The U.S. response to an outbreak of conflict in the Strait of Hormuz would not only depend on the nature of the threat, but also the expected response of significant players outside of the Middle East, including Western Europe, Japan, China, and Russia.
Under U.S. law, the United States cannot be "involved in" Iranian oil production and exports. However, such U.S. policy has not prevented other states from taking advantage of Iran's natural resources. Countries, such as Japan and China, invest in Iran's oil industry and oil exports. Therefore Iran would want to prevent any disruption in the Strait of Hormuz.
Various countries may play a key role in terms of supporting the United States in the case of an outbreak of armed conflict in the Strait of Hormuz.
In recent years, European Union countries have made energy security a priority - actively developing and implementing strategies to reduce foreign dependency on energy resources. The E.U and the U.S. have a common strategic interest in the continued flow of energy resources in the Strait of Hormuz. Thus, Western European states are invested in U.S-Iran relations.
The United Kingtom (U.K.) has historically been supportive of U.S. Middle Eastern policy and, thus, has had unstable relations with Iran. The U.K. has military forces in and around the Middle East.
Germany has "uneventful" relations with Iran and evolving relations with the U.S. The German constitution does not allow for significant build-up or deployment of military sources abroad. Therefore, unlike the British, there is no significant German military presence in the Middle East.[i] Germany does, however, have significant private financial ties to Iran,[ii] but German political interests in Iran are less obvious.
France, on the other hand, has relatively strong ties with Iran and the Arab community as a whole. France's collective military strength in the Middle East is relatively expansive compared to the U.K. and especially Germany.[iii] From a political perspective, France is the nation with the closest Iranian relationship (historically). Because of the close ties to Iran and the Arab world, the relationship between the French and the U.S. has been tenuous at best in recent years, although the election of French President Sarkozy has helped improved Franco-American relations.
Japan has "friendly" bilateral relations with Iran and the United States.[iv] However, Japan's strong relations with U.S. did not stop the Japanese from solidifying energy deals with Iran. More specifically, in 2004, the Iranian Offshore Oil Company and Japan's JGC Corporation signed a deal for the recovery of natural gas and natural gas liquids from the Iranian Soroush-Nowruz and other offshore fields.
With over 75 percent of Japan's energy resources passing through the Strait, Japan has become increasingly concerned about energy security. However, Japan has always been reluctant to get involved in the politics of other nations or international conflicts.[v] Constitutional restrictions and public opinion severely limit options for Japanese military involvement.[vi] Japan has provided non-combatant maritime, air force, and even ground troop support to the U.S. in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Japan does not currently have or want the military capabilities to project its power in the Middle East and would have to rely on foreign militaries to address any related security threats. Thus, Japan is likely to support the U.S. if the flow of oil and energy resources is disrupted in the Strait.
China is generally opposed to U.S. policy and more supportive of Middle Eastern regimes, but is not likely to attempt any significant opposition to U.S. policy in the region. In particular, China's relationship with Iran grew stronger throughout the 1980s as the two countries cooperated on Iran-Iraq War, arms sales, and balancing global hegemony.[vii] China continued to support Iran's nuclear program throughout the 1990s, and only backed off when U.S. exerted significant and repeated pressure.[viii]
China has strong ties to the Middle East and is working to increase energy security through developing diplomatic contacts, expanding trade and foreign direct investment, and partnering with countries in the Persian Gulf region in arms sales.[ix]
China needs vast amounts of oil and gas to support its economy and population. Approximately 15 percent (and growing) of China's oil imports are from Iran and is transported through the Strait. China is also expected to rely on Iran for a large share of its liquid natural gas (LNG) imports. In October 2004, Iran signed a contract with Sinopec, Chinese energy firm, for joint development of one of Iran's major gas fields and the subsequent delivery of LNG to China.
