Where will Asia get its oil? Among energy experts, there is little doubt on this matter. Lacking significant reserves of their own, the major Asian consumers will turn to the one place with sufficient capacity to satisfy their rising needs: the Persian Gulf. According to BP, in 2018, Japan already obtained 87% of its oil imports from the Middle East, India 64%, and China 44%. Most analysts assume these percentages will only grow in the years to come, as production in other areas declines.
This will, in turn, lend even greater strategic importance to the Persian Gulf region, which now possesses more than 60% of the world's untapped petroleum reserves, and to the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passageway through which approximately one-third of the world's seaborne oil passes daily. Bordered by Iran, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, the Strait is perhaps the most significant -- and contested -- geostrategic location on the planet today.
Controlling the Spigot
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the same year that militant Shiite fundamentalists overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, U.S. policymakers concluded that America's access to Gulf oil supplies was at risk and a U.S. military presence was needed to guarantee such access. As President Jimmy Carter would say in his State of the Union Address on January 23, 1980,
"The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two thirds of the world's exportable oil... The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world's oil must flow... Let our position be absolutely clear: an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."
To lend muscle to what would soon be dubbed the "Carter Doctrine," the president created a new U.S. military organization, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), and obtained basing facilities for it in the Gulf region. Ronald Reagan, who succeeded Carter as president in 1981, made the RDJTF into a full-scale "geographic combatant command," dubbed Central Command, or CENTCOM, which continues to be tasked with ensuring American access to the Gulf today (as well as overseeing the country's never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East). Reagan was the first president to activate the Carter Doctrine in 1987 when he ordered Navy warships to escort Kuwaiti tankers, "reflagged" with the stars and stripes, as they traveled through the Strait of Hormuz. From time to time, such vessels had been coming under fire from Iranian gunboats, part of an ongoing "Tanker War," itself part of the Iran-Iraq War of those years. The Iranian attacks on those tankers were meant to punish Sunni Arab countries for backing Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein in that conflict. The American response, dubbed Operation Earnest Will, offered an early model of what Secretary of State Pompeo is seeking to establish today with his Sentinel program.
Operation Earnest Will was followed two years later by a massive implementation of the Carter Doctrine, President Bush's 1990 decision to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Although he spoke of the need to protect U.S. access to Persian Gulf oil fields, it was evident that ensuring a safe flow of oil imports wasn't the only motive for such military involvement. Equally important then (and far more so now): the geopolitical advantage controlling the world's major oil spigot gave Washington.
When ordering U.S. forces into combat in the Gulf, American presidents have always insisted that they were acting in the interests of the entire West. In advocating for the "reflagging" mission of 1987, for instance, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger argued (as he would later recall in his memoir Fighting for Peace), "The main thing was for us to protect the right of innocent, nonbelligerent and extremely important commerce to move freely in international open waters -- and, by our offering protection, to avoid conceding the mission to the Soviets." Though rarely so openly acknowledged, the same principle has undergirded Washington's strategy in the region ever since: the United States alone must be the ultimate guarantor of unimpeded oil commerce in the Persian Gulf.
Look closely and you can find this principle lurking in every fundamental statement of U.S. policy related to that region and among the Washington elite more generally. My own personal favorite, when it comes to pithiness, is a sentence in a report on the geopolitics of energy issued in 2000 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank well-populated with former government officials (several of whom contributed to the report): "As the world's only superpower, [the United States] must accept its special responsibilities for preserving access to [the] worldwide energy supply." You can't get much more explicit than that.
Of course, along with this "special responsibility" comes a geopolitical advantage: by providing this service, the United States cements its status as the world's sole superpower and places every other oil-importing nation -- and the world at large -- in a condition of dependence on its continued performance of this vital function.
Originally, the key dependents in this strategic equation were Europe and Japan, which, in return for assured access to Middle Eastern oil, were expected to subordinate themselves to Washington. Remember, for example, how they helped pay for Bush the elder's Iraq War (dubbed Operation Desert Storm). Today, however, many of those countries, deeply concerned with the effects of climate change, are seeking to lessen oil's role in their national fuel mixes. As a result, in 2019, the countries potentially most at the mercy of Washington when it comes to access to Gulf oil are economically fast-expanding China and India, whose oil needs are only likely to grow. That, in turn, will further enhance the geopolitical advantage Washington enjoyed as long as it remains the principal guardian of the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. How it may seek to exploit this advantage remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that all parties involved, including the Chinese, are well aware of this asymmetric equation, which could give the phrase "trade war" a far deeper and more ominous meaning.
The Iranian Challenge and the Specter of War
From Washington's perspective, the principal challenger to America's privileged status in the Gulf is Iran. By reason of geography, that country possesses a potentially commanding position along the northern Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, as the Reagan administration learned in 1987-1988 when it threatened American oil dominance there. About this reality President Reagan couldn't have been clearer. "Mark this point well: the use of the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf will not be dictated by the Iranians," he declared in 1987 -- and Washington's approach to the situation has never changed.
In more recent times, in response to U.S. and Israeli threats to bomb their nuclear facilities or, as the Trump administration has done, impose economic sanctions on their country, the Iranians have threatened on numerous occasions to block the Strait of Hormuz to oil traffic, squeeze global energy supplies, and precipitate an international crisis. In 2011, for example, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned that, should the West impose sanctions on Iranian oil, "not even one drop of oil can flow through the Strait of Hormuz." In response, U.S. officials have vowed ever since to let no such thing happen, just as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did in response to Rahimi at that time. "We have made very clear," he said, "that the United States will not tolerate blocking of the Strait of Hormuz." That, he added, was a "red line for us."
It remains so today. Hence, the present ongoing crisis in the Gulf, with fierce U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil sales and threatening Iranian gestures toward the regional oil flow in response. "We will make the enemy understand that either everyone can use the Strait of Hormuz or no one," said Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, in July 2018. And attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz on June 13th could conceivably have been an expression of just that policy, if -- as claimed by the U.S. -- they were indeed carried out by members of the Revolutionary Guards. Any future attacks are only likely to spur U.S. military action against Iran in accordance with the Carter Doctrine. As Pentagon spokesperson Bill Urban put it in response to Jafari's statement, "We stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows."
As things stand today, any Iranian move in the Strait of Hormuz that can be portrayed as a threat to the "free flow of commerce" (that is, the oil trade) represents the most likely trigger for direct U.S. military action. Yes, Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support for radical Shiite movements throughout the Middle East will be cited as evidence of its leadership's malevolence, but its true threat will be to American dominance of the oil lanes, a danger Washington will treat as the offense of all offenses to be overcome at any cost.