Pompeo’s Hollow Plan to Beef Up Security in the Gulf

Experts are skeptical that U.S. allies will get on board.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Mohamed ben Zayed Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, in Abu Dhabi on June 24.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Mohamed ben Zayed Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, in Abu Dhabi on June 24. JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of alleged aggression from Iran in the Persian Gulf, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rolled out a new plan this week, dubbed “Sentinel,” to recruit U.S. partners to help enhance security for ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz and other choke points.

But experts are skeptical that the United States can get allies in the Gulf, Europe, or Asia to shore up the resources needed to make a significant difference to the commercial vessels facing threats from Tehran in the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

“It’s going to end up being mainly a U.S. project, with some burden sharing from European partners,” said Becca Wasser, an analyst with the Rand Corp.

The new initiative also raises the risk that the U.S. military could be dragged into conflict if the Gulf states engage in hostilities with Iran. Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned the “competence” of some of the Gulf navies.

“They could certainly sail with the tankers, but if they got into trouble over it, the question is who would support them and how,” Cordesman said.

Exact details about the Sentinel effort remain murky. Under the program, ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz would reportedly be provided cameras and other devices that can monitor and corroborate threats from Iran. Some also would be escorted by other vessels.

“This is having eyes on,” a senior State Department official told reporters flying with Pompeo this week after his meetings in Saudi Arabia with King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It’s not clear which nations would be responsible for providing and deploying the cameras, and which would provide additional escort capability. State and Defense Department spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Suzanne Maloney, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, said Sentinel is a “largely symbolic” reaction to Iran’s recent aggression in the Gulf. But while she said it is not a “gamechanger in terms of preventing or deterring” these incidents in the future, it is “considerably better” than a U.S. military strike.

“I think it is a prudent reaction, it is not an overstep,” Maloney said. “That said, it’s not going to deter a whole heck of a lot either.”

There is already an international task force designed to protect the commercial vessels in the region from terrorist threats, Wasser pointed out. Each year, the group, Combined Task Force 150, monitors the transportation of over 27 million barrels of oil through the waterways from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Oman, including three major chokepoints: the Strait of Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Suez Canal. Thirty-three countries participate, including the United States, Australia, Canada, South Korea, and several European countries, but notably no Gulf nations.

Separately, another group, Combined Task Force 152, which is made up primarily of the United States and Gulf nations, monitors the Persian Gulf.

“Why are we reinventing the wheel?” Wasser said of Sentinel. “It seems like the U.S. is starting from scratch when it already has this tool in its toolkit at its disposal, and we are not using it.”

Gulf partners will likely be willing and able to provide camera technology. But they may not ultimately contribute much in the way of additional maritime presence or escort capability, experts said.

Wasser noted that many of these nations—the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in particular—have “severely neglected building their maritime forces,” instead buying aircraft and missile defense systems.

“Their development, their capability and capacity is quite low, so to expect them to play a large role in the Sentinel program in terms of escorting ships and being able to actually, tangibly provide capability is quite low,” she said.

Alex Vatanka, an expert with the Middle East Institute, also noted that the Emirate and Saudi militaries, in particular, are already stretched thin. They have devoted much of their resources to the fight in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, he said.

“There isn’t a lot of capacity now in the tank, if you will, for a place like the UAE and Saudi Arabia to suddenly come in and turn their attention to the Strait of Hormuz in the short term,” Vatanka said.

One possible outcome of the Sentinel effort is that Gulf nations contribute resources initially, but, much as they did in the fight against the Islamic State, their investment quickly drops off, Wasser said.

“We’ve seen it before,” she said.

Given the limitations of Gulf partners, it’s likely the United States will turn for additional maritime support in the region to European allies, particularly those who already participate in Combined Task Force 150, Wasser said.

But it’s not clear that Europe has much appetite for U.S. President Donald Trump’s approach to Iran, particularly after his decision to exit the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, Cordesman pointed out.

Countries that regularly do business with Iran, including most European and Asian allies, are already walking a fine line as tensions between Washington and Tehran ratchet up. Any nation that participates in the escort mission could be seen as “potentially hostile to Iran,” Cordesman said.

Still, Maloney said participating in Sentinel would be an “easy win” for European allies.

“I think it’s a good place for the Europeans to show resolve, to extend a measure of cooperation to the Trump administration and to countries that they have a security interest with in a way that doesn’t implicate them in the broader U.S policy toward Iran, which they have real concerns about,” she said.

The United States may also ask Asian partners to contribute ships to the effort, as many of these nations rely on oil from the Persian Gulf region for energy and frequently send commercial ships through the waterways. Notably, Japan owned one of the oil tankers damaged on June 13 by a limpet mine, the Kokuka Courageous. The incident, which also involved a Norwegian oil tanker, set off a crisis between Washington and Tehran that ended with Trump calling off a missile strike at the very last minute.

Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said Washington has not yet begun having those discussions with Asian allies. But he added that “we have a good history where contributions have been made in the past,” for example during the Iraq War.

“When there are out-of-area challenges, our allies have responded in the past, so we will see if those types of needs arise based on how things go with Iran,” Schriver said during a June 26 event in Washington. “The interests are shared among many of our coordination partners given their dependence on that region for energy.”

Schriver applauded allies in Asia for choosing to curtail purchases of oil from Iran as part of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.

However, Wasser said it’s unlikely that Asian partners will join the coalition given the threats they face much closer to home from China—and even if they do, their naval capabilities are “nascent.”

“They also have a lot of concerns in the maritime domain, and they also have a lot of concerns that are much closer to home,” Wasser said. “They will be quite loath to move some of those assets out of the [Pacific] and move them over to the [Middle East].”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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