Daily Briefing: Military Buildup in The Gulf: What’s Next

HMS Middleton is pictured transiting the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East.
HMS Middleton and HMS Pembroke were escorted on their transit through the Strait by the Type 45 Destroyer HMS Diamond. The ship is currently deployed in the Gulf as part of Operation Telic MCM. (Source: Wikipedia)


Table of Contents:

Military and Political Dynamics in the Gulf:  The Soufan Group, Aug. 8, 2019

Iran Pairs Diplomacy With Military Pushback as Gulf Tensions Soar: Sune Engel Rasmussen, WSJ, July 21, 2019

In a Naval Confrontation With Iran, Great Britain Can Find Neither Ships Nor FriendsDavid B. Larter, Defense News, July 25, 2019

US CENTCOM Commander Says Mideast Buildup Prompted Iran ‘Step Back’ Robert Burns, Military Times, June 6, 2019



Military and Political Dynamics in the Gulf
The Soufan Group, Aug. 8, 2019

In early August, Iran seized another oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, on this occasion an Iraqi tanker that Iran said was caught ‘smuggling’ Iranian oil to the ‘Arab states.’ Since U.S.-Iran tensions escalated in May, as the Trump administration ramped up sanctions, Iran has seized three oil tankers, including one owned by the United Kingdom, and allegedly attacked another six tankers. The United States and Iran also downed one of each other’s unmanned aerial vehicles. None of the attacks has led to a loss of life, but the pattern of actions indicates that any future incident could easily escalate into significant armed conflict.

In an attempt to deter Iran’s attacks in the Gulf, the United States has continued to build up forces there. Starting with the acceleration of a U.S. aircraft carrier group in May, the United States has announced deployments of additional combat aircraft and missile defense units to the Gulf, as well as the return of U.S. military personnel to the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia that the United States has not used since the 2003 war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The U.K., which had a tanker, the Steno Impero, seized on July 19 in retaliation for the earlier seizure by British Overseas Territory Gibraltar of an Iranian tanker en route to Syria, has sent two warships to the Gulf to protect British ships. On August 5, the U.K. announced it would join a U.S.-led operation to monitor and help protect shipping in the Gulf. However, the U.S. effort to recruit additional coalition members has run into opposition from countries who do not want to adopt the Trump administration’s campaign of maximum pressure on Iran. Germany, for example, has outright refused to join any Gulf protection mission.

The difficulty in recruiting allies to the protection mission, when added to the Trump administration’s reticence to retaliate for Iran’s provocations, has given Tehran— as well as other states in the region—the clear impression that the United States and its allies are taking every step possible to avoid war with Iran. That impression was fostered by President Trump’s aborted retaliation for Iran’s downing of a U.S. unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft in June. Iranian leaders read the U.S. and U.S.-allied hesitance to react militarily to Iran’s provocations as affirmation of Iran’s strong regional position, including its successful intervention on behalf of Bashar Al Assad in Syria, the political and military strength of key Iranian allies Lebanese Hezbollah and Shia militias in Iraq, and the Zaidi Shia Houthi movement in Yemen. Iranian leaders calculate that, because a U.S.-Iran clash could easily cascade throughout the region, war with Iran would undermine President Trump’s repeated pledges to extricate the United States from the long conflicts in the region and complicate his drive for re-election in 2020.

The Trump administration’s caution in incorporating military action into its policy of maximum pressure on Iran has caused the Gulf states to recalibrate their posture. In July, the UAE, one of the hardline Gulf states on Iran, announced a pullout of its ground troops from Yemen. Those troops were the backbone of the Saudi-led coalition’s operations against the Houthis, and the pullout cast doubt upon Riyadh’s ability to sustain that war effort. On July 31, the UAE sent a security delegation to Tehran for the first high-level bilateral talks between the two countries since 2013. The visit, coming on the heels of the hesitancy of the UAE to blame Tehran directly for the recent attacks on commercial shipping, suggested that Abu Dhabi may be seeking to de-escalate tensions. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

Iran Pairs Diplomacy With Military Pushback as Gulf Tensions Soar
Sune Engel Rasmussen
Wall St. Journal, July 21, 2019

Ships plying the Strait of Hormuz are getting caught in the middle as Iran pushes back against U.S. sanctions and maneuvers around a more muscular American regional presence, raising the risk of direct military confrontation.

