The intensification of the ‘tanker war’ and the military presence of the United States in the Persian Gulf

The intensification of the 'tanker war' and the military presence of the United States in the Persian Gulf

Washington last sent armed troops on private boats during WWII. Is Biden prepared for the challenges ahead?

Only during the two world wars of the twentieth century did the United States put combat-ready troops and weapons on civilian ships crossing the ocean.
The United States Navy established an Armed Guard to protect commercial ships during World War II. This was an unpopular assignment since the enemy could do as much harm to the freighters to which the sailors were posted as the sailors themselves could. Despite having a Navy detachment on board, hundreds of these commerce ships were lost, resulting in the deaths of almost 2,000 members of the Armed Guard.
The United States escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers during the “tanker war” phase of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s was the closest it has gotten to a comparable arrangement since then. Although the tankers were reflagged as a legal nicety to go along with the escorting by U.S. Navy warships, this time, the United States did not go so far as to deploy its own military soldiers aboard the commercial vessels.
Only a portion of the procedure was successful. Iran was nevertheless able to do damage with mines despite the fact that it may have discouraged some strikes by surface boats. U.S. warships were not leading the convoys in an embarrassing new strategy. Instead, they followed the tankers meekly out of fear for their own safety; the considerably larger oil transport was far less likely to be threatened by mines.
All of these precedents happened during actual wars, during major conflicts with ongoing hostilities. The Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea and the open ocean, and now unidentified U.S. sources say the Biden administration is contemplating sending armed U.S. military soldiers onboard commercial boats making the crossing. Such an agreement would exceed even the bold steps taken by the United States back in the ’80s.
An increase in U.S. military activity in and around the Persian Gulf has been reported, along with a plan to station soldiers aboard commercial ships. Due to recent deployments, the Navy, the United States Marine Corps, and fighter aircraft have all been making more appearances lately.
These moves are at odds with the professed goal of several Democratic and Republican administrations to shift focus away from the Middle East and toward other regions, particularly East Asia and the Pacific. Despite this aim, the United States remains vulnerable because of its sustained and now heightened military presence in the Middle East. Like the existing U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, the newly deployed personnel may become easy targets for the local population. Their existence increases the possibility that the United States may be drawn into more extensive wars.
The deployments are not as easy as shielding the good folks from the evil ones but rather require entering a zone of regional rivalries. Despite the government’s unwavering focus on Iran, the country’s regional opponents are just as far from American ideals and interests. This includes countries that are the source or destination of most of the commercial cargo that the administration seeks to safeguard. The traditional main opponent, Saudi Arabia, is just as much of an authoritarian regime and tyrannical violation of human rights as Iran, and its actions and beliefs have had deadly implications for Americans on a personal and national level.
Iran’s interception, seizure, or other harassment of certain oil tankers traversing the Strait of Hormuz is ostensibly behind the consideration of U.S. Marines being stationed aboard commercial ships and the other U.S. military deployments to the area. This crisis may have been averted with a change in U.S. policy. Contrary to popular belief, Iran has not been interdicting ships because Iranians are inherently evil. This method is reactive, like the majority of Iran’s other policies and activities.
It wasn’t Iran that started the recent round of attacking oil ships and stealing oil; it was the United States. The United States is acting alone in an attempt to halt oil shipments from Iran. Since the United States’ seizure and sale of Iranian oil runs counter to international law, Iran has naturally referred to it as “piracy.” U.S. authorities in April captured an Iranian oil tanker at sea and towed it to Houston, but the sale of the cargo has been stalled due to buyer and seller reluctance.
The tanker war of the 1980s is a possible inspiration for this dynamic. Attacks against tankers and other commercial oil infrastructure were first undertaken by the Iraqi dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who had started the wider Iran-Iraq War and toward whom U.S. policy was then leaning. Iran retaliated by firing missiles against Kuwaiti oil tankers in retaliation for the assault on Iranian vessels and facilities.
It is clear that Iran’s recent interceptions of vessels are part of a tit-for-tat game because of when they occurred. Iran seized a ship carrying oil from Kuwait that was chartered by Chevron in the Gulf of Oman only days after the United States seized an Iranian tanker in April.
Another Iranian interception of ships is a more broad reaction to U.S. economic warfare against Iran, which maintains the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy and has not had an immediate tit-for-tat character. Iran is sending a message that it cannot be ignored, that other oil producers will have trouble exporting their oil if it is not allowed to export its oil, and that it needs the undivided attention of the U.S. government in finding a replacement for the agreement that had limited Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for partial sanctions relief and that Trump junked in 2018.
There are a number of concerns that must be addressed before the deployment of U.S. Marines on commercial ships can even be considered. First and foremost is the very real potential for maritime events to spark greater conflict between the United States and Iran. Any operation involving American troops in an exchange of fire has this danger, but the possibility of American losses raises it significantly. Political pressure at home would force the government to escalate military action in reaction to such an event.
The fact that the ships in issue are commercial operations with mostly non-American sailors, ship owners, and commodities merchants raises further concerns. If only some ships were to get this protection, it would amount to a kind of industrial policy that, like any other form of industrial policy, would raise the same concerns about selecting winners and losers.
There are numerous ships whose missions are defined in terms of the interests of foreign firms and foreign nations, which frequently diverge from the interests of the United Nations, and American troops would be taken for a ride if the protection is broader.
Who takes command when one of these ships has trouble at sea? Even if Americans are manning the cannons, a commercial captain is almost certainly still in charge. These are important considerations because, for example, the proximity of a potentially hostile vessel to your ship might determine whether or not a violent event occurs at sea.
The scope of commercial operations with security risks, such as oil exports through the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, is typically defined by insurance rates and the decisions of operators in response to those rates, decisions which take into account wider considerations like global demand for oil. By becoming involved, the United States would be taking over certain tasks that might be handled more efficiently by the market and Lloyd’s of London.
Moreover, the growth of U.S. military presence and military actions in the Persian Gulf area clearly contradicts a positive trend toward de-escalation of tensions in the region in recent years.
When it comes to fostering friendly ties with Iran, smaller Gulf Arab governments like Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman have been even more progressive than Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Policymakers in the United States should give serious consideration to the legacy the country will leave in the Middle East. For regional governments, global energy supplies, and the United governments, this might be a favorable sign comparable to what the Chinese have done, signaling more peace and stability. It would be terrible if the turning of the “pivot,” and the redeployment of more military resources and commitments back into the area instead escalated tension and instability.

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