‘Nightmare’ that could push us to war
Australia is sending a frigate, surveillance aircraft and troops into one of the world's most volatile hot spots.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced we would join the US-led mission to protect shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow sea strip that serves as one of the region's most important choke points.
Now, strategic analysts are asking - what have we got ourselves into?
"The year 2019 has witnessed increasingly worrying omens of war between the US and Iran," warns a new report by the International Crisis Group.
"As in Europe in 1914, a minor incident could spark a military confrontation that could in turn rapidly engulf the entire region."
It says such a regional war would be devastating: "A single attack by rocket, drone or limpet mine could set off a military escalation between the US and Iran and their respective regional allies and proxies that could prove impossible to contain."
It's a volatile situation. And it's one international affairs analysts believe Australia has backed itself into a corner over.
Critically low fuel stockpiles and an uncertain relationship with the White House means our government isn't in a position to say "no" to getting involved.
Lowy Institute research fellow Rodger Shanahan says Australia's compliance was inevitable once US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his public appeal.
"Washington doesn't make those types of requests unless it knows or expects it will get a positive response," he writes.
Joining the coalition "sends a strong signal to Washington that we are not a 'freeloader' and we will share the burden with our most important ally," adds Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Dr Malcolm Davis.
But both echo the Crisis Group's dire fears.
"If things go badly in the Middle East and shots are fired … Australia would likely be drawn in as well," Dr Davis warns.
A spate of attacks on tankers in the world's busiest sea lane has triggered grave concerns about the flow of oil out of the Middle East. The Strait of Hormuz is just 21 nautical miles (39km) wide at its narrowest point between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
However, the shipping channels are only 3.7km wide, with a similar 'buffer zone' between them.
It's a strategically vital waterway. More than 20 per cent of the world's oil supplies passes through these channels at a rate of about 21 million barrels per day.
It's a narrow choke-point divided between Iran, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
It's also a hotbed of international conflict.
Now Australia has joined Britain and Bahrain in an embryonic United States-led coalition to police it.
Six tankers and a US Navy surveillance drone have been attacked in or around the Strait of Hormuz since tensions escalated in May.
The US has accused Iran of the attacks. Iran, however, is hiding behind a mask of 'plausible deniability'. It is the same 'Grey Zone' tactic applied by Russia in the Ukraine and China in the South China Sea. They push the limits of international law as hard as possible while hoping nobody calls their bluff.
It's an immensely risky tactic, with great potential for a serious incident.
"The possibility of Iran successfully closing off the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period remains highly unlikely," the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) warns in its Oil Markets, Oil Attacks, and the Strategic Straits report. "That being said, the chances of intermittent attacks in the vicinity, while tensions between the United States and Iran endure, remain high."
And, Dr Davis warns, that's the problem: "There's a risk that … the US could be sucked into another Middle East quagmire that could be far more costly and lengthy than either Iraq or Afghanistan."
The International Crisis Group report Averting the Middle East's 1914 Moment warns the region is ripe for violent escalation.
"Growing tensions between Iran and the US have put the two countries on the precipice of military confrontation," it reads. "A spark could set off not just a limited clash between the two adversaries but a conflagration spreading across regional flashpoints."
Surrounding the Persian Gulf are a series of powder kegs set to ignite with a single spark.
Iraq remains wracked with turmoil after two wars with the United States and the recent Islamic State insurgency. Syria, receiving support from Russia and Iran, is the subject of frequent Israeli air strikes. And Yemen has been the site of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the past four years.
"In other words, there are multiple possibilities of conflict escalating given the concentration of firepower that is planned for the Gulf," warns La Trobe University adjunct professor Tony Walker.
President Donald Trump controversially added fresh fuel to the fire by cancelling an international agreement with Iran which limited its nuclear program in exchange for economic relief. Now, economic sanctions are being reapplied.
Iran is certainly ramping up the rhetoric in response.
"The Trump administration is totally misguided if it thinks that we will either negotiate with a gun to our head or that a war started by them would remain a limited tit-for-tat. We will have to deter them from striking again, which means that we would have to inflict significant harm on them," one senior Iranian official recently warned.
And President Trump's controversial Iran policies risk being out-of-step with the rest of the world.
"Trump's abandonment of the JCPOA (Iran nuclear agreement) against the wishes of the other signatories … was as inexplicable as it was damaging," Professor Walker adds. "Now, the world is facing a crisis in the Gulf of American making, and one that Washington is asking its allies to police … Not to put too fine a point on it, this has been an act of self-harm to American interests and those of its allies. It is a crisis that need not have occurred."
FOG OF WAR
Last month, a UK warship put itself between a British-flagged oil tanker and several armed small boats attempting to block its passage through the Strait of Hormuz. A day or so later, HMS Montrose was too far away to prevent two other tankers from being seized and diverted into Iranian captivity.
"The situation is about as complicated as it gets and has further stoked fears of possible disruptions in the oil market," the CSIS report notes.
We've been in this situation before.
In 1987, shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf was brought to a virtual halt. Iran had deployed floating mines in response to Exocet missile attacks from Iraq. It was at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. US warships began escorting reflagged Kuwaiti tankers under Operation Earnest Will.
Australia rallied to the call to protect convoys seeking passage through the perilous Strait of Hormuz.
We're about to do it again.
Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, avoided detailing the rules of engagement to be followed by HMAS Toowoomba and a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft. Prime Minister Morrisson offered little more: "Australia will defend our interests, wherever they may be under threat, we will always work closely with our international allies and partners."
Such a lack of clarity is cause for concern among Australia's leading international affairs think-tanks.
"The US campaign of 'maximum pressure' on Iran that got us to this point is more a series of tactical decisions with a vague strategic intent, displaying little understanding of the second-order effects of its actions," Lowy Institute analyst Roger Shanahan warns.
"Without an understanding of our roles and tasks, command and control arrangements, or who will end up in this press-ganged coalition, it is hard to make definitive judgments on the types of operational risks that Australian forces will be exposed to."
President Trump doesn't want his forces protecting other nations' tankers. That is the heart of the problem facing its allies - including Australia.
He sees improved US production of oil and gas as a secure backstop. So, he's been contradicting Washington officials by stating he may wind back the US security presence in the Strait of Hormuz.
"So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation," Trump tweeted in June. "All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been … a dangerous journey. We don't even need to be there in that the US has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!"
It's a message that has sent ripples of concern through the Western alliance.
Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga stated keeping the waterway open was "a matter of life and death for our country in terms of energy security, and it is extremely important for the peace and prosperity of the international community."
But President Trump's premise is flawed. More than 30 countries are already engaged in multinational efforts to reduce piracy and protect commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf - including Australia. And the US economy is dependent on a stable world economy.
Now, President Trump risks ceding control of the strategic waterway to its competitors.
"Should the United States choose to step back, it is not clear whether any other state would have the capability and will to do so. Presently, only China and Russia have that capability," the CSIS report warns. "The United States abandoning its efforts in this region increases the likelihood of disrupted energy flows, increases regional rivalry between Iran and its neighbours, and creates a leadership and security vacuum in a vital artery of commerce whose protection is squarely in US national interests."
China gets 91% of its Oil from the Straight, Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2019
RUNNING ON EMPTY
Adding to the risk is Australia's critically low fuel reserves. Emergency stockpiles of fuel are capable of sustaining the country for just 22 days - not the 90-day minimum required.
"'Fifteen to 16 per cent of crude oil and 25 to 30 per cent of refined oil destined for Australia transits through the Strait of Hormuz. So it's a potential threat to our economy," the Prime Minister noted when announcing the force commitment.
That means any conflict lasting more than a month could put Australia's economy on its knees.
"Had the Morrison government, or, for that matter, previous governments, taken energy security seriously, the risks to Australia would not have been so great," ASPI's Dr Davis says. "The reality is that we're woefully underprepared for a disruption to fuel supplies."
Australia's government is suddenly awake to this fact.
"This issue is why Australia remains so concerned about what is happening in the Straits of Hormuz, and this is why we're so engaged with our allies to try and ease tensions in the Gulf," Defence Minister Reynolds detailed earlier this month. "So we're doing everything that we can to be a good government and to be prudent, to make sure that we get a continuity of supply."
The Australian Maritime Union report Australia's Fuel Security - Running on Empty, notes some 60 oil tankers must be cycling through our ports continually to maintain the flow of fuel. Further complicating matters, Australia does not own a single oil tanker of its own.
As a result, Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the government had asked the US to hand over some of its 700-day fuel reserves to improve Australia's capacity to ride out any crisis.
"We've decided to begin negotiations with the United States to ensure that we have a strategic reserve in place for circumstances that could emerge, for scenarios that are unfavourable to Australia. This is a sensible, low-cost way of going about this," Mr Taylor said.
The United States is offering the services of its command vessels in co-ordinating surveillance of the area, while other nations engage in the risky business of escorting tankers through the strait.
So far, only Britain, Bahrain - and now Australia - have signed up.
Expanding the coalition is likely to be problematic, the Lowy Institute's Mr Shanahan says. "The prospect of putting assets under a US command that has great capability but little coherent strategic direction does not excite many countries."
European nations, shy after President Trump's unilateral destruction of the international Iran agreement, are wary of being drawn into a wider conflict. Denmark, France and Italy have endorsed plans for an independent European naval mission.
They know that in any US-led coalition, the White House would be calling the shots.
"Any peacekeeping mission might be presented as a multinational exercise," Professor Walkers says, "but in effect, the preponderance of American power, including an aircraft carrier battle group, means Americans would be in command. This is not an argument against Australian involvement in protecting a vital sea lane through which passes one-third of the world's seaborne tradeable oil every day. Rather, it is to make a case for extreme caution."
Iran, for its part, has warned against any expanded military presence, stating it would only add to regional insecurity.
"Iran does not seek confrontation. But we have 1500 miles of Persian Gulf coastline. These are our waters & we will protect them," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.
Once again, Professor Walker warns, Australia risks being drawn into an "American exercise in regime change".
"What might be the limits on Australia's involvement should hostilities broke out in the Gulf? What would be the rules of engagement? What might be an exit strategy?" he asks.
Both the Prime Minister and Chief of Defence offered no detailed answers.
He said Australia was "focused on freedom of shipping lanes … "That's what this is about. It's not about anything else."
But he was less specific about what that could entail. "I mean, we can't predict the future. We can only plan, and we can only make commitments based on the situation as we understand it," the Prime Minister said.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @JamieSeidel