US Troop Buildup in the Gulf Reemphasizes Military Power

The US military has recently significantly increased its presence in the Arabian Gulf, a show of force aimed primarily at deterring Iran from attacking or harassing commercial ships in the area. However, this beefed up military presence also has ancillary effects, namely to reassure Gulf Arab states of the United States’ commitment to their security, to signal to China and Russia that the Gulf remains in the US sphere of influence, to deter Israel from attacking Iran (which could lead to a destabilizing conflict in the region), and to strengthen the US bargaining position vis-à-vis Iran in case indirect talks over a so-called “mini-agreement” on its nuclear program are revived. Although bolstering the US military presence in the area has led to new Iranian threats, leaders in Tehran know that despite Iran’s increased military capabilities, they are still no match for the US military’s formidable power.

Deployment of Air, Naval, and Amphibious Assault Assets

Over the past two years, Iranian forces have harassed or seized at least 20 commercial ships in the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman near the important choke point of the Strait of Hormuz (through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes). This activity has been stepped up in recent weeks. On July 5, Iranian naval assets attempted to seize two commercial tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and only backed off after the US Navy dispatched destroyers and air assets from its base in Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered. However, Iran still successfully seized one commercial vessel the following day. In response, US CENTCOM deployed a squadron of F-35s to the Gulf, along with an undisclosed number of F-16 and A-10 aircraft and guided-missile destroyers. Although CENTCOM did not divulge where these assets would be deployed, the United States not only maintains bases in Bahrain but also in Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait.

CENTCOM deployed a squadron of F-35s to the Gulf, along with an undisclosed number of fighter aircraft and guided-missile destroyers.

This initial deployment has been enhanced by the early August dispatch of a large Amphibious Ready Group and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, together comprising more than 3,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel aboard the USS Bataan amphibious assault ship and the USS Carter Hall, an accompanying dock loading ship. On August 7, these ships transited through the Suez Canal on their way to the Gulf, and have now reached their destination. A US Fifth Fleet spokesperson said that these ships and units would add significant operational flexibility and the capability to “deter destabilizing activity and de-escalate regional tensions caused by Iran’s harassment and seizures of merchant vessels.”

To underscore this point, the head of US CENTCOM, General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, came onboard a guided missile destroyer as it transited through the Strait of Hormuz during the weekend of August 6–7. He was accompanied by Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the US Fifth Fleet, to inspect the military capabilities of the destroyer. Earlier, Kurilla had visited military and political leaders from the UAE and Bahrain to “address threats in the region.”

Not only can Marine expeditionary units aboard a US Navy ship be used for boarding, searching, and seizing suspect vessels but they can also be deployed to protect shipping. US CENTCOM has reportedly drafted a plan for Marine contingents to be placed on commercial ships flying foreign flags. The plan, however, needs the final approval of the Biden administration, and of both regional governments in the Gulf and commercial companies. If the approvals are granted, the hope is that Iran would think twice about continuing its harassment of or its attacks on commercial ships.

Not surprisingly, Iran has condemned this recent US military buildup in the area. A spokesperson for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said that Iran is “capable of reciprocating any mischief by the Americans…including through seizure of their vessels and reciprocation.” In addition, the IRGC announced on August 9 that it is developing a supersonic cruise missile that will “open a new chapter in Iran’s defense program.” However, whether Iran has actually succeeded in developing such a missile remains an open question, and it may have made this announcement simply to show that it is not intimidated by the enhanced US military presence in the area, about which it is clearly nervous. Although Iran’s military capabilities have improved over the past several decades, the last time it was in a military engagement with the United States, it did not do well. After the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine in the Gulf in April 1988, severely damaging the ship and injuring several US sailors, the US Navy destroyed two Iranian surveillance platforms, sank two Iranian ships, and severely damaged another, all within one day. This history is undoubtedly not lost on current Iranian leaders.

Political Considerations Inside and Outside the Gulf

The bolstering of American military presence in the Gulf is not just meant to deter Iran but to reassure the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, that the United States still “has their back.” There has been much speculation that because the United States is supposedly “pivoting to Asia,” it is lessening its commitments to Gulf security. Some of this sentiment has to do with the United States not responding militarily to allegedly Iranian-led Houthi rebel attacks on Saudi Arabia since 2019, as well as attacks by the Houthis (generally seen as Iranian proxies by the Gulf Arabs) in January 2022 against the UAE. The sentiment also has to do with President Joe Biden having been critical of Saudi Arabia, even though he visited the kingdom last summer. And it also stems from Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud believing he can cut his own path as the de facto leader of the kingdom by charting a more independent foreign policy from Washington that includes friendly relations with Russia and China, and by refusing to accede to American requests for higher oil production.

US officials see a need to check China’s growing influence in the Gulf

Although the Biden administration initially said that it welcomed China’s role in brokering the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that took place this past March, and that led to the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries a few months later, it soon became apparent that Washington was concerned about China’s more assertive diplomatic role in the Gulf. Coupled with substantial and increasing Chinese trade with the Gulf states, US officials came to see a need to check China’s influence in the region. As one study has noted: “The US had for decades been the primary external actor in the Middle East, but its more recent reluctance to involve itself in regional crises provided additional impetus for local governments to seek engagement with other available outside powers, especially in Asia.”

