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The thaw in hostile relations between the west and Iran could inadvertently lead to a resumption in Somali piracy attacks, a maritime security expert has warned.

David Hunkin, commercial director of Dryad Maritime, said that with negotiations between Iran and the US over the former’s nuclear programme already leading to an easing of sanctions, it is increasingly likely that the US will reduce its naval presence in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, especially as its strategic military focus appears to be switching to the Asia-Pacific region.

Mr Hunkin said that could create a vacuum of naval power which would allow Somali pirates to flourish again, after two years of fewer attacks and hijacks.

“With the US strategic focus now firmly fixed on the Asia Pacific region and Iran ‘coming in from the cold’, it is only a matter of time before western navies begin withdrawing the warships that have been so successful in suppressing piracy off the Somali coast. With no convoys and no rescue forces, the commercial shipping industry could be left to fend for itself,” said Mr Hunkin.

“Somalia will still be a largely lawless and ungoverned space, and although the problem of piracy has been contained, it hasn’t been solved.

“Removal of that containment means a return of piracy – and it could be argued that the problem will be worse than before,” he said, arguing that initially the naval presence in the region was driven purely by the perceived military threat posed by Iran to the US’s allies in the region – particularly the Gulf states on which it has been so dependent for energy.

“For years some of the most capable maritime platforms in the world were deployed east of Suez, just in case Iran did the unthinkable. It could be argued that piracy was a welcome diversion, giving underemployed warships and aircraft a much needed and laudable role in defending commercial maritime trade while waiting for the apocalypse,” he added.

However, the subsequent US shale gas revolution has transformed energy trading patterns and meant the need to keep the Straits of Hormuz open at all costs has waned considerably.

Mr Hunkin said that commercial shipping interests and their representatives had around a year and a half to develop new strategies for an era with a thinner naval presence.

“With the threat landscape changing, pressure is mounting to bring those forces home, and over the next 18 months it is expected that the naval presence east of Suez will be very different from what we see today.

“The dialogue needs to begin now to decide how the commercial sector can protect shipping when the politicans no longer care and the warships have gone home.

“The clock is ticking, but for once there is [enough] time to establish an effective solution, provided the reality of the enormity of this situation is acknowledged,” he said.

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