Should the United States Include Israel in the Gulf Maritime Coalition?

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz reportedly told the Knesset on August 6 that his government is assisting “with intelligence and other unspecified fields” in the US-led maritime coalition to preserve the international navigation of commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. This is a vital waterway that links Gulf countries to the world and a crucial route for international energy markets. A lower-level Israeli official is expected to attend the conference on “maritime and air navigation security” the Trump Administration is tentatively planning in Bahrain in October. This potential Israeli participation could expand the theater of conflict between Israel and Iran and might complicate US efforts to form a maritime coalition in the Gulf.

In the past weeks, tensions in the Strait of Hormuz triggered fears about a regional conflict, from sabotaging commercial vessels to Iranian forces seizing oil tankers, in addition to Iran shooting down a US military drone in June. The Trump Administration’s maritime security conference serves three objectives: sharing the financial burden of this mission so it does not fall on US shoulders only; deterring Iran’s attempt to dominate and disrupt international navigation; and sustaining the US attempt to halt Iranian oil exports altogether. On August 13, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that “adding foreign naval fleets in this narrow and crowded tinderbox only increases risk of combustion.” The daily oil flow in the Strait of Hormuz in 2018 was 21 million barrels per day (b/d) on average, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), which is equivalent to about 21 percent of global petroleum liquids consumption. In March and according to the EIA, US imports from the region averaged less than 1.05 million b/d, which represented a decrease from a peak of almost 3.08 million b/d in April 2003.

It has become clear that the United States is no longer interested in playing a leadership role in safeguarding navigation in the Strait of Hormuz since most of the commercial vessels and tankers are benefiting the Asian markets.

Hence, it has become clear that the United States is no longer interested in playing a leadership role in safeguarding navigation in the Strait of Hormuz since most of the commercial vessels and tankers are benefiting the Asian markets. While US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Riyadh affirming that “freedom of navigation is paramount,” President Donald Trump tweeted on June 24 that China gets 91 percent of its oil from the Strait of Hormuz and Japan 62 percent, “so why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries for zero compensation.” A Japanese official reportedly said that the safety of shipping in the Strait of Hormuz is “a matter of life and death for our country in terms of energy security.” Fully 76 percent of the crude oil and condensate that passed through the Strait of Hormuz was headed to Asian markets in 2018.

Cracks in the US-led Maritime Coalition

The US administration has been leading an aggressive diplomatic campaign to persuade allies to join this maritime coalition. So far, Trump’s team has hosted three meetings on this project, called the “Sentinel Programme,” but the reaction from allies has been mixed. Moreover, a US warship sailed last week through the Strait of Hormuz with a light armored vehicle that could target Iranian drones and gunboats to show that, if needed, Washington is ready to deter Tehran in the Strait of Hormuz.

However, Trump’s approach toward Iran has left the Europeans wary of his intentions; therefore, European allies have remained mum or declined to join this maritime coalition. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration remains committed to strengthening coordination between its Gulf allies and Israel. Most notably, the Arab overture to Israel gives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a boost in his reelection bid next month. Katz, Israel’s foreign minister, told the Knesset that the decision to join the US-led coalition was made after his visit to Abu Dhabi last month where he discussed the “Iranian threat” with an unidentified Emirati official. He noted that it is “an Israeli interest to improve ties between Israel and Arab states, and that Israel is part of the US-led coalition to protect trade routes in the Persian Gulf.” The Trump Administration also arranged two secret talks between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to strengthen the Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran.

However, US Gulf allies saw Trump backtrack a decision to strike Iran after the Islamic Republic shot down a US drone. They noted that the US president was indifferent about the pressure Iran imposed on his Gulf allies, who were left alone when their tankers were sabotaged. This partially explains why on July 31, the UAE Coast Guard held rare talks on maritime security with Iran for the first time in six years; the aim was to safeguard its own navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, a move that was downplayed by Emirati officials.

The United States will undoubtedly continue providing the security umbrella to its Gulf allies; nevertheless, there are obvious cracks in the US-Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran, most notably when it comes to the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran has been using a mixed approach of carrots and sticks in dealing with its Gulf neighbors. Its defense minister, Amir Hatami, also held rare phone talks with his Kuwaiti, Omani, and Qatari counterparts arguing that “the American-led alliance will only increase the insecurity in the region under the pretext of securing shipping” and considering that US activities “have disastrous consequences for the region.” During a visit to Baghdad last May, Zarif proposed signing a nonaggression pact with Gulf countries. The United States will undoubtedly continue providing the security umbrella to its Gulf allies; nevertheless, there are obvious cracks in the US-Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran, most notably when it comes to the Strait of Hormuz.

