Lo Stretto di Hormuz e le minacce al regime internazionale di transito

Lo Stretto di Hormuz e le minacce al regime internazionale di transito

Fabio Caffio
Rear Admiral of Italian Navy, Expert in Maritime Law

1. Abstract; 2. Premessa: lo stretto nell’economia mondiale; 3. Il regime giuridico del transito; 4. Segue: le posizioni di Iran, Oman ed USA; 5. L’incidente del 6 gennaio 2008; 6. I precedenti incidenti della I Guerra del Golfo; 7. L’illegittimità del blocco dello Stretto secondo il diritto internazionale 8. Conclusioni: il ruolo delle Forze navali nel mantenimento della libertà di navigazione.


The Strait of Hormuz, even if it can be deemed to be – geographically speaking – a simple international waterway connecting the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea, is in reality a very important hub for the world economy. This is a figure that is more significant than any geo-strategic analysis: around 25 per cent of the world exports of crude oil goes through Hormuz and the US, Europe and Japan respectively receive, from this passage, around 15 per cent, 20 per cent and 70 per cent of their import demands. The effects of an interruption of the transit through this strait would be immediately evident and dramatic for the countries interested in this vital flow. The episode of 6 January 2008, in which three US warships entered into a ‘close encounter’ with Iranian naval units during the transit, has brought the attention of the international community back onto the strait. The incident has clearly shown that different interpretations concerning the international rules on transit can create unpredictable confrontations.

The passage through the Strait of Hormuz is subject to the regulations established by UNCLOS1 concerning all international straits, in order to guarantee the maximum freedom of transit for ships of all nations. Therefore, the only recognized system of the unimpeded innocent passage, prescribed by the 1958 Territorial Sea Convention,2 has been replaced by two different legal regimes, valid for international straits (the notion can be obtained by reasoning a contrario: those waterways that are not used only for national navigation, the so-called ‘cabotage’): (a) transit passage that cannot be impeded or suspended and which is applicable to the straits

1 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982.

2 Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, 1958.

connecting areas such as the high seas and the EEZs and which is characterized by the exercise of the right of navigation and overflight only for the purpose of a continuous and expeditious passage and by the possibility for submarines to navigate submerged; and (b) unimpeded innocent passage through those straits that are formed by an island belonging to a state and its continental territory, when an alternative route of similar convenience exists, or through the straits connecting the high seas or the EEZs with the territorial waters of the state.

As an international strait fully covered by the territorial waters of Iran and Oman (the minimum width between the Islands of Larak and Quain is equal to 21 nm), which connects the high seas and the EEZs, the Strait of Hormuz is regulated by the transit passage. This means that both merchant vessels and warships of any state are entitled to the passage without any prior notification, provided they fully comply with the provisions stated in Article 39 of UNCLOS. They shall abstain from ‘any threat of or use of force against the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, or political independence of states bordering the strait’ or from ‘any activities other than those incident to their normal modes of continuous and expeditious transit’.

The specific issue related to the Strait of Hormuz regards the definition of ‘normal modes of continuous and expeditious transit’3 in relation to warships (i.e. flight operations for the aircraft on board the unit, also when hovering over the warship engaged in the transit or military exercises or manoeuvres with weapons). The freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz and the security of the waterways is a concern of the international community as a whole. In fact, there is a common vital interest in preserving the unimpeded flow of commercial transit through the strait. Also, the military aspects of this issue are extremely relevant. The risk of a casus belli occurring unexpectedly is very high. Recently we had the incident of January 2008, involving US and Iranian naval units. It is therefore necessary to take a proactive approach, in order to prevent future interactions on the seas from escalating into confrontations based on any misunderstanding. The crucial point of the question is to be found in the fact that warships belonging to any nation – also of states that have no Persian Gulf coastlines – need to maintain, through the passage, those operational conditions which are typical in maritime zones containing a potential threat. This would mean therefore: streaming information; maintaining the proper course tailored to force protection concerns; helicopters hovering in order to augment the recognized maritime picture (RMP); undersea surveillance by using sensors or unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs); and finally use of warning shots when boats approach the warship within a distance and in such a manner that may be deemed as hostile intent.

