Iran is winning, but US has options, in Gulf crisis

Iran is winning, but US has options, in Gulf crisis
© GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

Who is winning in the Gulf crisis? The eventual winner of this round is yet to be decided but, so far, Tehran is winning on points.

Clearly, according to the Trump administration — but perhaps not indisputably, in the public view of others — Iran carried out attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last Thursday, as well as four tankers off the United Arab Emirates (UAE) port of Fujairah on May 12. Additionally, Houthi forces in Yemen, widely seen as proxies for Iran, used drones to attack two pumping stations on a major pipeline in Saudi Arabia on May 14.

The security of oil exports from the region, for decades a U.S. national security imperative, is imperiled. But the U.S. counter-action so far has been zero, at least in terms of military force.  The pictures of the burning tanker last week were evidence that the earlier-than-planned arrival of the U.S.’s Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and B-52 bombers publicly has had no impact on Iranian behavior.

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Notably, since arriving in the region, the Lincoln has not gone through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf itself, effectively ceding that water to Iran. To misquote the traditional song “Rule Britannia,” clearly “America does not rule the waves,” and the bases from which Iran’s attack boats sneaked out to make their attacks remain intact, untouched by any U.S. retaliatory action.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE’s reluctance to actually use America’s military might is a debatable virtue. The absence of a firm response — diplomatic, military, or both — is not, although Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoNPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' NPR sends letter to State Dept. demanding answers for reporter's removal from trip Trump allies throw jabs at Bolton over book's claims MORE is promising firm action.

There are a range of options, some or all of which should be swiftly introduced:

  • First, the U.S. should encourage its principal Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to visibly step up the profile of their military posture. After all, it was their ships and/or their cargoes that were attacked.

  • Also, encourage other U.S. allies to make a visible contribution. The London Times reports that 100 British marines are being sent to the British base in Bahrain, where a frigate and several minesweepers are permanently stationed. They will “ride shotgun” on ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz. The French navy has a base in Abu Dhabi but may be constrained by the UAE’s failure to acknowledge that Tehran is behind the attacks.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. needs to regain control of the narrative by releasing more of the intelligence information that caused the latest tension in the first place. Sketchy reports of missiles being put on Iranian civilian ships in May should be detailed. The initial tip apparently came from Israel. Sources in London say the missiles were housed in shipping containers, adapted for a quick launch, in a modern-day version of the Q-ships used by the British and American navies in the Second World War.

The tactical intention should be to catch Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard on the wrong foot. Strategically, the U.S. should frame the international consensus. In that effort, Japan is low-hanging fruit after the embarrassing visit to Tehran of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which coincided with an attack on a Japanese tanker. China, it is to be hoped, cannot be indifferent to Gulf tensions since it gets so much of its oil imports from the region. Europe so far is cautious but can be persuaded by good, well-presented evidence. And Russia? Perhaps it is hard to embarrass Vladimir Putin, but the Q-ship missile is said to be based on a Russian system.

So far the one break in the Gulf Arabs’ consensus of undignified caution is Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS. In an interview with an Arabic daily on Sunday, he called out Iran as being responsible for the attacks, telling the international community “to take a decisive stance against an expansionist regime that has supported terrorism and spread death and destruction over the past decades not only in the region, but the whole world.”

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Given MbS’s reputation for rashness, his on-message comment perhaps needs to be greeted cautiously. But the fact that he chose an Arabic outlet suggests he has started preparing the ground for firm action with both his own population and his Gulf neighbors.

There is, so far, no nuclear dimension to this crisis. Tehran’s recent pronouncements on its program appear to be a separate, although perhaps parallel, strategy. Nuclear-wise — despite Iran announcing this morning that it may exceed agreed-upon limits on its low-enriched uranium stockpiles in 10 days — the concern is concentrated on several months ahead. By contrast, the tension in the Gulf is about today — and the next week or so.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.