To Counter Iran at Sea, US Must Sell Partners on Doing More

Iran has been increasingly active at sea since 2021, including just last week when the US Navy had to disrupt attempts to seize commercial shipping vessels. In the following op-ed, two former heads of US Naval Forces Central Command and two experts from the Jewish Institute for National Security of America argue that the US needs to get allies and partners in the region more engaged on this issue.

Iran forcibly seized a tanker in the Gulf last week, a day after the US Navy disrupted two other attempted attacks by Iran against commercial shipping in the area. It’s part of a broader Iranian strategy that has seen more than forty known incidents of maritime aggression since 2021.

In order to convince Tehran to stop its illegal activities in some of the world’s most important sea lanes, determined American leadership is necessary to convince our partners to accept greater responsibility for protecting freedom of navigation.

The latest Iranian attacks are a microcosm of this deeper problem, as laid out in a new analysis from the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). After Washington sought to enforce sanctions on Iran by legally taking control of an oil cargo vessel in early April, Tehran escalated by seizing three international tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and attempting to seize a fourth.

These developments are particularly alarming given the global economy’s vulnerability to Middle Eastern maritime chokepoints. The region is home to three of the world’s four biggest pressure points for crude oil shipments, with the twenty-mile-wide bottleneck at the Strait of Hormuz being among the most significant. A glimpse of the importance of these seaways came in 2021, when the accidental blocking of the Suez Canal by the Ever Given cost an estimated $9.6 billion daily in disrupted trade flows.

To be sure, the epicenter of US-led naval cooperation in the Middle East, Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), recognizes the need to more effectively encourage and integrate regionwide cooperation, including by leading the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). This 38-nation partnership includes five task forces addressing freedom of navigation, counterpiracy, counternarcotics, and, most recently, training for partner navies. However, amid this most recent bout of unchecked reprisals from Tehran, the United Arab Emirates suspended its voluntary contribution of maritime assets to CMF task forces.

Another initiative is the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) to counter Iranian threats against commercial shipping. Yet its small membership, with the only Middle Eastern participants being Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, limits its operational capacity. NAVCENT’s unmanned systems initiative, Task Force 59, also works with partners to deploy unmanned surface vehicles (USV) that help fill gaps in the ability of crewed ships to monitor the Middle East’s vast stretches of open water.

Despite these admirable efforts, they are apparently insufficient to convince our partners that the United States is fully committed to countering Iranian aggression and, thus, will also be inadequate to deter or deny further Iranian aggression. Indeed, while Washington remains the Gulf states’ partner of choice, they need clear signals that Washington will remain an active partner—one that will help them actively defend the region and provide them leadership, training, organizational structure, adequate platforms, and direct support as they take on a greater share of the burdens of regional security.

Though Iran’s recently declared hopes to form its own regional naval alliance with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE “defies reason,” as the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet noted, such statements underscore Tehran’s willingness to fill any perceived US vacuum in the region. Without strong commitments to provide partners with continuous military capabilities, Washington’s ability to exert influence in a region that is critical to US national security will be diminished.

To address these negative trends, and as part of the Pentagon’s recent decision to “bolster [US] defensive posture in the Gulf,” NAVCENT should be tasked with the mission of leading the IMSC and its members to initiate more operations and accelerate deployment of USVs with offensive weaponry capable of dissuading and defeating Iranian aggression. Part of this effort should also expand the quantity and quality of sensors attached to oil rigs and unmanned platforms involved with Task Force 59 to provide better real-time situation awareness and response times to threats.

It is also crucial that US and partner sensors can communicate with one another rapidly and reliably. Building on progress outlined in JINSA’s recent report on implementing an integrated air and missile defense network in the Middle East, the Biden administration and Congress should make a similar push for America’s partners to better integrate their maritime capabilities. As a crucial step in this effort, American officials should encourage greater contributions from partners, including a concerted effort to persuade the UAE to resume participating in CMF task forces by demonstrating US commitment to reinvigorate its leadership and the operations of IMSC.

Coinciding with these efforts, Washington can avoid conceding escalation dominance to Tehran by instead adopting a policy of credible, comprehensive pressure with additional and more strictly enforced sanctions, including further seizures of illicit oil cargos and weapons transfers.

Protecting global commerce is a collective responsibility. Tehran will continue to threaten trade through vital Middle Eastern waterways so long as the United States and regional nations struggle to jointly deploy sufficient naval assets and demonstrate their willingness to disrupt Iran’s illegal activities. As each oil tanker seizure has proven, not pushing back on Iran’s illegal activity at sea only invites further, more dangerous aggression.

VADM Kevin Donegan (ret.) and VADM John W. Miller (ret.) both served as Commander, US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT)/Commander, US Fifth Fleet. Jonathan Ruhe and Ari Cicurel are Director of Foreign Policy and Assistant Director of Foreign Policy, respectively, at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).

Originally published in Breaking Defense.