It is evident that all this could be interpreted as behaviour not in line with the well-established UNCLOS principles related to the transit passage. But on the other hand, it is also crystal clear that – given the current international situation – warships cannot abdicate their inherent operational necessities of mobility and

3 UNCLOS, Article 39.

self-protection, especially in an area like the Strait of Hormuz which is characterized by various types of threats, often asymmetrical, that could lead to unforeseeable consequences. If they did not take these measures, they would become moving targets similar to merchant ships, while their mission is instead to protect and guarantee the free traffic flow of commercial vessels through the straits, without violating the coastal state sovereignty. Unfortunately, it seems that an international customary law recognizing this modus operandi of warships transiting international straits such as Hormuz, has not yet developed (a similar requirement is also felt in other choke points such as Bab el Mandeb).

This is the reason why we could prepare guidelines (within the IMO, for instance), that indicate the fundamental operational requirements related to the transit of warships through Hormuz, besides the safeguards that warships have to adopt to ensure the respect of the legal status of the territorial waters of Iran and Oman.

In addition, it would be useful to propose to Iran the stipulation of agreements similar to the one concluded in 1978 between the former USSR and the USA, relating to the prevention of incidents at sea, which – during the peak of the cold war – helped to avoid incidents caused by confrontation at sea between the fleets of the two superpowers.

Premessa: Lo Stretto nell’economia mondiale

Lo Stretto di Hormuz, pur essendo dal punto di vista geografico una semplice via d’acqua internazionale (international waterways) che mette in comunicazione il Golfo Persico con il Mar Arabico, è in effetti uno snodo importantissimo per l’economia mondiale. Un dato vale più di qualsiasi analisi geo-strategica; si calcola che circa il 25 per cento delle esportazioni mondiali di petrolio passi attraverso Hormuz e che gli Stati Uniti, l’Europa ed il Giappone ricevano attraverso esso, rispettivamente, circa il 15 per cento, il 20 per cento ed il 70 per cento del proprio fabbisogno. Evidenti e drammatici quindi, i riflessi che sui Paesi interessati a questo flusso vitale avrebbe una interruzione del transito al suo interno. E tra quelli più penalizzati vi sarebbe l’Italia, che riceve dall’Iran e dagli altri Paesi del Golfo una quota consistente dell’import energetico. Per il vero vi sono già soluzioni alternative al trasporto via mare degli idrocarburi, rappresentate dall’oleodotto che attraversa l’Arabia Saudita da Abqaiq a Yanbu in Mar Rosso e da quello che, passando per l’Iraq, raggiunge il Mar Nero a Ceyhan in Turchia; in costruzione sono anche pipelines per collegare i giacimenti di gas iraniano con Turchia e Pakistan. Esse non sono tuttavia adeguate a sostituire il volume del trasporto marittimo.

Il petrolio iraniano, se si interrompesse il traffico marittimo in uscita dal Golfo Persico, non potrebbe quindi continuare a supportare né le economie occidentali – di Italia, e Francia in particolare – né quelle di Cina, India, Giappone e Corea del Sud. Ma quali e quanto realistici sono i rischi di un blocco di Hormuz? Esula dai limiti di questo scritto un’esame dei possibili scenari di crisi, tra i quali è compresa quella che è stata già definita come la oil weapon. Né si intende approfondire le tesi espresse dal Senatore Statunitense Richard G. Lugar, Chairman della Commissione relazioni estere del Senato sul fatto che il blocco dei rifornimenti energetici diretti ai paesi NATO, ove attuato con la forza, potrebbe rappresentare una situazione analoga ad un ‘attacco’ secondo l’articolo 5 del Trattato NATO.4 Si vuole piuttosto analizzare sia i fattori giuridici inerenti la questione, sia le lessons learned della I Guerra del Golfo di vent’anni fa,sia la casistica degli incidenti come quello verificatori tra navi Statunitensi e imbarcazioni iraniane lo scorso 6 Gennaio 2008.