A British-flagged oil tanker Iran seized on Friday became the latest casualty of an Iranian response to perceived aggression that stops short of full conflict. Iran initially said it impounded the British vessel after it collided with a fishing boat. But the move was widely seen as retaliation for British forces this month seizing an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar that was allegedly transporting oil to Syria.

The Iranian seizure came a day after the U.S. Navy said it had shot down an Iranian drone over the Persian Gulf—which Iran denied—and involved Revolutionary Guard forces rappelling onto the deck from a helicopter. The U.K. government on Sunday defended the lack of protection afforded to the British ship.

“It isn’t possible simply to escort each and every single vessel,” Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood said. The U.K. is sending an additional destroyer and support ship to the area so that the HMS Montrose can refuel at sea as opposed to having to come into port.

In a sign of Tehran trying to defuse tensions, Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh said the issue of the Gibraltar-confiscated oil tanker carrying Iranian crude was being dealt with. “There is no particular problem in this regard,” Mr. Zanganeh told Iranian news agency ISNA.

However, Britain is still weighing what response to take to the ship’s seizure, officials said. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is due to make a statement outlining the response on Monday afternoon. Asset freezes or further sanctions aimed at Iran are the most likely routes that will be taken, some analysts said.

A recording of tense radio exchanges about the Stena Impero tanker between a Royal Navy frigate and Iranian vessels shows the shortcomings of armed escorts in protecting traffic and underscores the risks of direct confrontation between the countries’ militaries. In the recordings, obtained by the British maritime-security firm Dryad Global and posted on its Twitter account, the Iranian vessel can be heard telling the Stena Impero to change its course, saying: “If you obey, you will be safe.”

British Navy vessel HMS Montrose then intervenes and tells the U.K.-flagged tanker: “As you are conducting transit passage in a recognized international strait, under international law your passage must not be impaired, impeded, obstructed or hampered.”

The U.K. frigate then asks the Iranian vessel to confirm it is not “intending to violate international law,” but was unable to intervene. “The HMS Montrose was close by, but it all happened very fast and once the ship entered Iranian waters, nothing could be done to prevent the seizure,” a person with direct knowledge of the incident said. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

In a Naval Confrontation With Iran, Great Britain Can Find Neither Ships Nor Friends
David B. Larter
Defense News, July 25, 2019

It was a knife-twist that originated in Florida, but it was felt across the Atlantic. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appearing Monday on Fox News via a live feed from the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Orlando, was asked by anchor Brian Kilmeade what the United States’ role was in helping the United Kingdom get its tanker back, which was seized by Iran in a tit-for-tat raid at sea after the U.K. seized an Iranian tanker suspected of smuggling oil to Syria. “The responsibility … falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships,” Pompeo said.

America’s top diplomat went on to say that the U.S. had a role in policing the Strait of Hormuz, but that “the world has a big role in this, too, to keep these sea lanes open,” he continued. “I’m convinced we’ll do that.”

It was a loaded answer, and the subtext wasn’t missed in the United Kingdom: The U.K. has the responsibility to protect its own ships, but doesn’t have the Navy it needs to do it. Britain’s European allies will play a major role keeping shipping lanes open. One-fifth of all global crude exports passes through the narrow strait between Iran and Oman.

Like the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy has seen a decline in the size of its fleet since the 1980s, only in the case of the Royal Navy, it had fewer ships to lose to start with. The U.S. Navy has struggled to maintain its global commitments with a fleet of 290 ships, and it has seen a 52 percent decrease from its 1987 peak of 594 ships. The U.S. Navy is today pursuing a goal of 355 ships. But during roughly the same time period the Royal Navy has lost more than 40 percent of its fleet, that stood at more than 130 ships. Today’s Royal Navy numbers fewer than 80 ships.

Both fleets made similar decisions to focus on high-end capabilities to the detriment of good-old-fashioned capacity, trusting to allies and partners to help make up shortfalls where necessary. But the U.S. is tied up on other missions, is renewing its focus on fighting big powers like Russia and China, and is hoping against hope to get itself disentangled from Middle East conflicts. So, Iran’s seizure of a British tanker, with no Royal Navy assets close enough to stop it, has exposed the shortcomings of a capability over capacity trades that Britain made since the end of the Cold War, experts said.

