DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — As the U.S. tries a new way to protect shipping across the Persian Gulf amid tensions with Iran, it finds itself sailing into uncertain waters.
For decades, the U.S. has considered the waters of the Persian Gulf as critical to its national security. Through the gulf's narrow mouth, the Strait of Hormuz, 20% of all crude oil sold passes onto the world market. Any disruption there likely will see energy prices spike.
The U.S. has been willing to use its firepower to ensure that doesn't happen. It escorted ships here in the 1980s "Tanker War." America fought its last major naval battle in these waters in 1988 against Iran.
Now, the U.S. Navy is trying to put together a new coalition of nations to counter what it sees as a renewed maritime threat from Iran. But the situation decades later couldn't be more different.
The U.S. public is fatigued from years of Mideast warfare after the Sept. 11 attacks. The demand for Persian Gulf oil has switched to Asia. Gulf Arab nations poured billions of dollars into their own weapons purchases while inviting a host of nations to station their own forces here, even as infighting dominates their relations.
Meanwhile, Iran finds itself backed into a corner and ready for a possible conflict it had 30 years for which to prepare. It stands poised to further break the terms of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, over a year after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord and imposed crippling sanctions on the country.
"It is plausible to imagine a scenario where these forces stumble into some type of accidental escalation," said Becca Wasser, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. who studies the region. "While U.S. efforts are intended to deter, Iran may view increased U.S. maritime presence as offensive in nature or as preparation for a larger attack on Iran and respond accordingly."
THE SENTINEL PROGRAM
The U.S.-led Sentinel Program aims to secure the broader Persian Gulf region. It includes surveillance of the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, another narrow strait that connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden off Yemen and East Africa. Smaller patrol boats will be available for rapid response.
The plan also allows for nations to escort their own ships through the region, said Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which oversees the region. For now, the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet is not escorting U.S.flagged ships through waters, though that remains a possibility, he said.
So far, only Australia, Bahrain and the United Kingdom have said they'll join the U.S. program. India has begun escorting its own ships independently of the U.S. coalition, while China has suggested it could get involved as well.
The U.S. Navy has sent Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers to chokepoint positions, like either end of the Strait of Hormuz. There, they observe ship traffic and monitor for anything unusual as drones and other aircraft fly surveillance routes overhead, Frey said.
Some of what the U.S. plan calls for already falls under the routine operations of the 5th Fleet, which has been in the region since 1995. U.S. Navy ships coming in and out of the Persian Gulf often find themselves shadowed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels. Some incidents have seen the U.S. fire warning shots or Iranian forces test-fire missiles nearby.
What's different now is that shippers find themselves under attack. The U.S. blames Iran for the apparent limpet mine explosions on four vessels in May and two others in June sailing in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, something Iran denies being behind. Iran also seized a British-flagged oil tanker and another based in the United Arab Emirates.
Facing growing financial pressure from U.S. sanctions on its oil industry, Iran has sought diplomatic support from those still in the deal, while increasing pressure militarily as well. Even President Hassan Rouhani, who had supported rapprochement with the U.S. in the run-up to the 2015 deal, has been threatening to close off the Strait of Hormuz if Tehran can't sell its oil abroad.
"If someday the United States decides to block Iran's oil, no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf," he told a
By the Associated Press — As new U.S.-led naval patrols in the Persian Gulf raise the stakes with Iran and Tehran's nuclear deal collapses, the ongoing tensions have drawn renewed attention to military bases in the region. A look at the presence of the U.S. and others in the Gulf region:
AFGHANISTAN — The U.S. has stationed some 14,000 troops in Afghanistan supporting America's longest war. Some 8,000 others come from NATO forces.
BAHRAIN — The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which oversees the region, is based in Bahrain, an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia that is home to over 7,000 American troops. Sheikh Isa Air Base on the island also hosts American fighter jets, surveillance aircraft and a U.S. special forces operations center. The U.S. considers the island a "major non-NATO ally." Britain, meanwhile, has just opened its first military base east of the Suez Canal since 1971 in Bahrain.
KUWAIT — The tiny, oil-rich nation hosts over 13,000 American troops and the U.S. Army Central's forward headquarters. It also maintains forces and equipment at two air bases and a naval base in the country. Kuwait International Airport also hosts the U.S. military's largest regional air logistics point. Some 2,200 American mine-resistant tactical vehicles are stationed there. The U.S. also considers Kuwait a "major non-NATO ally."
OMAN — A few hundred U.S. military personnel are based in Oman. The sultanate also allows U.S. military overflights and port visits. It also allows the U.S. to preposition munitions in the country. America signed a new port access agreement with Oman this year. Britain has signed a deal to build a naval base in the country.
IRAQ — The U.S. has some 5,000 troops in Iraq in the aftermath of the war against the Islamic State.
QATAR — The forward headquarters of the U.S. military's Central Command is at Qatar's sprawling Al Udeid Air Base, home to up to 13,000 American troops. Qatar plans to further expand the base, which saw the U.S. position nuclear-capable B-52 bombers there as tensions rose with Iran. Turkey also has its own military base in the country, to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia, which sees Turkey as a regional rival for influence.
SAUDI ARABIA — The U.S. pulled troops out of Saudi Arabia after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. AlQaida leader Osama bin Laden long criticized the presence of American forces there. This summer, U.S. officials said fighter aircraft, air defense missiles and likely more than 500 American troops would return to Riyadh's Prince Sultan Air Base over tensions with Iran. U.S. special operations troops also reportedly have assisted Saudi forces along its border with war-torn Yemen.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — Dubai's Jebel Ali port in the United Arab Emirates is the largest port of call for the U.S. Navy outside of America. The UAE hosts 5,000 U.S. military personnel, many at Abu Dhabi's Al Dhafra Air Base, where American drones and advanced F-35 jetfighters are stationed. The U.S. Navy also maintains a small base in Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman. France also maintains its own navy base in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital.