Iranian aggression in the Gulf must be deterred
The naval branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has had a busy year so far. At least 11 major maritime incidents in the Gulf since January are thought to have been the responsibility of the IRGC. These incidents include hijacking commercial oil tankers and holding their crews hostage, as well as IRGC speedboats harassing US Navy vessels.
For years, Iran has stated that the US Navy has no business being in the Gulf. Tehran has also repeatedly threatened to “close the strait,” referring to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. In the past few months, there has been a catalog of Iranian aggression aimed at commercial shipping, in what can best be described as 18th century-style piracy.
Just last month, Iran seized the MV Southys, a Vietnamese-flagged oil tanker, in the Gulf of Oman. To mark the 42nd anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran celebrated its capture of the vessel by broadcasting footage of the ship on state television.
In early August, armed Iranians boarded the Asphalt Princess, a Panamanian-flagged civilian ship sailing in international waters in the Gulf of Oman. And, a few days before the Asphalt Princess was attacked, a suspected Iranian drone struck a commercial oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire. This incident, which also took place in international waters, left two people dead. If it was not for the debacle that was unfolding in Afghanistan at the same time, it is likely that these two incidents would have garnered far more international attention.
The last time the international community tried to get serious about maritime security in the Gulf was during the summer of 2019, after a spate of Iranian attacks against commercial shipping. At the time, calls for a new international coalition to deter Iranian aggression were rebuffed by the Europeans, who did not want to be seen as backing the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.
Two years later, the world needs to wake up to the fact that securing the Strait of Hormuz and protecting global shipping is an international obligation. Not only are the issues of international norms and the rule of law at stake, but there will also be huge economic consequences if the free flow of oil and gas from the Gulf is restricted or stopped altogether. This is especially true at a time when some parts of the world are already facing an energy crisis, or at the very least a spike in prices.
As the world’s premier maritime power, the US must lead new deterrence and security efforts in the Gulf. Admittedly, there are some American politicians who dismiss the idea that the US should play any significant role in keeping the Strait of Hormuz open because the US imports so little oil and gas from the region. This is a shortsighted view. The US might not depend on Middle Eastern oil or liquefied natural gas, but the economic consequences of a major disruption of supplies would ripple around the globe.
The world needs to wake up to the fact that securing the Strait of Hormuz and protecting global shipping is an international obligation.
For example, Japan, the world’s largest importer of LNG, gets 30 percent of its gas delivered through the Strait of Hormuz. It also gets 80 percent of its oil from the Gulf. Imagine the effect on the Japanese economy if these desperately needed resources were not available. The economic shock waves would be felt around the world.
One thing the Biden administration could do to boost security in the Gulf is breathe new life into the Middle East Strategic Alliance concept first proposed by the Trump administration. The idea behind MESA was to improve burden-sharing between the US and the Gulf states when it comes to security. The original thinking was that, as MESA’s military capacity grew, this would lead to better regional security and stability.
Of course, President Joe Biden will be loath to resurrect a proposal that originated from his predecessor. However, the Biden administration was originally reluctant to embrace the Abraham Accords but is now supportive of that Trump-era initiative. While MESA never got off the ground under Donald Trump, Biden should pick up where he left off.
One of the reasons why maritime security would be a great way to jump-start MESA is because this is one area of US-Gulf cooperation that has a track record of success. MESA could build on the existing Combined Maritime Forces already operational in the region. The CMF is a 34-country coalition of the willing headquartered in Bahrain that has been conducting various security, counterterrorism and counterpiracy operations in the Gulf and the wider region since 2004. Crucially, the CMF already includes the participation of regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. This cooperation could be formalized as part of MESA.
However, even with a steady drumbeat of Iranian aggression in the Gulf, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will stand up to Tehran anytime soon. One of Biden’s top foreign policy objectives is securing a new nuclear deal with Iran. The desperation coming from the White House to resume the negotiations is almost palpable. With Iran suggesting that talks might resume this month, the Biden administration will do nothing to risk upsetting Tehran.
US leadership is essential for deterrence and security to be established in the Strait of Hormuz, but it cannot do it alone. The free flow of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz is not only a US strategic priority, but also an international priority.
With Iran’s new hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi in power, expect IRGC provocations to increase. It will be far easier to deter Iranian aggression in the Gulf than it would be to defeat it. The warning lights are flashing. It is time for action.
• Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.