“About $88 trillion of global [gross domestic product] is being borne by seaborne assets, and they are being protected by fewer than 1,000 gray hulls in the world – talking about the United States and its allies and partners,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with Telemus Group. “And those who would align themselves against us – Iran, Russia, China – they are choosing to interpret the global international system differently.

“The British pulled back in order to consolidate their resources on the high end. And now they have tankers that are being taken at sea. So you can’t have it both ways. That’s why I’ve been arguing for a balance between war-winning capabilities and peace-preserving capacity.”

The draw-down was a deliberate strategy that bet a lot on the U.K.’s relationship with the United States, said Bryan Clark, a retired U.S. Navy submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The UK’s strategy, if you look at their most recent [Strategic Defense and Security Review], they say is that ‘Our job is to plug into a U.S.-led force in support of some larger operation, whether that is against a great power or against someone like a Libya,’” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

US CENTCOM Commander Says Mideast Buildup Prompted Iran ‘Step Back’
Robert Burns
Military Times, June 6, 2019

Iran has chosen to “step back and recalculate” after making preparations for an apparent attack against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, but it is too early to conclude the threat is gone, the top commander of American forces in the Mideast said Thursday.

In an interview with three reporters accompanying him to the Gulf, Gen. Frank McKenzie said he remains concerned by Iran’s potential for aggression, and he would not rule out requesting additional U.S. forces to bolster defenses against Iranian missiles or other weapons. “I don’t actually believe the threat has diminished,” McKenzie said. “I believe the threat is very real.”

Military Times interviewed more than a dozen military experts, including current and former U.S. military officials, about how a conflict might begin and how it could play out. This is what they said could happen:

McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, and other military officials are trying to strike a balance between persuading Iran that the U.S. is prepared to retaliate for an Iranian attack on Americans, thus deterring conflict, and pushing so much military muscle into the Gulf that Iran thinks the U.S. plans an attack, in which case it might feel compelled to strike preemptively and thus spark war.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have worsened since President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and several world powers, and reinstated sanctions on Tehran. Last month, in response to what American officials characterized as an imminent threat, the U.S. announced it would rush an aircraft carrier and other assets to the region. “It is my assessment that this has caused the Iranians to back up a little bit, but I’m not sure they are strategically backing down,” McKenzie told reporters from The Associated Press and two other media organizations. The general said the U.S. is showing enough force to “establish deterrence” without “needlessly” provoking its longtime adversary. “We’re working very hard to walk that line.

He said he is confident in the moves he has made thus far. “We’ve taken steps to show the Iranians that we mean business in our ability to defend ourselves,” he said, referring to the accelerated deployment to the Gulf area of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, four Air Force B-52 bombers and additional batteries of Army Patriot air-defense systems. Trump, speaking beside French President Emmanuel Macron in Caen, France, said U.S. sanctions are crippling Iran’s economy, possibly yielding a diplomatic opening. “And if they want to talk, that’s fine,” the U.S. president said. “We’ll talk. But the one thing that they can’t have is they can’t have nuclear weapons.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

 Further Readings:

Satellite Images ‘Show US Military Buildup In Saudi Arabia’ Amid Iran Tensions:  Harry Cockburn, Independent, July 18, 2019 — The United States is preparing to send hundreds of troops to Saudi Arabia where satellite images appear to show a buildup of American forces on the ground.

US Military Build-Up In Gulf Threatens Region’s Stability: Iran:  Al Jazeera, Aug. 12, 2019, YouTube — In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said more US warships in the Gulf would only lead to more insecurity.

US Military Aims To Ensure Safe Passage Of American Commercial Ships in Persian Gulf: Robert Burns, Military Times, July 24, 2019  — The U.S. military intends to protect American commercial ships against Iranian threats in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz but will not provide naval escorts in every case, the newly installed defense secretary said Wednesday.

Officials: U,S, Putting Troops Back in Saudi Arabia:  Robert Burns, Military Times, July 21, 2019 — With Iranian military threats in mind, the United States is sending American forces, including fighter aircraft, air defense missiles and likely more than 500 troops, to a Saudi airbase that became a hub of American airpower in the Middle East in the 1990s but was abandoned by Washington after it toppled Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003.