US Central Command on Friday announced Operation Sentinel, a multinational maritime effort it has been developing to “increase surveillance of and security in key waterways in the Middle East to ensure freedom of navigation in light of recent events in the Arabian Gulf region.”
Also on Friday, Saudi Arabia and the US announced the rebasing of US troops in the Kingdom, after a 15-year hiatus, to upgrade their coordination to face emerging threats. The UK announced that it is sending more military assets to the region. Other allies are contemplating similar steps, in addition to the arrangements already in place between the US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, bilaterally and collectively under the umbrella of the GCC-US Strategic Partnership. These developments are among the most significant steps taken by the US and its allies so far to combat the harassment of oil tankers by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its attempts to disrupt maritime navigation.
It is clear that Iran is trying to drag the region into war, for some cynical calculation that somehow war or the threat of war would force the US into relaxing its “maximum pressure” policy toward Tehran. So far the US has chosen, wisely, not to take the bait, while maintaining the pressure of sanctions against Iran and its proxies throughout the region, where the scope of sanctions has grown exponentially in recent weeks. At the same time, the US and its allies are taking the Iranian military threat seriously and beefing up security while trying to de-escalate tensions.
According to the US Central Command, the immediate goal of Operation Sentinel is to “promote maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and de-escalate tensions in international waters throughout the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Oman.” The new maritime security framework seeks to enable countries to provide escort to their flagged vessels, while taking advantage of the cooperation of participating nations for coordination and enhanced maritime domain awareness and surveillance.
The US is committed to this initiative but it has called for “contributions and leadership” from regional and international partners for the operation to succeed fully. It says that it has been coordinating with “allies and partners” in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East on the details and capabilities required for Operation Sentinel to enable freedom of navigation in the region and to protect vital shipping lanes.
This constructive approach is the best modus operandi to deal with the current level of Iran’s provocations and build an international consensus on how to deal with Iran. At the same time, the US should continue its economic and diplomatic pressure to induce Tehran to come back to the negotiating table to discuss all aspects of its conduct in the region.
Already Iran’s outlaw antics in attacking oil tankers in international waters or the territorial waters of its neighbors are exposing the reality of the Iranian government: It pays little heed to international norms of freedom of navigation. By so doing, it is alienating the same countries that once thought a diplomatic deal could be made to de-escalate tensions. The UK, for example, had been engaging with Iran diplomatically just as the IRGC seized one of its ships. After the attack, the UK government appeared disappointed with the failed diplomacy and threatened Iran on Saturday with “serious consequences.” British Defense Minister Penny Mordaunt said in a television interview that the ship had been intercepted in Omani, not Iranian, waters and called its seizure “a hostile act.” The crisis with Iran is happening at a difficult time for Britain after Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation and during a contested campaign for the post and leadership of the Conservative Party. The victor, Boris Johnson, is known to be closer to President Trump than to the EU on Iran.
Britain sent more military assets to the region and junior defense minister Tobias Ellwood said that the UK needs to invest more in defense to respond to the ratcheting up by Iran. He said: “If we want to continue playing a role on the international stage — bearing in mind that threats are changing — all happening just beneath the threshold of all-out war, then we must invest more in our defense, including our Royal Navy.” Such an assessment will fit in well with Johnson’s more hawkish views.
This crisis has demonstrated that there is no difference on substance between Iran’s “moderates” and “hardliners.” It used to be said that there were real differences between the two supposed camps, but now Iran’s president, his foreign minister, and other civilian officials all sound hawkish. In the words of Suzanne Maloney, from Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, who is a strong supporter of Iran and a regular critic of Trump’s Iran policy: “What’s happening this week with Iran is the exact opposite of odd. This is precisely how Iran negotiates: The unctuous charm of (Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad) Zarif paired with a punch in the face from the IRGC. They are two sides of the same coin, complementary and coordinated.”