Iran Owns the Persian Gulf Now

The Trump administration’s nonresponse to Iranian aggression has sent an unmistakable message.

Members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard flash a victory sign during naval exercises in the Gulf on April 22, 2010.
Members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard flash a victory sign during naval exercises in the Gulf on April 22, 2010. MEHDI MARIZAD/AFP/Getty Images

It has long been an accepted fact within the U.S. foreign-policy community that if any country blocked or interfered with shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the United States and its allies would use the awesome force at their disposal to defend freedom of navigation. Yet like so much else in this era, long-held truths and ironclad laws have turned out to be elaborate fictions.

The United States has invested great sums in the Middle East over many decades to undertake a few important tasks—notably protecting the sea lines—but this task does not seem to be something the current president believes to be a core American interest. After all, on June 24, President Donald Trump tweeted: “China gets 91% of its Oil from the Straight, Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey.”

Anyone who still believes that the United States is going to challenge Iran directly should reread Trump’s tweet. It is more than that, however. It is a harbinger of what is to come in U.S. foreign policy.

The United States is leaving the Persian Gulf. Not this year or next, but there is no doubt that the United States is on its way out. Aside from the president’s tweet, the best evidence of the coming American departure from the region is Washington’s inaction in the face of Iran’s provocations. Officials and analysts will often counter this, conjuring the number of personnel, planes, and ships the United States maintains in and around the Gulf, but leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, and Muscat understand what is happening. They have been worrying about the U.S. commitment to their security for some time and have been hedging against an American departure in a variety of ways, including by making overtures to China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. On Wednesday, the Emiratis and Iranians met for the first time in six years to discuss maritime security in the Gulf. That is a positive development. And while both sides insist the meeting was routine and low-level, there is no doubt that American inaction has officials in Abu Dhabi rethinking how to deal with the Iranian challenge, which may run counter to U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran.

By all measures, the Persian Gulf had been quiet since Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) took nine American sailors and a naval officer for less than 24 hours after their two small vessels crossed into Iranian territorial water in January 2016. Things changed in May, however. Since then, the United States and others allege that Iranian forces have attacked six oil tankers; IRGC naval forces attempted to impede a British vessel traversing the Strait of Hormuz; the Iranians shot down an American drone; the United States shot down an Iranian drone; and the Iranians have taken the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero. (There were two other vessels that the Iranians briefly stopped but permitted to continue on their way.) The impounding of the Stena Impero is a direct response to the British seizure of an Iranian-flagged supertanker on July 4 near Gibraltar on suspicion that it was bound for Syria.

If the official policy of the United States and its allies were to be believed, the Iranian threat to freedom of navigation in and around the Gulf was supposed to be met with a tough response, but it has mostly produced hand-wringing. When the Stena Impero was seized, the then-British foreign minister vowed that there would be “serious consequences” for Iran but at the same time affirmed that the British government was “not looking at military options.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brushed off questions about the incident, stating that British-flagged vessels are the responsibility of the United Kingdom.

Since then, the United States has developed a plan for ensuring security in the Gulf, but it seems to be the plan of a country that has one foot out the door and prefers not to get entangled in the region further. To keep the Iranians at bay, the U.S. Navy would supply command and control ships while other countries would be responsible for escorting their own flagged ships. The British have other plans. They want to establish a coalition of European navies (with an American role) to escort shipping in the Persian Gulf. The Royal Navy convened a meeting in Bahrain on Wednesday with the French and Germans to discuss the plan. No one wants war, and there is a case to be made that escalation in the face of the IRGC’s provocation is unwise, but these maritime security plans do not seem serious.

It is hard to know what the Iranians are up to; perhaps they are trying to force a negotiation to alleviate the “maximum pressure” the Trump administration has sought to apply, or maybe their actions simply reflect Tehran’s fundamental hostility to international norms. For his part, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared that Iran was taking a stand for multilateralism. Whatever they want, the IRGC’s commanders must by now understand that they can pretty much do anything they want in the Persian Gulf without fear of reprisal. This is because Trump has made it clear in word and deed that the United States is on the way out of the region. If the United States intended to stay in the Gulf and fulfill what many had long believed to be a commitment to keep the sea lanes open, it would not be so feckless.

Sure the Trump administration just deployed about 1,500 soldiers to the Gulf and sent additional warplanes to bases there, but they have not proved to be a deterrent, and the president does not seem inclined to use American force. Trump called off a strike in retaliation for the Iranian destruction of an American drone because he feared it would kill 150 people. That speaks well of the president, but it is hard to believe there was nothing in between killing a lot of Iranians and not responding. He won temporary plaudits for his restraint, but the scrubbed mission was an excuse to do nothing. The bottom line is that the United States is only prepared to bear the minimum cost of protecting the Persian Gulf’s shipping lanes and America’s adversaries in Iran know it.

Trump has begun operationalizing something that former Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and other U.S. officials have articulated in various ways over the last 15 years: The United States is now energy independent, and the Persian Gulf is no longer as important as it once was. That may not be entirely accurate, but Trump doesn’t care. He wants to leave the Middle East, the United States doesn’t need the oil, and the Persian Gulf is someone else’s problem. That message is inviting the IRGC to prey on more tankers.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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