India’s growing international stature, and as a regional maritime power, is visible from the fact that many foreign navies undertake exercises with the Indian Navy. The joint naval exercises include the Malabar exercise with Japanese and the US Navy, Varuna with French Navy, and INDRA X with Russian Navy, CORPAT with Thailand, Malaysian and Indonesian Navy, AUSINDEX with Australian Navy and SIMBEX with Singaporean Navy.

The US Secretary of State Mike Pampeo’s visit on 26 Jun 2019 coincided with India’s endorsement to non-permanent seat of the UNSC. The fifty-five countries of the Asia-Pacific group have all endorsed India’s candidature for non-permanent seat of the Security Council for a two year term from 2021-2022.

India has been elected unanimously. The United States has renamed the US Pacific command, its largest and oldest military command, as Indo- Pacific Command. It is a symbolic move to highlight the importance of India, and to seek its assistance to emphasise a rule based international order in the wake of China’s laying claim to the entire South China Sea; followed by initiation of a series of measures that have raised tensions in the South China Sea.

India, which is now seeking a permanent membership of United Nations Security Council with US endorsement, finds itself at a crossroad and in a dilemma when it finds the USA enforcing trade sanctions on Iran; its most important crude oil supplier for its power hungry economy. Under US CAATSA Act, India faces threat of sanctions by USA if it continues crude oil trade with Iran. For a developing economy like India, a slight increase in crude oil prices can play havoc with its economy.

Although India has had good trade relations with Iran since ancient times, its present state of relations with Iran can only be termed as complex. Iran’s traditional support to Pakistan on the latter’s standon Jammu and Kashmir has not been welcomed by Delhi. Iran’s nuclear programme raises fear of nuclear weapon falling in hands of an Islamic Theocratic State. The present Persian Gulf crises raises important questions for India’s foreign, economic and military policy.

As it seeks permanent membership in Security Council, its present tenure and voting pattern on international issues as temporary member of UNSC will play dominant role in garnering necessary support for permanent membership when time comes. India will have to classify friends from foes in the light of its national interest. It will have to discriminate in supporting right cause from wrong, to ensure rule based international order. The article therefore seeks to scrutinizes the Persian Gulf crisis from Navy’s perspective andappreciate applicable International Laws, nature of threat and suggest possible alternatives available.

The Relevance of Strait of Hormuz

The Strait of Hormuz connects Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman to Persian Gulf Strait. The Gulf of Oman is approximately 1500 km from Mumbai coast. Gulf of Oman has Iran and Pakistan to its North, Oman to its South and UAE to its West. The Persian Gulf states comprising of Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE have the largest reserves of crude oil and natural gas. The Persian Gulf states produce 25% of the world’s oil, and hold 2/3rd of the world’s crude reserve. They also have 35% of world’s natural gas reserves.

Historically India had a robust economic and trade relations with Persian Gulf states. Presently too,India provides the largest number of skilled and unskilled worker force to Persian Gulf states. Qatar has more than 650,000 inhabitants from India. Presently, India imports 75-80% of Oil from Gulf States. Indian cinema and satellite channels are extremely popular among local Arabs and the resident Indians alike.By 2019 India was exporting more to Persian Gulf states than European Union combined. India’s exports to the GCC, amounting to 41.55 billion mostly comprise agriculture and dairy products, garments, jewelry and petro-chemicals; with export growth rate pegged at 5.5%. About 15-20 % of Indian exports go to Persian Gulf States. India was also Dubai’s largest Trade partner. India’s large Muslim population gave it an advantage over China. Imports from Gulf countries to India until May 2019 amounted close to $79.70 billion.

Iran’s Troubled Relations with Neighbours

Iran, a Shia majority Islamic republic state, has always had troubled relations with its neighbors. The 1979 Iranian revolution brought about considerable foreign policy change in Iran. Many previous foe became friends and friends became foes. Iranian revolution declared monarchy as anti-Islamic. This conflicted with the interest of many Arab league nations.Ayatollah Khomeini’s view of ‘supporting the oppressed and opposing the arrogant’ created considerable unrest in neighbouring countries. Iran’s rise as leader of Shia community outside its borders, and its territorial dispute led to many neighbouring Arab nations to hold hostile view of Iran. The Iraq- Iran war in 1980s was looked at as a Shia –Sunni war from religious context and led to anti-Arabism in Iran.