Because China has no history of military basing or access agreements, much less using military forces for political or strategic advantage in or near the region,[x] China would have to rely on the U.S. for maritime security if conflict were to occur in the Strait. Thus, if there is a disruption in the Strait, Beijing will have to rely on the U.S. Navy for safe passage of its energy imports through the Strait of Hormuz and will have to continue balance relations with Iran and the U.S.[xi]
Russia's energy policy is produce as much oil as possible, restrict foreign investment in domestic oil and gas fields, and use its energy resources as leverage over countries that are dependent on Russian supplies.[xii] Russia's policy in the Middle East is to be a mediator between the West and the East, and, because of this, has a very good standing in the region based on a policy of non-intervention in military affairs.[xiii] The relationship with Iran is characterized by common interests such as mutually beneficial arms sales and shared opposition to the U.S. Security Council resolution on Iran's nuclear development. However, there are areas of tension in the Russia-Iran relations. Areas of tension include: Russia's support for Fatah versus Iran's support for Hamas and Russian investment interests in pro-U.S. Arab countries.[xiv]
In the event of a tangible conflict erupting between the U.S. and Iran, the Russian response remains uncertain. Russia openly opposes the U.S. position on nuclear Iran and would most likely oppose a preventive war against Iran.
[i] Stryker McGuire, "Bridging the Gap; After a stormy break with the U.S., European leaders are forging a new Atlantic Alliance," Newsweek (September 10, 2007). Online. Available: http://www.newsweek.com/id/40796. Accessed: April 30, 2008.
[ii] Mark Rice-Oxley, "US Cautions Europe on Iran Investment," Christian Science Monitor World, Europe, (September 22, 2006). Online. Available: http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0922/p07s01-woeu.html. Accessed: April 30, 2008.
[iii] "The glory days are passing; French foreign policy," The Economist (December 16, 2006).
[iv] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Japan-Iran Relations, Online. Available: http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/middle_e/iran/index.html. Accessed: April 30, 2008.
[v] Fred R. Von Der Mehden, Japan's Relations with Primary Energy Suppliers (Houston, Texas:The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University, May 2000, 5). Online. Available: http://www.rice.edu/energy/publications/docs/JES_RelationswithPrimaryEnergySuppliers.pdf. Accessed: April 30, 2008.
[vi] Fred R. Von Der Mehden, Japan's Relations with Primary Energy Suppliers (Houston, Texas:The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University, May 2000, 5), pp 24-25. Online. Available: http://www.rice.edu/energy/publications/docs/JES_RelationswithPrimaryEnergySuppliers.pdf. Accessed: April 30, 2008.
[vii] Steve A. Yetiv and Chunlong Lu, "China, Global Energy, and the Middle East," The Middle East Journal, vol. 61, no. 2 (Spring 2007), p. 3.
[viii] Steve A. Yetiv and Chunlong Lu, "China, Global Energy, and the Middle East," The Middle East Journal, vol. 61, no. 2 (Spring 2007), p. 7.
[ix] Steve A. Yetiv and Chunlong Lu, "China, Global Energy, and the Middle East," The Middle East Journal, vol. 61, no. 2 (Spring 2007), p. 2.
[x] Steve A. Yetiv and Chunlong Lu, "China, Global Energy, and the Middle East," The Middle East Journal, vol. 61, no. 2 (Spring 2007), p. 2.
[xi] Erica Downs, "The Brookings Foreign Policy Studies Energy Security Series: China," The Brookings Institution (December 2006), p. 14.
[xii] Ministry of Energy of the Russian Federation, "The Summary of the Energy Strategy of Russia for the Period of up to 2020," Online. Available: http://www.ec.europa.eu/energy/russia/events/doc/2003_strategy_2020_en.pdf. Accessed: April 30, 2008.
[xiii] "Russian Military Bases," Kommersant (May 22, 2007). Online. Available: http://www.kommersant.com/p766827/Russia,_military_bases/. Accessed: April 30, 2008.
[xiv] Florence C Fee, "The Russian-Iranian Energy Relationship," Middle East Economic Survey (March 12, 2007). Online. Available: http://www.mees.com/postedarticles/oped/v50n11-5OD01.htm. Accessed: April 30, 2008.
This page last modified in August 2008