US seeks naval coalition to safeguard Gulf shipping and stop more tanker attacks
The United States plans to send command vessels and boost surveillance in the Arabian Gulf after attacks on vessels the White House has blamed on Iran.
Washington wants to enlist allies over the coming weeks to deploy ships to the region to secure commercial shipping and prevent further attacks that could harm the world oil supply.
“We’re engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation both in the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab Al Mandeb,” said Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“And so I think probably over the next couple of weeks we’ll identify which nations have the political will to support that initiative and then we’ll work directly with the militaries to identify the specific capabilities that’ll support that.”
Gen Dunford released details of the plan after meetings on Tuesday with acting US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Earlier this week, a senior Emirati official told The National that the UAE supported a collective response to safeguard shipping and counter threats in the Gulf rather than individual states taking unilateral action that was not co-ordinated.
The official did not refer to a specific plan, such as the one mentioned by Gen Dunford, but said there had been a lot of co-ordination with the US and other allies in the wake of this summer’s tanker attacks.
Just over a year ago, the US administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal signed by Iran and world powers to set strict limits and checks on uranium enrichment and use in exchange for sanctions relief.
The White House has placed rafts of sanctions on Iran since exiting the deal.
But tensions in the region escalated after four tankers were attacked by mines in a sabotage attack off the coast of Fujairah in May.
Less than a month later, a further two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The US has blamed Tehran for both attacks.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have also stepped up drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, a move the US has said is directed from Tehran.
Dozens of civilians have been wounded and at least one killed in Yemeni rebel drone attacks on Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia.
Gen Dunford said the United States would provide “command and control” ships but said the goal would be for other countries to provide vessels to patrol waters between those command ships.
The third part of the mission would involve coalition members escorting their countries’ commercial vessels, he said.
“The expectation is that the actual patrolling and escorts would be done by others,” he said.
Gen Dunford said the size of the campaign could be adjusted based on the number of countries that commit to it.
“This will be scalable, right? So with a small number of contributors, we can have a small mission. And we’ll expand that as the number of nations that are willing to participate identify themselves,” he said.
Although oil markets have not reacted to the tensions with any major increases in prices, about 21 million barrels per day passing through the Strait of Hormuz – the chokepoint between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman – meaning as much as a fifth of the world’s oil supply could be affected if Iran closes the narrow channel.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Tuesday that any disruption to oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz would be a “major obstacle” for his country’s economy.
His government was studying contingency plans to deal with possible disruptions, including looking at alternative routes for oil exports, Mr Abdul Mahdi said at his weekly press conference.
The US has repeatedly said that any attempt by Iran to close the Strait would result in a swift military response.
Part of the reaction to the May and June attacks, American officials have said, involves co-ordinating closely with regional partners and allies to determine what steps to take next.
The latest US proposal of an international coalition to safeguard shipping in the strait appears to be one outcome of this. But one striking element of Gen Dunford’s comments is his reference to Bab Al Mandeb.
Although US officials had publicly discussed plans to safeguard the Strait of Hormuz, Gen Dunford disclosed that the coalition would also seek to bolster security in the waters off the west coast of Yemen.
While no ships in that crucial channel, a passage only 20 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, have been hit in the high-profile wave of tanker attacks, Houthi rebels have previously attacked ships in the waterway.
Almost 4 million barrels of oil are shipped daily through Bab Al Mandeb to Europe, the United States and Asia, plus commercial goods. The channel leads north to the Suez Canal.
Earlier this week, the Saudi-led coalition said they intercepted an unmanned, bomb-laden vessel attempting to strike commercial shipping near Bab Al Mandab.
Last year, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest crude exporter, froze exports through Bab Al Mandeb because of a Houthi attack on a tanker in the strategic waterway before resuming them 10 days later.
Washington’s plan is largely in line with its often stated aim of safeguarding the free movement of shipping through international waters that underpins the global economy.
The US has deployed military vessels and aircraft to carry out symbolic manoeuvres in contested or tense areas to demonstrate their commitment to free navigation. But the American carrier group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln that was sent to the Gulf to respond to Iranian threats has stayed out of the Strait of Hormuz to avoid unnecessary escalation.
The group has remained hundreds of kilometres from the vital strait because “You don’t want to inadvertently escalate something,” Capt Putnam Browne, the commanding officer of the Lincoln, told AP in June.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to hit US vessels. A commander in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said on Tuesday night that “our missiles will destroy their [US] aircraft carriers if they make a mistake”.
Hossein Nejat said the US was “well aware of the consequences of a military confrontation with Iran” and added that American bases were within range of Iranian ballistic missiles.
Gen Dunford did not address any concerns of escalation if the navy navigates the channel into the Arabian Gulf.
Source: The National