During the Ayatollah Khomeini’s campaign (1978-79) Israel was declared arch rival, enemy of the Islam and a little Satan. The USA was declared as bigger Satan. In 2000 Israel was called “a cancerous tumor “and Khomeini threatened to erase Israel’s landscape from world’s geography. Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) declared Israel an illegal state and a parasite. Under Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran was involved in series of covert operation and proxy wars in its neighbourhood. Iran has always supported Hezbollah fighters against Israel, including by manning of their posts by Iran’s revolutionary guards during the 2006 Lebanon war.

The Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have also actively supported Hamas against Israel and have supplied them with arms and ammunition. India and Iran have held mostly conflicting political views. During the cold-war period India leaned more towards Soviet Union, while Iran was more aligned towards USA. During the cold war era, as well during the Iranian Revolution, Iran’s close relation with Pakistan and India’s strong relation with Iraq prevented cementing of Indo-Iran ties. Iran has also supported and consistently backed Pakistan vis-a-vis India in matters pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir.

Iran’s Trade Relations with India

India is the world’s third-biggest oil consumer and meets 80 per cent of its crude oil requirements through imports. Iran in 2017-18 was its third-largest supplier after Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Iran meets about 10 per cent of India’s total oil needs.India is Iran’s second biggest buyer of crude oil and has imported 24 million tonnes of crude oil in fiscal year ending 2018. The Federation of Indian Export Organisation has held that Iran holds huge export opportunities in sectors such as agriculture, chemicals, machinery, pharmaceuticals, paper and paper products, man-made fibre and filament yarn and essential oil. Iran’s major exports to India are oil, fertilisers and chemicals while imports include cereals, tea, coffee, spices and organic chemicals. The Chabahar port in Iran has also been jointly financed by Iran and India.

India is also providing financial aid to build a highway in Iran between Zaranj and Delaram (Zaranj-Delaram Highway). Chabahar Port will also provide India access to the oil and gas resources in Iran and the Central Asian states. This will also provide Central Asian states an alternate trade route to the Chinese built Gwadar Port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan to complement itsCPEC-BRI initiative. Iran plans to use Chabahar for trans-shipment to Afghanistan and Central Asia, while keeping the port of Bandar Abbas as a major hub mainly for trade with Russia and Europe. India, Iran and Afghanistan have signed an agreement to give Indian goods, heading for Central Asia and Afghanistan, preferential treatment and tariff reductions at Chabahar.

Iran’s Nuclear Program

Reports of undisclosed activities pertaining to Iranian nuclear program in 2000 had raised several eyebrows around the world. In 2003 IAEA reported that Iran had not complied with NPT obligation and had not declared sensitive enrichment activities and possibilities of enrichment of weapon grade uranium. The Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran.

Iran’s tense relation with the neighbouring state, hard-line Islamic ideology and threat to wipe out Israel and USA, it’s endorsement and striving for an Islamic nuclear bomb, and its support to Hamas, Hezbollah and the separatist movement in Jammu and Kashmir helped project it as a considerable threat to the world peace, and to India. Consequently, in spite of close trade relations, India voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005 enabling matters to be referred to Security Council for punitive actions against Iran.

India gave primacy to discomfort it felt with the possibility of nuclear weapons in Islamic theocratic state falling in hands of hardliners and Islamic militants, over its trade relations with Iran. A deal was made between Iran and the major world powers US, UK, Russia, France and Germany in 2015 to limit Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium. In return, relevant sanctions on Iran were lifted, allowing Iran to resume oil exports under UNSC resolution 2231. However, the US pulled out of the deal last year and reinstated sanctions in May 2018 stating that the 2015 deal puts no curb on Iranian ballistic missiles programme and the conditions must be included in the deal.