Il regime giuridico del transito

Il passaggio attraverso lo Stretto di Hormuz è sottoposto alla regolamentazione stabilita per tutti gli stretti internazionali a garanzia della più ampia libertà di transito delle navi di qualsiasi bandiera. La nozione di stretto internazionale si basa su un elemento funzionale e su uno geografico. Sono infatti considerati stretti internazionali le vie d’acqua usate per la navigazione internazionale – esclusa quindi quella di cabotaggio – interamente coperte dalle acque territoriali dei paesi rivieraschi. Al loro interno UNCLOS prevede due differenti regimi di transito e cioè: (a) il passaggio in transito che non può essere impedito o sospeso valevole per gli stretti che mettono in comunicazione aree di alto mare e di EEZ, caratterizzato dall’esercizio del diritto di navigazione e di sorvolo ai fini esclusivi del passaggio continuo e spedito e dalla possibilità per i sommergibili di navigare in immersione; (b) il traffico inoffensivo non sospendibile negli stretti formati da un’isola di uno Stato e dalla parte continentale dello stesso, quando vi sia una rotta alternativa di convenienza similare,5 o negli stretti che collegano una parte di alto mare o di zona economica esclusiva con il mare territoriale dello stesso.

Allo Stretto di Hormuz, quale stretto internazionale interamente coperto dalle acque territoriali di Iran ed Oman6 – 21 miglia di ampiezza minima tra le Isole di Larak e Quain – che collega aree di alto mare e di EEZ, applica dunque il regime del passaggio in transito. Il che vuol dire che sia le navi mercantili che quelle da guerra di qualsiasi paese possono transitarvi senza preavviso a condizione di rispettare gli obblighi stabiliti dall’articolo 39 della UNCLOS.7 Esse devono quindi

4 Il Senatore Lugar ha rilasciato dichiarazioni in proposito il 27 novembre 2006 prima del vertice NATO di Riga (Vds. ‘27 Nov- Lugar Speech in Advance of NATO Summit at Opening gala dinner of the Riga Conference 2006’ at: www.rigasummit.lv/en/id/speechin/nid/36.

5 Questa è quella che si chiama la ‘Messina exception’ avendo riguardo alla situazione geografica dello Stretto di Messina (cf. W.L. Schachte, ‘International straits and navigational freedoms’, Law of the Sea Institute, Genoa annual conference, 1992. Available on-line: www.state.gov/documents/organization/65946.pdf).

6 Le acque territoriali dei due paesi sono separate da una linea di equidistanza, stabilita con accordo del 1974, che è valevole anche ai fini della delimitazione della piattaforma continentale.

7 Il testo della norma, intitolata ‘Duties of ships and aircraft during transit passage’ è: 1. Ships and aircraft, while exercising the right of transit passage, shall: (a) proceed without delay through or over the strait; (b) refrain from any threat or use of force against the sovereignty, erritorial integrity or political independence of States bordering the strait, or in any other manner in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations; (c) refrain from any activities other than those incident to their normal modes of continuous and expe-ditious transit unless rendered necessary by force majeure or by distress; (d) comply with other relevant provisions of this Part. 2 . Ships in transit passage shall: (a) comply with generally accepted international regulations, procedures and practices for safety at sea, including the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea; (b) comply with generally accepted international regulations, procedures and practices for the prevention, reduction and control of pollution from ships. 3. Aircraft in transit passage shall: (a) observe the Rules of the Air established by the International Civil Aviation Organization as they apply to civil aircraft; State aircraft will normally comply with such safety measures and will at all times operate with due regard for the safety of navigation; (b) at all times monitor the radio frequency assigned by the competent internationally designated air traffic control authority or the appropriate international distress radio frequency.

‘refrain from any threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of states bordering the strait’, e ‘from any activities other than those incident to their normal modes of continuous and expeditious transit …’.