America’s top General Joseph Dunford this week announced plans for a US-led naval coalition to patrol the Persian Gulf in order to “protect shipping” from alleged Iranian sabotage.
The move is but the latest in a series of efforts by the Trump administration to mobilize Arab allies into a more aggressive military stance towards Iran. It follows recent visits to the region by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, both of whom have been urging a more organized military front led by the US to confront Iran.
The latest naval coalition proposed by General Dunford will be charged with escorting oil tankers as they pass through the Strait of Hormuz exiting the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, and also through the Bab al Mandab entrance to the Red Sea on the Western side of the Arabian Peninsula. The former conduit serves oil supply to Asia, while the latter position between Yemen and Eritrea leads shipping to the Suez Canal on the way to the Mediterranean and Europe. Both narrow sea passages are strategic chokepoints in global oil trade, with some 20-30 per cent of all daily shipped crude passing through them.
The apparently chivalrous motives of the US to “guarantee freedom of navigation” sounds suspiciously like a pretext for Washington to assert crucial military control over international oil trade. That is one paramount reason for objecting to this American proposal.
Secondly, the very idea of sending more military vessels to the Persian Gulf under Pentagon command at this time of incendiary tensions between the US and Iran is a reckless provocation too far.
In the same week that the Pentagon called for a naval coalition, the US and Britain were blaming Iranian forces for trying to block a British oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has dismissed the allegations that its naval vessels interfered in any way with the British tanker. Both London and Washington claimed that a British Royal Navy frigate had to intervene to ward off the Iranian vessels. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the accusations as “worthless”.
The latest incident follows a string of sabotage attacks against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf by unidentified assailants. The US has blamed Iran. Iran has vehemently denied any involvement. Tehran has countered by saying that tensions are being inflamed by “malicious conspiracies”.
One can easily foresee in this already supercharged geopolitical context in the Persian Gulf and the wider region how any additional military forces would be potentially disastrous, either from miscalculation, misunderstanding or more malign motive.
Furthermore, media reports indicate a heightened wariness among some Gulf Arab states about being pushed into confrontation with their neighbor Iran. US policy is recklessly fomenting regional tensions against the better judgement of proximate countries.
The Washington Post reported this week: “The escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf have exposed differences between the United States and its regional allies, in part over how aggressively the Trump administration should confront Iran… With these countries likely to find themselves on the front lines of any military conflict with Iran, some of the smaller states are hesitant to support the more combative stance of the United States and regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”
The report goes on: “The more-assertive approach championed by Saudi Arabia — and in particular by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — puts the kingdom at odds with some of the smaller US allies in the region, which want to see the crisis settled through negotiations. Kuwait and Oman, which have pursued bilateral relations with Iran, have long resented Saudi attempts to pressure them to adopt a more confrontational foreign policy, analysts say.”
Qatar is another important regional player which is bound to have misgivings about the growing tensions. The gas-rich emirate has been roughed up by Saudi Arabia and the UAE with a two-year blockade on trade and political links. While Qatar is a US ally and a Sunni Arab neighbor traditionally aligned with Saudi Arabia, the country also shares the region’s close historical trading ties with Shia Iran to the North. Centuries of overlapping cultural ties belie the attempt by the US and its Saudi and UAE allies of trying to polarize the region into an anti-Iran axis.
Aware of the danger of a catastrophic war erupting, several regional states are right to be even more alarmed by the latest proposition of a naval coalition led by the US. Washington is arrogantly over-stepping its presumption to control global oil trade, and it is pushing tensions in the region with a provocation too far. Hopefully, reckless US-led antagonism will be rebuffed by wiser regional states who stand to lose much more than Generals and warmongers sitting comfortably in Washington.
Moreover, the correct way to calm and resolve tensions in the region is for the Trump administration to halt its aggression towards Iran and to respect the 2015 international nuclear accord which it unilaterally trashed last year. Remove sanctions and warships from the region and – for a fundamental change – respect international law, diplomacy and peaceful negotiations.