Meanwhile, Iran has been acting unilaterally and enforcing the rules of engagement in the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran and Moscow have agreed to hold a joint naval exercise by the end of the year in the Indian Ocean area that covers the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. This drill is a symbolic reaction to the US-led maritime coalition and is not expected to change the current dynamics in the Strait but might deepen the international divisions around this vital passageway for global oil supplies. The joint exercise is not expected to evolve; it is rather a tactical Iranian move to counter the coalition. Tehran might not be keen to invite Russian influence for policing its own backyard, where it strives for dominance.

How Did Iran React to Israel’s Involvement in the Strait?

By retaliating and disrupting navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran cornered the United States into choosing between two options: intervene to help Gulf allies and risk confrontation with Iran or remain idle as long as US assets are not targeted. The Trump Administration chose the latter. Hence, not only is the US relinquishing a four-decade policy of protecting the movement of energy resources in the Gulf, but it could potentially delegate this practice to Israel as a regional power that protects Gulf countries from Iranian threats.

The only announcement referring to Israel joining the US-led maritime coalition was the leaked story about Katz’s closed-door meeting with the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee. It is unclear whether it was leaked intentionally by the Israeli government, to leave Iran on edge in the Strait of Hormuz, or for domestic consumption in Israeli politics. The unintended consequence of this leak is that it makes free navigation in the Strait of Hormuz an Israeli problem rather than an international one. The focus would shift to Israeli-Iranian tensions, which might give Tehran a pretext to dominate and militarize navigation in the Strait.

There is an intentional ambiguity in the US-Israeli silence on this issue. Iranian officials, however, have spoken widely against Israeli involvement in the Strait of Hormuz. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ navy, Alireza Tangsiri, warned on August 11 that “any illegitimate presence by the Zionists in the waters of the Persian Gulf could spark a war.” He also added, “whenever our commanders wish so, they are able to detain any ship, even if it is accompanied by American and British forces.” The senior advisor to the Iranian parliament speaker, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, tweeted, “If #Israel enters HS [Strait of Hormuz], it will be engulfed in wrath of the region & its smoke will rise from #TelAviv.”

While there are no official indications that Israel will send naval units, the involvement of the Israeli Navy in the Gulf revives the recurring and feared scenario that Israel could strike Iranian nuclear facilities with US approval. The Israeli media is already arguing that Israel should threaten to strike Iranian cities to deter Iranian threats and proxy attacks. It is not the first time that Iran and Israel have used maritime threats in their mutual deterrence in the past 10 to 15 years. In 2010, there were reports that Israel could station three nuclear cruise missile submarines near the Iranian coastline in the Gulf, with a 1,500 kilometers range that could reach targets in Iran. A potential route for this submarine is to sail off the Mediterranean coast via Egypt’s Suez Canal.

These media reports have reemerged recently, hinting that Israeli submarines armed “with special weapons” are regularly stationed in the Persian Gulf to give Israel a second strike capability against Iran. It is worth noting that it was Israeli intelligence that informed the White House about an Iranian plot against US targets in the Gulf, which prompted the Trump Administration to send an aircraft carrier to the region and leak reports that 120,000 US troops might be deployed to the Middle East. In return, there are unconfirmed reports that two Iranian seaports, Bushehr and Chabahar, could become forward bases for the Russian Navy and nuclear submarines. All these possible scenarios could heighten and internationalize political and security tensions in the Gulf.

Israel is already expanding the scenes of confrontation with Iran beyond Lebanon and Syria and into Iraq with two sets of airstrikes last month. The third, a mysterious airstrike on August 12, targeted warehouses of equipment and missiles belonging to the Popular Mobilization Units in al-Saqr military base south of Baghdad. Israel was suspected to be behind these attacks, which were aimed at preventing Iraqi militias from acquiring short-range ballistic missiles. The Israeli intervention in Iraq is considered a challenge to US influence in the country. The mysterious strike led Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to cancel “all approvals for Iraqi airspace”; hence, moving forward, all “Iraqi and non-Iraqi parties” would need “the exclusive approval of the General Commander of the Iraqi Armed Forces or his authorized representative” to fly over Iraqi airspace. Such a policy illustrates the limits on Israeli power beyond Lebanon and Syria.

It is not in Israel’s interest to expand the theater of confrontation to the Strait of Hormuz where Iran has a home advantage if it is put in a position to retaliate.

Even though the Israeli Navy can be highly operational when it functions away from Israel, it is not in Israel’s interest to expand the theater of confrontation to the Strait of Hormuz where Iran has a home advantage if it is put in a position to retaliate. While Israel might have the edge and enjoys Russian cover in Syria, it will be on its own and vulnerable in the Strait of Hormuz if it establishes a naval presence—the focus would turn to protecting the Israeli Navy instead of safeguarding international navigation. Moreover, Israel has no strategic and economic stake in the waterway’s stability, which it does not use for transporting its own energy imports. Instead, Israel could use this involvement as part of its ongoing efforts to deter Iran. It could also weaken Gulf leaders who are allies of the Trump Administration by leaving them with the option of either succumbing to Iranian threats or getting Israeli support. This scenario would surely not play well among their constituencies at home.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here