The Iranians have threatened to scale back their obligations under 2015 deal. The US has threatened to sanction any country or entity dealing doing business with Iran or purchasing Iranian Crude with effect from 04 November 2018. The waiver to top buyers of Iranian crude, including India ended on 02 May 2019. India has already stopped taking Oil from Iran and has started purchasing Oil from other Persian Gulf countries fearing sanctions from Washington under Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).The Iran’s crude Oil export has already dipped from 2.8 million barrels per day in 2018 to 50,000 bpd.

This has resulted in the inevitable meltdown in Iranian economy and scared away investors. The inflation in Iranian economy is soaring. Apart from scaling back its obligations under the nuclear deal, Iran has threatened to block Strait of Hormuz; a key transit of crude oil for other Persian Gulf states.

Present developments in Strait of Hormuz

On 13 Jun 2019,two Saudi Arabia’s tanker were reportedly targeted by “sabotage attack” near Fujairah Port in UAE. Explosions also took place on Japanese tanker ships Kokuka Courageous and Norwegian Front Altair on Strait of Hormuz,although there were no reported causalities. The culprit behind the blasts has not been conclusively proven, though Saudi Arabia and USA attributed the blasts to Iran, which in turn has charged the USA for orchestrating the incident. On 20 June 2019, Iran claimed to have shot down an American Global Hawk spy drone by its surface to air missile.

The Americans have acknowledged the downing of their spy drone but claimed that the drone was in international air space. President Donald Trump of USA has promised an appropriate response, and has begun augmenting the US naval and land forces in the region. There is a sense of deja vu in the air. US Federal Aviation administration and Indian DGCA have directed their respective airlines to avoid Iranian airspace. All major international airlines have also started to alter course around Iranian air space to avoid any unfortunate aerial mishap.On 21 Jun 2019, India dispatched its destroyer INS Chennai and Offshore Patrol Vessel INS Sunayna to Persian Gulf to provide armed escort for maritime security under Operation Sankalp. Naval Aircraft’s have also been deployed for aerial surveillance.

The Indian Directorate General of Shipping has issued warning to all ships operating in the area to take appropriate precautions. Indian Navy teams are also being posted on board oil tankers on request.Threatening possible military strikes,on 20 Jun 2019 US President Donald Trump said Iran made a “big mistake” by shooting down a US drone. The Pentagon said the downing occurred in international air space but Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps said the drone had violated Iran’s air corridor.Washington had already accused Iran of carrying out attacks on tanker vessels in the Strait of Hormuz area, which links the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and through which much of the world’s oil passes.

International Laws Applicable in the Current Scenario:

(a) Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)    Iran has ratified the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Under Article II of NPT, except for the five declared nuclear power states, non-nuclear states cannot acquire or exercise control over nuclear weapons and explosives, and have to accept IAEA safeguards.

(b) Article 41 of the United Nations Charter and United Nations Security Council resolution 2231  Article 41 of chapter VII of the United Nations Charter authorises United Nation Security Council to decide measures, other than use of armed force, to be employed to give effect to its decision. It may call upon member states to give effect to its decisions.    The resolution 2231 comprises of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the nuclear program of Iran. The Resolution 2231 was passed by 15 members UNSC unanimously. It calls for Iran to refrain from activity related to nuclear-capable missiles, but the language doesn’t seem definitive, with no punitive action mentioned for any violation.

(c)      United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea(1982)- UNCLOS

Shooting down of the US Spy drone raises important questions of International Law. As per Iran, the US spy drone had entered Iranian air space, while Lt. General Joseph Guastella o fU.S. Air Forces’ Central Command for the region has denied Iran’s claim and stated that the drone was never closer to Iran than 21 miles. The US has released a map and a grainy video which showing the drone’s launch site and the location where it was shot down to buttress its claim. It is therefore relevant to understand the concept of territorial sea, contiguous zone, and innocent passage.

As per Article 3 of the UNCLOS,the breadth of a nation’s ‘territorial sea’ is 12 nautical miles from the baseline of its coast. Article 2 of UNCLOS states that the sovereignty of the coastal state extends beyond its land territory and internal waters till adjacent belt of sea, called territorial sea, it also lays down that sovereignty of the coastal state extends to  the subsoil, sea bed and the airspace above the territorial sea.

