Freedom of Navigation Doctrine Challenged
By: James A. Lyons, Admiral, United States Navy (ret.)
With all the media focus on President Trump’s recent meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a major event took place last week in the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, which received little notice. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have acknowledged that they fired a missile supplied by Iran from the vicinity of the port city of Hodeida that hit a Saudi Aramco tanker. In response, even though there was little damage, Saudi Arabia has suspended all its shipping from transiting the Bab al-Mandab Strait.
Clearly, the Houthi rebels have seriously challenged the internationally-recognized “Freedom of Navigation” doctrine. The concept is that the internationally-recognized open waters of the world, including all strategic straits, should remain open and free for all commercial shipping. By extension, this includes the peaceful transit of naval forces as well.
The Bab al-Mandab Strait, which connects the Indian Ocean/Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea, is one of the world’s key strategic straits. Others include the Strait of Hormuz, which controls the flow of all oil and gas shipborne traffic in and out of the Persian Gulf. Next are the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar, which connect the flow of all shipping in and out of the Mediterranean Sea. The Strait of Malacca connects the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea.
“Freedom of Navigation” is under attack in the South China Sea, however, because China claims that almost all of the South China Sea is its territorial waters despite a ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague that China’s claim is illegal. Of course there is also the Panama Canal, which we used to control until President Carter gave it away to Panama. Today, it is actually under the control of China. These key strategic choke points must remain open and free to the world’s commercial shipping traffic.
With the current war of words between the Iranian theocracy and the Trump administration, plus Iran’s recent threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, much larger issues are at stake in enforcing the “freedom of navigation” doctrine. Iran’s role in supporting the Houthi rebels is very transparent. It is all part of a plan to expand the Iranian Shi’ite crescent to where it becomes the dominant force in the Middle East.
Iran’s clear strategy is to physically surround the Arabian Peninsula with proxy forces supported with its own forces and materiel. This classic Iranian ploy extends its geo-strategic reach and positions it to attack its arch-enemy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, indirectly, with the ultimate objective of seizing control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Further, by backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen, it gives Iran the means to gain control of the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait and threaten not just Saudi shipping but all international shipping. It cannot be overlooked that more than one-third of the world’s oil in transit passes through this Strait on a daily basis. Success would give Iran direct control of two of the world’s strategic straits and de facto control of a third, the Suez Canal. This cannot be allowed to happen.
We cannot forget President Trump’s historic visit to Riyadh in May 2017, nor the links he forged with Sunni partners during that visit. As a result, we have a Saudi Arabia-led coalition consisting of Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with US assistance, confronting the Houthi rebels and Iran. With this impressive alliance, the question becomes, why is it taking so long for the alliance to take back control of the port city of Hodeida? Such action would isolate the Houthi rebels in the south, and keep them from their bases in the Yemeni highlands. It would also facilitate the recapture of the capital Sanaa and its airport. Further, it would be a tremendous psychological blow to the rebels and Iran, and a major step in cutting off a key access point for Iranian support to the rebels.
Preventing Iran’s hegemonic objectives throughout the Middle East and beyond, which include encircling the entire Arabian Peninsula with its oil and gas resources, as well as the ultimate seizure of Islam’s two most holy cities, Mecca and Medina, must be a top Trump administration objective. It appears that the administration has initiated a staged take-down of the Iranian regime. Our withdrawal from the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was the first step. Re-imposing economic sanctions is having a drastic effect on the Iranian regime’s ability to operate. The Iranian currency, the rial, is in total free fall—even a full week before even more stringent sanctions are scheduled to take hold. Revamping our Voice of America Farsi language broadcast would be another positive signal to the Iranian freedom fighters. We must continue other covert support to the Iranian people who are taking to the streets day after day. And to further complicate matters for the criminal Iranian theocracy we should support an independent Kurdistan.
If, as increasingly seems apparent, the Trump administration has decided on a gradual ratcheting up of measures intended to bring maximum pressure to bear on the Tehran regime, then such steps are necessary parts of the mix. But even above and beyond these coercive means aimed at collapsing the mullahs’ rule, with the most powerful blue water navy in the world, the U.S. has a unique responsibility to ensure freedom of the seas when threatened by Iran or any other hostile actor. The de facto threat to shipping through the Bab al-Mandab must not be allowed to stand.
James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.
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