Iranian Speedboats, US Warships, The Straits of Hormuz
The US has just filed an official protest against Iran for the actions of its coastal patrol speedboats, which are alleged to have crossed the bows of warships passing through the Straits of Hormuz, dropping boxes into the water in front of them. Iran has denied the allegations, said the US videos used footage from an earlier incident, and released its own video, the second attached above. An examination of the videos will find that the US version is irrelevant to its claims legal or otherwise, and the Iranian video provides a clear-cut basis for complaint.
When CNN first reported the story, my impression was the White House was caught flat-footed, with no prompt statement, no press conference, no apparent preparation. If the incident had not been genuine, one would expect much quicker reaction times; perhaps Iran used the occasion of Bush's first visit to Israel to do some buzzing of Navy ships. Over the next days, both the Pentagon and Washington got on the story and pushed it into "harassment," a "clash" and a "skirmish." Opportunism and orchestrated outrage begin to seem more likely. From the videos and counter-claims, a careful viewer can't really tell what happened, how non-routine the behaviors were on either side, or how close it came to acts of war.
With a formal protest lodged by the US, the incident will be taken seriously, yet the case against Iran is a loser. In the second video above, the Iranian patrol boat captain hails vessel 73, which replies to his hail and identifies itself as a coalition warship. The Iranian then requests the vessel's course and speed. The warship replies that it is "operating in international waters," and gives the same reply to repeated requests for clarification of course and speed. The warship's reply is false, since the Straits of Hormuz are only 21 miles at their widest, and much narrower for large-ship navigation. Ships can't pass through there without being in territorial waters claimed by either Oman or Iran under the transit passage provisions of UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In the second video, regardless of time authenticity, the US Navy violated the Law of the Sea. Technically, Iran's territorial water limit extends up to twelve miles off shore, and vessels including warships can take "innocent passage" through it, and the Straits of Hormuz. Yet nations have the right to temporarily suspend innocent passage in specific areas of their territorial seas if doing so is deemed essential for the protection of their security. Therefore, if the coalition warship were on Oman's side of the ill-defined territorial border, it should have answered as such, claiming right of passage granted by Oman; if it were in the very well-defined shipping lanes exercising innocent passage on either Omani or Iranian territorial waters, it should have expressed that right (as it did in the first US video). If the ship were on Iran's territorial waters, transit passage law grants the Iranians every right to demand information on course and speed. Additionally, they could also unilaterally deny innocent passage under UNCLOS, and approach and demand to board vessels inside their territory which they deem a threat to their security.
Given past US actions in its waters, and its recent hostile stance, there's abundant basis for Iran to cite the US as a security threat. On 18 April 1988, the U.S. Navy waged a one-day battle against Iranian forces in and around the strait. The battle, dubbed Operation Praying Mantis by the U.S. side, was launched in retaliation for the 14 April mining of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). U.S. forces sank two Iranian warships and as many as six armed speedboats in the engagement. On July 3, 1988, 290 people were killed when an Iran AirAirbus A300 passenger jet was shot down over the strait by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes. There is still lingering controversy about the event, considered among the most controversial tragedies in aviation history. On January 10, 2007, the nuclear submarine USS Newport News, traveling submerged, struck M/V Mogamigawa, a 300,000-ton Japanese-flagged large oil tanker just south of the strait. (Wikipedia credit for links in this paragraph.) The tanker had suddenly slowed before impact, indicating the US submarine was attempting clandestine underwater passage in its prop wash. Hardly innocent transit.
Does legality matter in the Persian Gulf? Not yet, and Iran may have reason to feel contemptuous of the UN's impartiality. Ultimately, however, legality could become very important, and knowing how laws regarding coastal sovereignty are supposed to be handled calls the competing official versions out into clearer, less bullshit-clouded light. Coalition Vessel 73's claim that it was in international waters was intentionally idiotic and insulting. A US Navy spokesman said that the speedboats were "a heartbeat away" from being blown up two days ago, that may be so, and it's impossible to precisely assess what happened in this incident. In contrast, it is not at all difficult to assess that the routine passage of US warships through the straits is an act of war should Iran choose to define it as such, and is inherently dangerous. Iran's daily restraint indicates very high levels of patience and discipline on the part of its Navy and government, as well as on the part of the coalition warship crews. Otherwise, a far worse "clash" would have already occurred.