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Iran seizure of British yachtsmen spotlights stakes in Strait of Hormuz

Iran's seizure of five British yachtsmen of its coast last week highlights the growing role of the country's Revolutionary Guard along a vital oil shipping lane.

By Staff writer / December 1, 2009

Iran's seizure of five British racing yachtsmen who accidentally strayed into its waters in the Strait of Hormuz last week may merely be caught in an unfortunate, soon to be cleared-up misunderstanding.

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"There is certainly no question of any malicious intent on the part of these five young people," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters in London on Tuesday. The yacht is owned by the king of Bahrain and was traveling to race off Dubai. The yacht's manager told the Associated Press that the vessel had developed a propeller problem that led to its drifting into Iranian waters. Iran has thus far not provided any consular access to the arrested civilians.

But the arrests – Iran threatened Tuesday to prosecute the five Britons if it determines they were sailing with "bad intent" – highlight not only the increasing use of arrested foreigners as bargaining chips in Iran's standoff with the US and other Western powers over its nuclear program, but the country's desire to exert maximum control over the narrow and strategic strait.

Iran has been holding three young American hikers who strayed across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan for three months, and accused the trio of espionage last month.

Iran also seized and held 15 British sailors and marines it alleged entered its waters in 2007 while they were patrolling the Iraqi coast. It released them after two weeks.

Strait of Hormuz: Choke point for Mideast oil flow
Just 30 miles wide at its narrowest point on the tip of the Persian Gulf, it is the principle choke point for Saudi Arabian, Iranian and Iraqi oil heading for the thirsty markets of Asia. Every day, over a quarter of the world's oil production makes its way through the strait on this journey east.

"Controlling the Strait of Hormuz is the key tool by which Iran could internationalize any conflict,'" says a recent briefing by the US Office of Naval Intelligence. "The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow choke point that could be mined effectively in a relatively short amount of time. Iran uses its mining capability as a strong deterrent to attacks from western nations."

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