According to Article 17 of UNCLOS, ships of all states, whether coastal or landlocked, have a right to innocent passage through the territorial sea. However, Article 19 defines “innocent passage,” as that which is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state. Several activities that are prohibited within another country’s territorial seas (12 nm from the coast) include: threats to use force, military exercises, research and survey activities, fishing activities, and activities that may interfere with the coastal state’s communications systems, security and defence. Article 20 of the UNCLOS provides that submarines and underwater vehicles are to surface in territorial water of the coastal states and show their flags.

In view of Article 19, if the Iran’s claim of violation of its airspace is correct, flying of a spy drone in Iranian airspace cannot be termed as innocent passage. In military terms, a confirmed espionage mission by an adversary, within one’s airspace, is deemed a hostile act which justifies a hostile and violent reaction. However, if the US’s claim of 21 nautical mile is correct, then the drone was beyond territorial sea of Iran and within its contiguous zone. The Contiguous Zone, according to article 33 of the UNCLOS extends upto 24 nautical miles. i.e starts after 12 NM breadth of territorial sea, However, coastal states donot have absolute sovereignty rights over the sea and airspace above the contiguous zone. A coastal state may exercise control only to prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration and sanitary laws.

(d) Enforcement Rights of Coastal states and Immunity of Government Ships. Article 25 of UNCLOS provides right of protection of the coastal state, A coastal state may prevent passage from its territorial sea which is not innocent. Article 30 provides that if a foreign warship does not comply with the rules and regulations of the coastal state in territorial seas it may be asked to leave territorial sea immediately. Article 31 provides that the flag state will bear responsibility and cost of any damage caused by the warship operated for non- commercial purpose. However, subject to the exceptions provided by Articles 30 and 31, Article 32 provides immunity to warships and government operated ships for non-commercial activities.

(e) Straits used for international navigation. According to article 38 of UNCLOS all ships and aircrafts enjoy right to transit passage and overflight from the straits. Transit passage would involve continuous and expeditious transit. Article 39 lays down the duties of ships and aircraft during transit passage and guidelines for passage from straits and the recommended code of conduct to prevent obstruction to straits. Article 44 of UNCLOS provides that the states bordering the strait shall not hamper transit passage and there shall be no suspension of transient passage. In the light of Article 44,Iran’s’ threat of blocking the Strait of Hormuz, and it’s possible mining of the Strait resulting in damage to the Japanese and Norwegian tankers, is in violation of the UNCLOS.

(f) Identifying Legitimate Military Targets Article 48 of additional protocol of the Geneva Convention 12 Aug 1949 prohibits intentional targeting of civilians and obligates parties to distinguish civilian from military targets. Article 52(2) of the First additional protocols of the Geneva Convention 1949 elaborates military targets as “attacks shall be limited to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military objectives and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definitive military advantage“. Article 51 recommends proportionality of attack and prohibits indiscriminate attacks.

The recent mysterious attack on civilian oil tankers of nations not involved in any military activities, by state / or non-state actors, is not justified. Consequently it gives the flag state of the vessels right to retaliate once the entity responsible is positively identified. The Indian Navy warships deployed for armed escorts have to be given clear directions commensurate with their capability and role, pertaining to rules of engagement, to take necessary action if the situation so demands. The government must be prepared to absorb and respond to international obligations arising out of any such actions.

