strait on Friday.

Earlier this week, Iranian naval ships reportedly fired warning shots near a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship before seizing it and its crew. […]

The crew of the Marshall Islands-flagged container ship seized by Iran in the strait on Tuesday are safe and “in good spirits”, Danish shipping company Maersk said.

Maersk said it still did not know the reason why the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel was seized, and noted it had been in an international shipping lane.

Iranian media cited an official as saying the ship was seized based on a court order in connection with a complaint made by a private Iranian company about debts.”

Neither in this report nor in its two previous related articles (see here and here) did the BBC clarify the significance of the Iranian actions. JE Dyer again:

“Iran purports to be at war with no one, and hasn’t claimed a national-defense need to take the unusual and arguably criminal step of detaining a ship exercising the right of innocent passage in an international strait.

Maersk Tigris isn’t an asset of the Maersk Line – the ship’s not owned by Maersk – and neither is the cargo she carries. Iran has impounded the assets of innocent third parties, in an alleged attempt to collect a debt from 2005 owed by Maersk because of an Iranian court judgment.

A coastal state’s prerogatives in an international strait don’t give it the right to do this.  In fact, the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) prohibits what Iran did on Tuesday.  The only prerogative it recognizes for a coastal state to stop a ship exercising innocent passage is to enforce national laws which that specific ship may be in violation of.  (See Article 28.)  According to the reason Iran gave for detaining her, Maersk Tigris is a third party in breach of no Iranian law or judgment.” [UNCLOS text here]

Writing on the legal aspects of Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris, Professor Eugene Kontorovich notes that:

“Iran’s seizure clearly violates international law, and one might add, a branch of international law that is ordinarily well-respected, and quite fundamental for global commerce. Moreover, no maritime lien gives Iran any authority to detain the crew.

Given the flagrant breach of international law, there seems to be a surprising silence from the “international community” and proponents of global governance.”

With regard to conventions concerning the Strait of Hormuzthrough which approximately 30% of all seaborne traded oil is transported – the BBC states:

“The strait connects the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. […]

The narrow strait lies partly in Iranian waters.

Shipping traffic is allowed to pass through under an internationally-recognised protocol called “innocent passage”, so long as the ships are not carrying weapons, collecting intelligence, or violating other restrictions.”

Clearly then the latest move by Iran – and the US reaction to it – is of prime significance, as noted by JE Dyer.

“The decision to accompany U.S.-flagged shipping in the SOH is a finger in a dike, and what it actually means is that the international convention that has governed safe transit of the Strait of Hormuz for decades has already collapsed.  Appointing a U.S. Navy escort in the conditions of 2015 is an acknowledgment that there’s nothing we can do about the chaos that is now cracking the pillars of international order.  We can try to protect our own shipping, but there will be no enforcement of a principle of safe passage through international straits, as a basic building block of order among the nations.”

Obviously a lot of context essential for comprehensive audience understanding of this story and any related future developments is absent from this BBC report and others. 

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