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.
"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."
Now controlled by ideological Revolutionary Guard
And as things stand, the most politically powerful and ideologically committed of Iran's two naval forces is in control of the strait. Iran has a traditional navy which was build and modernized under the Shah, the country's ruling monarch who was deposed in 1979. Many naval and army officers were executed or otherwise purged in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, and the traditional navy has often been viewed with suspicion by the Islamists who became Iran's dominant political class.
In the years since, the Revolutionary Guard – defenders of the Islamic revolution chosen as much for their ideological soundness as their military ability – have developed their own navy of sorts, involving light fast boats and cruise missiles based on the coast. According to a recent briefing by the US Office of Naval Intelligence, they are also purported to have suicide crews willing to ram enemy vessels with explosives.
"Iran uses its naval forces for political ends such as naval diplomacy and strategic messaging,'' said the open-source US Naval Intelligence briefing on Iran's naval forces last month. "Public statements by Iranian leaders indicate that they would consider closing or controlling the Strait of Hormuz if provoked."
The Revolutionary Guard was put in charge of the Strait in 2007 in a naval reorganization that the US report says plays to its strengths – and to its stated intent to shut the strait if threatened. The traditional navy's heavy ships now largely patrol the Gulf of Oman, where they have the range and ability to engage enemy ships far from Iranian territory.
The Guard's lighter boats – which need to frequently resupply at shore – will seek to extend Iran's presence in the Strait.
With Iran's announcement this week that it will soon build 10 new nuclear sites, and with the Republic's recent rejection of an offer to enrich its stockpile of uranium in Russia and France to fuel a civilian nuclear reactor, tensions between Iran, the US, and other powers are rising over its nuclear program. The Obama Administration is marshaling international support for a new round of sanctions against Tehran.
With all this, the chance of conflict between Iran and the US has increased, however unlikely it still may be. If fighting ever does break out, the Strait of Hormuz and the Iranian's ability to project force their will become crucial.