Iran Plays Powerful with Control Over Hormuz Strait; 500 Years on from Afonso de Albuquerque

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most strategically important waterways in the world today.  Providing the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the open ocean, it is used to transport approximately 20% of international petroleum requirements from the Middle Eastern oil fields.

The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance
The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance

At its narrowest, the Strait flows between Iran to the north and the Omanian exclave of Musandam to the south.  It has been the scene of diplomatic incidents, military clashes and maritime collisions but to Tehran, in particular, it is a chokepoint of great potential.

The Iranians periodically threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz and have, indeed, made the potential for such a scenario central to their belligerent foreign policy.  It is the United States, unsurprisingly, that is typically the target of such threats and whilst Iran would suffer from halting oil shipments out of the Persian Gulf, its control over the Strait is an undoubted bargaining tool.

It is 500 years since the great Portuguese explorer, conqueror and administrator Afonso de Albuquerque perished in Goa, that strategic gateway to India whose capture secured a foothold for Lisbon in Asia. Eight years prior to his death, Albuquerque had sailed into the Strait of Hormuz on the orders of his patron, King Manuel I of the House of Aviz.

Ever since Vasco da Gama had landed at Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese had been in competition for dominance over the lucrative Indian Ocean trade with Muslim merchants, whose own commercial routes stretched all the way to Egypt and the Mamluk Sultanate, Manuel’s rival in the Mediterranean.  Capturing Ormuz Island on what is today Iran’s southern coast would be a major step in thwarting Muslim ambitions.

Da Gama's famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest
Da Gama’s famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest

With little effort, Albuquerque and his men captured their target in October 1507, only for their joy to be short-lived.  In a harsh climate without sufficient supplies, Albuquerque’s aim to build a garrison to hold the island led to resentment amongst his subordinate captains and provoked resistance from the local population.  A mutiny of the Portuguese ensued, whereby all bar Albuquerque’s ship returned to Portuguese India and Ormuz was lost.

Not to be deterred – and after securing Goa and Malacca in a series of brilliantly daring raids – Albuquerque returned to Ormuz again in 1515 with more than 1,000 men in 27 heavily-armed vessels.  This time the conquest led to the establishment of a permanent garrison, effectively cutting off the Indian Ocean to the Muslim merchants and securing the first overseas empire by a European power.  Indeed, it would not be until 1622 that the Portuguese presence at Ormuz was ended by the British.

Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade
Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade

There are few men as ‘great’ as Albuquerque today – and this term refers to his military and administrative achievements not his propensity to dispense brutal justice to those who dared cross him – nor as pioneering as his predecessors da Gama and Francisco da Almeida.  Indeed, we live in a world where such personalities are discouraged and any sense of individualism is often treated with noted scepticism.

Albuquerque was a formidable character...so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)
Albuquerque was a formidable character…so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)

The 16th century was characterised by the disproportionate achievements of the few against the many.  Nowadays it often appears as if thousands upon thousands of faceless diplomats and bureaucrats are incapable of creating the slightest change.  The Iran nuclear deal took the involvement of hundreds of such characters and, whilst driven by a select few global ‘leaders’, time is likely to prove how ineffective this venture has been.

Iran’s threats ring hollow; closing the Strait of Hormuz would hurt its enemies but also itself.  Sometimes it is hard not to pine after the dashing era of Albuquerque and his bloody-minded cohorts, who could ride roughshod over the barricades and penetrate the enemy heartland, safe in the knowledge that their technological and martial superiority would grant them passage.

Alas; timid diplomacy, bureaucratic gridlock and unadventurous leaders are all we can hope for in our tormented world of scrutiny, cynicism and obstinacy.

Source

Crowley, R (2015), Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire

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Obama Lifts Arms Embargo on Vietnam: setting aside history to look towards the future

It has been announced, rather unsurprisingly it must be said, that the USA is to fully lift an historic arms embargo on Vietnam.  Speaking in Hanoi, President Obama declared that America could once more sell lethal weapons to the Vietnamese, in the process removing a ‘lingering vestige of the Cold War’.

President Obama with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong Source: CNN
President Obama with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong
Source: CNN

More than 58,000 US soldiers died during the Vietnam War and yet their sacrifice did not prevent a communist takeover of the southern part of the country. It is the descendants of Ho Chi Minh and his comrades that continue to rule Vietnam in a decidedly authoritarian manner, a confirmation of one of the greatest failures of American interventionism.

Obama’s decision is likely to provoke complaints from Vietnam war veterans, just as his slated visit to Hiroshima has drawn the ire of survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The Vietnam War continues to exercise a powerful hold over the American soul, a psychological wound that, despite its longevity, is unlikely to be mirrored by the War in Afghanistan.

The humiliating failure of the Vietnam War - and the lives it cost - have helped ingrain it in the minds of successive generations of Americans Source: CNN
The humiliating failure of the Vietnam War – and the lives it cost – have helped ingrain it in the minds of successive generations of Americans
Source: CNN

The timing of the decision is understandable. China continues to act with increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, threatening American geostrategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. As another claimant in the complex territorial dispute that dominates this part of the world, Vietnam could act as a contributory balancing partner for Washington should events turn sour.

There is also the added factor of Russia, once more a serious global rival to the USA. As a result of the Soviet legacy, Moscow is still the chief supplier of arms to Vietnam. The Americans can disrupt, if not entirely supplant, this profitable flow of capital into the Kremlin’s vaults.

Many of President Obama’s critics, and even some of his supporters, have found serious fault with his foreign policy. In particular, his apparent desire to appease all of America’s enemies, both past and present, has not always been well received. Perhaps he does not fully appreciate the significance of American history and its ramifications for generations of its citizens? Or so the argument goes.

Obama's desperation to push through a nuclear deal with Iran - despite the legacy of the Iranian Revolution and the Tehran hostage crisis, not to mention the Islamic Republic's constant America-bashing - infuriated millions
Obama’s desperation to push through a nuclear deal with Iran – despite the legacy of the Iranian Revolution and the Tehran hostage crisis, not to mention the Islamic Republic’s constant America-bashing – infuriated millions

This blog has frequently argued that history should not be an impediment to the future, though unfortunately it often is. Obama is certainly acting opportunistically by removing the arms embargo to Vietnam now but his principals – i.e. burying old enmities and looking forward – must be applauded.  Vietnam was a deeply contentious and, ultimately, unpopular war, but to allow its haunting memory to obstruct a crucial bilateral relationship is to do a disservice to those who fought for a cause – however flawed – that sought peace.

More questionable is the current Vietnamese government’s human rights record, which is quite frankly appalling. The White House has stated that any arms deal between Washington and Hanoi will be dependent upon the latter’s improved respect for human rights but such sentiments have not stopped US manufacturers from selling weapons to other violators of these norms (Saudi Arabia for instance).

Saudi Arabia remains a major purchaser of American arms despite a dreadful human rights record
Saudi Arabia remains a major purchaser of American arms despite a dreadful human rights record

If President Obama has acted with indecision when confronted by several treacherous foreign policy challenges during his tenure in office (his red line with regards to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria being a particular case in point), he will be remembered for his efforts to try and improve relations between Washington and states with which it has been left a bitter legacy.

By combining this consistent philosophy with geostrategic calculations – such as hedging against a more militaristic China – Obama is leaving his successor with a less dispiriting outlook when confronting the foreign policy objectives of the near future.