Earlier Tuesday, alarms were raised across the Middle East and the West when the Iranian navy fired warning shots and later boarded a Marshall Islands-flagged commercial vessel, the Maersk Tigris, in the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian navy reportedly took these measures after the ship refused to comply with orders while in Iranian waters. The incident comes as the United States and Iran are on a path toward normalization and the Obama administration is looking to lift some sanctions once a final deal is reached. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command reportedly sent a U.S. destroyer and an aircraft to monitor the situation following a distress call from the cargo vessel, which is owned by the U.S.-based company Oaktree Capital. The ship was last reported stationary outside Bandar Abbas port.
Also on Tuesday, another confrontation took place at sea, thousands of kilometers to the north. Finland's navy fired grenade-size underwater charges as a warning to a suspected foreign submarine allegedly located near Helsinki. Although the Finnish defense minister did not directly blame Russia's military for the intrusion into Finland's waters, reported Russian incursions into both territorial waters and airspace of countries in the region have increased over the past year. Finland's foreign policy is built on the principle of nonalignment, and the country maintained its independence throughout the Cold War by remaining neutral. The conflict in Ukraine, however, has reignited debates about Finland's security orientation and relationship with NATO. In fact, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement April 12 conveying its concern over a joint article penned by officials from Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland calling for greater regional defense cooperation.
The two maritime incidents and the diverse reactions to them highlight the significance of geography and geopolitics in shaping the perception and impact of such confrontations. The incident involving the cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz elicited immediate attention from Washington, Tehran and other capitals, moving oil prices and garnering widespread media attention. The incident near Helsinki, on the other hand, caused relatively little alarm.
The Strait of Hormuz is a strategic waterway that connects the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea. About 30 percent of the world's seaborne crude, and over 25 percent of its liquefied natural gas, passes through this narrow strait, making it a critical choke point. As a result, oil markets respond instantaneously to any security incidents or supply disruptions in the area.
At the same time, the Iranian navy's decision to fire warning shots and board the U.S.-owned ship comes at a sensitive time for U.S.-Iran negotiations. Both the United States and Iran face domestic opposition to the agreement. In the United States, Tuesday's incident will galvanize opponents of the nuclear deal, who deem Iran an untrustworthy negotiating partner. The incident may also benefit elements within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has an interest in delaying or disrupting the negotiations. Sanctions have enabled groups such as the IRGC to maintain a strong grip on segments of Iran's economy. An opening to the West could undermine their interests.
Moreover, the incident in the Strait of Hormuz occurred just as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is intensifying through proxy conflicts in Yemen and Syria. President Barack Obama is also preparing to host the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David on May 13, a White House effort to reassure the Gulf allies that a U.S.-Iran rapprochement, which they fear, will not weaken ties between them.
The aftermath of maritime incidents often does not depend on the nature of the confrontation at sea but rather on geography and geopolitical context. In areas of high strategic importance at times of complex geopolitical rivalries, even a routine incident can be perceived around the world as a significant event.