Why the U.S. Plan to Protect Tankers in the Persian Gulf Won't Deter Iran

7 MINS READJul 8, 2019 | 06:00 GMT
According to the U.S. military, a Japanese tanker was damaged by a limpet mine resembling Iranian mines on June 13, 2019.

Two oil tankers were damaged in twin attacks close to the Iranian coast on June 13, just outside the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

  • Following a series of attacks on crude-bearing ships, the United States is looking to initiate a new program to enhance security in the Persian Gulf region with significant involvement from its allies and partners. 
  • The effort is reminiscent of a similar operation in the region during the Iran-Iraq War, though some key differences point to a shifting U.S. approach to the region.  
  • The White House, however, will struggle to find allies willing to lend their support out of fear of being drawn into a potential conflict between the United States and Iran. 
  • Regardless, Washington's program will ultimately prove unsuccessful in deterring future attacks because it fails to address the underlying issue propelling Iran's actions — namely, the crushing economic pressure the United States has brought to bear over the past year. 

In response to the recent spate of Iran-linked attacks in the Persian Gulf, the United States has laid out on an initiative to secure oil tanker traffic in the area, while providing better visibility and attribution for any future incidents. Coined the Sentinel program, the operation would involve deploying additional warships and maritime patrol aircraft, as well as placing cameras and other surveillance devices on crude-bearing vessels transiting through the region. 

To help lessen the strain on U.S. resources, the White House is attempting to corral the support of both regional and global allies who also risk having their oil supplies disrupted by Iranian attacks. But doing so will be no easy feat, as Washington's sanctions-heavy approach to Iran in the past year has alienated even its closest partners. However, even if the United States can successfully establish such a coalition, it still won't be enough to mitigate the risk of future tanker attacks and the subsequent threat to the world's energy flows. 

The Big Picture

The spate of recent incidents and attacks in the Persian Gulf highlights the risk of escalation and the potential for a conflict between the United States and Iran. The U.S. effort to deter attacks against shipping and the obstacles involved in doing so will, in many ways, determine whether a larger conflict that would have a major regional and global impact can be avoided. 

A Look at the First U.S.-Iran Tanker War

This is not the first time that the United States and Iran have faced off in the Persian Gulf over the issue of securing tanker traffic through the region. A similar spate of attacks took place during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s — with Tehran and Baghdad targeting each other's respective energy exports. Iran also took aim at a large number of Kuwaiti and other Gulf State tankers that helped transport Iraqi oil. The attacks steadily escalated and eventually drove the United States, which was concerned over the threat to its own oil imports from the region, to respond. 

In 1987, the administration of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan launched Operation Earnest Will — the world's largest naval convoy operation since World War II. Washington deployed dozens of warships and patrol aircraft to the Persian Gulf, and re-registered Kuwaiti tankers under the American flag to allow the U.S. Navy to protect them. But despite its impressive size, the armada still wasn't able to stop Iran from attacking Iraq and its allies' oil tankers via naval mines, speedboats and anti-ship cruise missiles. This ultimately led to a series of clashes between U.S. and Iranian forces that culminated in the heavy fighting of Washington's Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, and the end of the Iran-Iraq War shortly thereafter. 

What's the Same 

In gauging the effectiveness and potential risks of the White House's Sentinel program, there are several important lessons can be drawn by comparing the 1980s tanker standoff to the one sparked last month. First, it is clear that the program — even if successfully established — by no means guarantees that Iran will end or lessen its attacks on oil tankers making their way through the Persian Gulf. This is perhaps even truer today, as there are simply too many potential energy targets in the region and too few potential escorts to protect them all.  

Second, the motivation behind the Iranian attacks in the 1980s was linked to a deeper crisis — specifically the ongoing war with Iraq. The latest tanker attacks likely point to a deeper malaise in Iran, undoubtedly fueled by the heavy economic sanctions Washington has piled on over the past year. With little to lose, Tehran's increasingly dire financial situation has likely made its government that much more willing to conduct risky operations. 

And What Has Changed

In addition to these similarities, however, it's equally important to understand what has changed between now and then, with one of the most notable factors being the shift in oil imports from the region over the past 40 years. At the time of the Iran-Iraq War, European countries and the United States were among the top purchasers of Persian Gulf oil. But that dependence has since shifted away from the West toward Indo-Pacific countries, including key U.S. partners such as India and South Korea, as well as U.S. adversaries including China.

A chart showing the percentage of oil consumption fulfilled by Middle East imports.

Adding to this altered dynamic is the Trump administration's different approach to national security threats. Unlike the traditionally more hawkish Reagan, U.S. President Donald Trump has prioritized efforts to reduce the United States' overall security commitments abroad and is more reticent of bearing the heavy burden of the military resources needed to adequately secure tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf. 

As a result, the White House is pressuring its allies in the gulf, as well as the region's other major oil importers (such as Japan, South Korea, India and, to a lesser extent, European countries) to contribute heavily to its Sentinel program — arguing that these countries, in fact, stand to lose even more from a disruption in tanker traffic, given their greater reliance on Persian Gulf oil. And because of this, they should be all the more willing to partake in and devote resources to the U.S.-led initiative to deter against future Iranian attacks.

Despite their dependence on the oil flow from the region, however, many U.S. allies and partners have remained notably wary of U.S. motivations, including Japan and Germany, and have been hesitant to commit significant assets to the Persian Gulf out concern over further escalating tensions with Iran. This mistrust stems, in large part, from Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and his administration's heavy-handed approach to Iran in the months since.

As long as the United States continues to increase sanctions pressure against Iran, the risk that tensions between the two could escalate into an outright conflict will be significant.

Coupled with the fact that a number of top White House advisers have openly espoused the desire for a military strike on Iran, U.S.-allied countries are worried that their increased military presence in the Persian Gulf will only further draw them into a potential confrontation between the United States and Iran. Even the United Arab Emirates — which has traditionally opposed Iran's regional behavior — has been hesitant to publicly point the finger at Tehran for the recent tanker attacks, fearing the potentially devastating effects a war would have on its economy and overall stability, given its geographic proximity to Iran.  

A Band-Aid Solution to a Deeper Problem

However, the core of the issue is not so much the size of the Sentinel program, but the fact that such initiatives are only aimed at addressing the symptoms and not the root causes of Iran's aggression. Whether in the Persian Gulf or across other theaters in the Middle East, Tehran is clearly incentivized to continue retaliating against what it perceives as Washington's efforts to foster regime change and weaken Iran. 

Therefore, the fact of the matter remains that as long as the United States continues to increase sanctions pressure against Tehran, the risk that tensions between the two countries could escalate into an outright conflict will be heightened — whether it be another incident in the Persian Gulf, a separate clash elsewhere in the region, or even a confrontation linked to Iran's nuclear program. 

Such a conflict would undoubtedly have a much more devastating impact on tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf, compared with the limited attacks seen in recent weeks. And to raise the stakes even higher, Iran has also significantly increased its military capabilities to conduct tanker attacks over the past four decades, meaning an escalation in the region today would pose a far greater threat to global energy exports than was ever the case in the 1980s.

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