As standoff deepens, US tries coalition-building on Iran

Published July 11, 2019, 7:45 AM

by Patrick Garcia

By Agence France-Presse

In seeking a coalition at sea to monitor Iran, the United States is hoping to present a united front at a time when its hawkish policy has aggravated tensions and key allies are at loggerheads.

A pumping station activated to protect New Orleans from floods, pictured in 2017 (AFP Photo/Chris Graythen)
A pumping station activated to protect New Orleans from floods, pictured in 2017 (AFP Photo/Chris Graythen)

General Joseph Dunford, the top US military officer, said the United States 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 Tuesday.

He said the coalition would operate both in the Strait of Hormuz — the chokepoint to the Gulf through which 20 percent 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 at the 11th hour.

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 United Arab Emirates 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, a massive rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council of oil-rich, US-friendly Arab monarchies.

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 United States and “create a bit of panic in the head of President Trump” by destabilizing 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,” he said.

– European skepticism –
Mark Esper, the acting defense 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 skeptical 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 United States 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 apologized.