In seeking a coalition at sea to monitor Iran, the US is hoping to present a united front at a time when its hawkish policy has aggravated tensions and key allies are at loggerheads.
General Joseph Dunford, the top US military officer, said the US would take the commanding role and provide surveillance as other countries escort vessels under their own flags.
“I think probably over the next couple 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,” Dunford said on Tuesday.
He said the coalition would operate both in the Strait of Hormuz – the chokepoint to the Gulf through which 20 per cent of the world’s oil flows – and the Bab el-Mandeb, the crucial shipping line into the Red Sea off war-battered Yemen.
The budding coalition comes as tensions soar with Iran, which shot down a US spy drone and has been blamed by Washington for a series of sabotage attacks on oil tankers.
Many observers see Iran as trying to extract a price on President Donald Trump’s administration, which imposed crippling sanctions and has tried to stop all of Tehran’s oil sales in hopes of weakening the clerical regime.
Trump, who exited a nuclear accord with Iran negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama, on Wednesday vowed to keep ramping up sanctions – but he also has indicated he does not want war, calling off a planned strike last month.
In a familiar priority for Trump, he has accused other nations of not paying enough for their own ships’ security – a point stressed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he visited allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE last month.
Fostering Gulf unity?
Dunford’s remarks came on the day that the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, met Trump at the White House.
Qatar, which is home to some 10,000 US troops but has comparatively cordial relations with Iran, has been under a Saudi-led embargo for two years.
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that the coalition initiative could serve to “end the intra-GCC conflict through the backdoor,” although he said that would be a longer-term calculation.
“There are good reasons why the US wants others to do a lot more to protect the flow of energy and trade from the Persian Gulf,” he said.
“Is it going to change the big-picture dynamics in the sense of the US-Iran standoff? That’s where I’m more skeptical,” he said.
He said Iran was trying to impose counter-pressure against the US and “create a bit of panic in the head of President Trump” by destabilising the oil market.
“I’m not sure that this is going to in itself deter the Iranians from being in the path they are in.”
Mark Esper, the acting defence secretary, said on a recent visit to Nato’s headquarters that “a few” allies had privately expressed interest in the coalition.
But European leaders have been widely sceptical of Trump’s policy on Iran and still support the 2015 nuclear deal.
In a potential omen for Washington, Spain in May recalled a frigate accompanying a US aircraft carrier heading to the Middle East, saying it wanted to steer clear of any potential “warlike action”.
It is not the first time the US has worked to escort oil in the Gulf. During the Iran-Iraq War, Washington protected Kuwaiti ships that were given the US flag.
The USS Vincennes, deployed for the operation, in 1988 shot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing 290 people in an incident for which Washington has never apologised.