Nature and Extent ofthe Present Threatto  Peace.  The Strait of Hormuz is only 33-60 km wide throughout its length. It is a choke point and the main artery from which 80% of crude oil passes from Middle East. Iran has threatened to choke the strait on various occasions. The width of shipping lanes of ‘Traffic Separation Scheme’is 2-3 miles on each sides. This makes it an ideal place for laying sea mines. On 18 Apr 1988 USS Samuel B Roberts was sunk by Iran using a mine. On 13 Jun 2019 Oil Tanker Front Altairs and Kokuka were rocked by explosion. However, the crew later reported flying objects striking the ship, leading Iran to claim it was an American Missile attack.  The high traffic density in the shipping lanes, presence of fishing and small speed boats makes asymmetric threat attack a definite possibility. On 03 Jul 1988 USS Vincennes , a US Navy Guided missile cruiser had wrongly identified Iran Air 655 as a jet fighter and shot it down with a SAM, killing 290 people on board. On 20 Jun 2019, Iran’s surface to air missiles shot down a US spry drone. The region is growing tense by the day and is gradually gravitating towards a war zone criteria. These incidents highlights the increasing vulnerability of air traffic in the area and high potential risks of ships, boats, and aircraft being misidentified as a target.

India’s Response   Indian warships INS Chennai and INS Sunayna, operating in the region, would also be vulnerable to sea mines if and when deployed by any of the actors involved.They will have to ward off this threat of mines if they are to provide any meaningful protection to Oil Tankers being escorted by them. Additionally in constrained waters, small speed boats will always be able to outmanoeuvre bigger ships like INS Chennai and INS Sunayna,which always have higher turning radius and lower speed vis-à-vis   small speed boats that could be used to launch asymmetric attack. The small team of Indian Navy officers deployed on board oil tankers can neither undertake prolong watch nor can they appreciate threat from under water mines or missile attack.  In such a scenario they are unlikely to provide significant protectionagainst underwater or aerial threat. During the 1988, Iraq –Iran war close to over 300 tankers of each side were damaged, but supply line could not be broken. But in today’s age of technological advancement in weapon systems, the similar conclusion cannot be drawn.

India’s Options and Alternatives

In case of rise in tension and armed conflict in in the Persian Gulf region. India should look at diversifying its oil supplies from non-Persian Gulf region. USA, which began supplying crude oil to India in 2017 is the fourth largest supplier. It provided 6.4 million tons of crude oil to India in fiscal year 2018-2019.  In 2018 Venezuela had supplied 18.34 tonnes of crude oil. Nigeria supplied 16.8 tonnes, Mexico supplied 10.28 tonnes. Saudi Oil can still be accessedthrough all its ports based in Red Sea. India must also work towards expeditious completion of all projects to source oil from Central Asian States through Iran’s Chabahar Port. Also, with an eye to the India’s growing energy needs even in the near future, we must never give up our claim to POK as a compromise with Pakistan, as is being propagated in some track-2 channels to settle the J&K dispute; and seriously consider our own direct overland linkages to the Central Asian Region and to Russia through the present POK, once it is reclaimed. The Chinese have shown that the challenges of the terrain and climate in the region can always be overcome. We may do it even better. This option must, therefore, always remain a part of our strategic calculus.

Conclusion:  The inheritors and decedents of those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. However, all the actors in the Persian Gulf regions are doomed to repeat the experiences multiple times in a single lifetime. After three major conflicts in the last four decades, including the prolonged Iraq-Iran war of the eighties, the 1991 ‘Operation Desert Storm and the USA’s 2003 ‘ Shock and Awe’ operation against Iraq’s Saddam, the region is headed towards its fourth crisis, a showdown between the USA and Iran over the latter alleged nuclear ambitions. The American sanctions have started biting and drawn the expected and perhaps desired response from Iran; an unbecoming threat of denial of ‘Strait of Hormuz’. This may suit the American who are possibly planning for display of another round of their ‘shock and awe’ operation. However Iran would do well to reconsider that the sea is a common heritage of mankind with all its facilities and resources open to fair universal exploitation. Choking critical ocean passages and the airspace above them can disrupt trade, seriously hamper world economy and expedite Iran’s further loss of friends and goodwill. A conflict with the USA would decimate Iran’s industrial infrastructure and destroy its economy. In spite of a plethora of existing international laws, ‘might’ still remains ‘right’ in international relations and transactions; and ‘overwhelming might’ more so. Laws are only good as long as they can be enforced. As Austin said “Law is the command of sovereign, backed by a threat of sanction in the event of non- compliance”. On its part, India would do well to firm up its immediate alternative options to meet its energy requirement in the near as well as distant future.


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