Iran seizes Strait of Hormuz islands, the three disputed islands in the Strait of Hormuz, establishing a chokehold on the only passage in or out of the Persian Gulf and potentially endangering free movement of the US aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower and accompanying warships that just entered the Gulf.
The islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb have been contested for decades, but Iran is now doubling down on its claims by offering land and incentives for Iranians to settle there. By exponentially growing the island populations, Iran aims to establish firmer control and sovereignty over the tiny land masses that sit strategically at the mouth of the Persian Gulf’s only sea passage.
The move has raised alarm among Gulf allies and condemnation from China and Russia. It places Iran in position to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 30% of the world’s seaborne oil passes daily. With the USS Eisenhower now entering the Gulf, American naval power is in the crosshairs of any potential Iranian aggression or blockade.
“By weaponizing these islands, Iran sees a chance to hold the global economy hostage,” said energy analyst Rashad Snell. “With a key US supercarrier now trapped inside the Gulf, unable to traverse the contested Strait, American resolve is being tested.”
The Eisenhower sailed into the Gulf this week as part of the ongoing US naval presence meant to ensure stability and deter Iran from rash actions. But some experts say the arrival of the 100,000 ton warship with its embarked fighter wing now makes it a vulnerable strategic chip if tensions escalate over the island land grab.
Decades of Disputes Boiling Over
Iran seized control of Abu Musa Island in 1971 as the British were departing their former protectorate states in the region. The nearby Tunb islands were quickly snapped up as well. Iran citing historical claims.
The United Arab Emirates, which was coming into nationhood at that time with claim on the islands too, immediately contested Iran’s move. But with the US and UK eager to avoid conflict after their Vietnam quagmire, Iran faced no real opposition.
In the ensuing 50 years, the disputed islands have remained a thorn in the side of US-Iran relations and Gulf stability. Periodic international mediation attempts have failed to resolve the matter. Iran has maintained military garrisons and even built an airport on Abu Musa Island, cementing de facto control if not full legal recognition.
China and Russia Lean Toward UAE Claims In recent years, China and Russia have gingerly tried to mediate the islands dispute, urging international arbitration – leaning implicitly toward UAE’s position.
After a December 2022 Chinese statement urging “bilateral negotiations in accordance with international law,” the furious Iranians recalled their ambassador from Beijing.
A similar Russian call for peaceful arbitration issued jointly with Gulf states, earned the Kremlin’s envoy in Tehran an official diplomatic reprimand.
These rebukes indicate Iran’s unwillingness to entertain any compromise or third party involvement over the islands. As petroleum exporters themselves, Russia and energy-hungry China have reason to fear an potential blockade of the Strait of Hormuz which could roil global markets.
Militarizing Tiny Outposts
Now, Iran is aggressively moving to populate the islands as a way to establish firm control. Iranian media reports official offers of free land, loans, and exemption from military service to any Iranian families willing to relocate.
Based on the allotments advertised, Iranian officials seem intent on boosting the island populations exponentially from around 4000 residents to over 1.7 million if they can find enough takers. These huge community transplants could cement Iran’s case.
Strategically, it also gives Iran outposts in the very middle of the Strait to base missile batteries, radar systems, fast attack boats, mines, and other weapons completely choking off Gulf access if desired. Iran claims it would never disrupt commercial shipping, but with global tensions high, other nations are less sure.
The heavily armed Eisenhower with dozens of lethal combat aircraft aboard could present a risk, say US Navy analysts, if Iran elected to make the Gulf a no-go zone. USS Cole-style swarm attacks could overwhelm even the advanced Aegis defense systems guarding US capital ships. And the narrow, shallow confines of Hormuz provide little maneuver room for the immense nuclear-powered vessel.
“Iran fought Iraq to a standstill for eight years using asymmetrical hit-and-run tactics”, said US Naval War College professor Daniel Hawkins on CNN recently, “trapping the Eisenhower inside the Gulf makes it hostage to fortune if that’s the Iranian play now.”
UK Echoes Need for Cooperation
The renewed tensions over the tiny but strategic Strait of Hormuz islands comes as Britain also urges less confrontation and more engagement over Iran’s destabilizing regional activities.
In London yesterday, a coalition of Iranian exile groups and UK parliamentarians from multiple parties held urgent talks on the need to increase cooperation and deterrence against potential aggression by Tehran’s hardline Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Participants discussed listing the IRGC as a terrorist entity and applying more sanctions.
“Only by presenting a common front can we compel Iran to act responsibly and pull back from reckless brinksmanship,” said Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former UK Conservative Party leader. “The IRGC especially fuels much of the unrest across the Middle East and supports militant organizations like Hezbollah. It’s time to call them out as the terrorism sponsors they truly are.”
Former British naval officer and warship captain, Tom Sharpe, agrees Iran presents the preeminent threat to stability and free commerce from Morocco to Malaysia. The ferrying of weapons to Hamas in Gaza via long, convoluted smuggling routes for example. Or Houthi rebel missle attacks against oil tankers near Yemen and commercial shipping in the Red Sea.
Sharpe contends show-of-force naval deployments like the mighty Eisenhower’s deterrence mission can influence Iranian behavior and caution the regime against rash actions. But trapping the vessel and its vital air wing inside the Persian Gulf leaves it potentially exposed, he warns.
With growing global instability from eastern Europe to the South China Sea, the last thing the world energy market needs is armed confrontation and closure threats to the hyper-critical Strait of Hormuz and nearby Gulf petroleum exports.
Yet the aggressive Iranian moves to militarize and colonize the disputed Tunb and Abu Musa Islands dangerously upends decades of tense but working coexistence with Gulf states and Western military partners. No longer Does the region sit on a knife edge.
Offering land incentives for Iranians to transplant themselves onto these barren outcroppings demonstrates Tehran’s intent to dominate the entire strategic seaway. Once missile batteries and naval forces solidify on these expanded garrisons, Iran will hold the ability to strangle 30% of global oil supply – and trap the symbol of American power projection, the USS Dwight Eisenhower, inside its bathtub-shaped gullet.
China, Russia and allies urgently need to double down on Iran, apply pressure and propose solutions before military brinksmanship leaves the volatile region and vital waterway in flames. There exist channels to bring all parties together in arbitration and preserve the free flow of commerce that lifts millions from poverty.
Leaders must choose them soon, or the Iranians may choose conflict. Their newly weaponized islands and the vulnerable American warships around them, form a ticking time bomb in the world’s most critical oil checkpoint.