Even in the Gulf’s military and security sphere, there has been growing Chinese influence. Saudi Arabia is currently developing its own ballistic missile capability with Chinese help, and the air forces of the UAE and China are planning to train together for the first time later this month. It is noteworthy that the UAE, after an agreement to buy F-35 fighter jets from the United States stalled in 2021, decided to purchase light attack aircraft from China. These Gulf states are also increasing their ties to Russia. Much to Washington’s dismay, they have taken a neutral stand on Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and have developed growing economic links with Moscow. Saudi Arabia and Russia, for example, closely collaborate in the oil market to keep prices high, and the UAE has become a playground for the Russian elite, as well as a place to park their money (and their yachts). Tellingly, UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has visited Russia twice in the past year, but has not been to the United States since 2017.

These developments suggest that the Gulf states are developing a foreign policy that is more independent from Washington and want to enhance their respective positions in what they see as an increasingly multipolar world. However, the reality of the situation is that the United States is still the biggest military power in the world, including in the Gulf. Not only does the United States maintain bases in several Gulf states and export a large quantity of arms to the region but it has also over many decades developed close military training missions with these states that other outside powers cannot match, the recent UAE-China development notwithstanding.

Moreover, the United States is the only outside power that has the will and the capabilities to deter Iran’s aggressive behavior in the Gulf, with the possible exception of Israel, whose resolve in this regard is still highly questionable given the considerable political baggage a reliance on that country would entail for the Gulf Arab states. Recent Iranian military drills near three disputed islands off the coast of the UAE that the former Shah of Iran seized in late 1971, and that the Islamic Republic maintains, contrary to UAE claims, are Iranian territory has probably led the UAE to welcome the enhanced US military presence in the Gulf. Hence, by beefing up its military presence in the region, the United States is playing the one card that gives it a distinct advantage over others. This military card aims to shore up its support for the Gulf states and to signal to China and Russia that the area remains in its sphere of influence.

Keeping an Israeli Attack on Iran at Bay

Another advantage of the enhanced US military presence in the Arabian Gulf that US policymakers may have in mind is to preclude a wider war. Israel has repeatedly threatened Iran over its nuclear program and its aggressive behavior in arming proxies in the Levant. Iran has also attacked oil tankers in the Gulf region that are connected to Israel. For example, in November 2022, an Iranian drone hit an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman that was linked to an Israeli billionaire, and in February 2023 another Iranian drone hit an Israeli-linked tanker in the Arabian Sea. Despite Iranian denials over these attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still blamed Iran and vowed to continue Israel’s efforts to counter Tehran.

The last thing the Biden administration wants is a wider Middle Eastern war.

The last thing the Biden administration wants is a wider Middle Eastern war. Should Israel attack Iran directly, it is likely that Iran might then attack Gulf Arab states and their oil facilities and order Hezbollah in Lebanon to launch rockets into Israel. Such a scenario could spiral out of control, placing Washington in a situation where it could be dragged into a war. Deterring Iran from hitting oil tankers, including Israel-linked ones, may work to bring Israeli-Iranian tensions down a notch, giving Israel less of an excuse to attack Iran. Although Israel’s main concern over Iran is its nuclear program—which it suspects is a weaponized one—the enhanced US military presence in the Gulf may give Israel a better sense of security, in addition to protecting its oil imports.

Posturing for a Renewed US-Iran Nuclear Agreement?

Since June, reports have surfaced of a possible “understanding” between Iran and the United States over the nuclear matter, as well as other issues. Such an understanding might reportedly involve the following elements: a prisoner exchange and an unblocking of some of Iran’s financial assets; US sanctions waivers for Iran to export oil in return for “pausing” its uranium enrichment at 60 percent (90 percent enrichment is viewed as necessary to build a nuclear weapon); and greater Iranian cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Although in July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken downplayed the chances of a comprehensive deal, at least a partial deal seems to be in the works. Through the reported mediation of Switzerland, Qatar, Oman, the UAE, and Iraq, it appears that Iran and the United States are close to a prisoner swap and an unblocking of $6 billion from an Iranian oil sale to South Korea that the latter has held for months at the request of the United States. This money would then be transferred to a Qatari bank. The major snag at this point is that the US wants this money to only be used by Iran for food and medicine, whereas Iran believes there should be no restrictions on the funds.

One prominent analyst on Iran, Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, has suggested that the enhanced US military presence in the Gulf and the Iranian response are part of a “dance,” adding that both sides are “upping the ante ahead of a potential cease-fire” as parts of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, such as UN sanctions, are approaching their expiration date. In other words, enhancing one’s military posture puts one in a better bargaining position. But whether such a strategy will work for the US remains an open question. Iran has a history of defiance that plays well among regime hardliners, especially members of the IRGC. Thus, while the bolstering of the US military presence in the Gulf may work in the near term to deter Iranian attacks on commercial ships and reassure Gulf Arab allies, what the long-term effects will be is anyone’s guess, even if both Washington and Tehran want to avoid a direct military confrontation.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US DoD