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[David Ignatius] America’s immediate challenge in Persian Gulf is maritime security

July 18, 2019 - 17:20 By David Ignatius
Here’s the most intriguing fact about Iran’s apparent seizure Saturday of a small oil tanker about 385 kilometers northwest of here: Thus far, it has brought only a muted response from the United Arab Emirates, in whose waters the vessel had been operating, and from the United States, which is quietly organizing a multinational effort to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf.

If this were a boxing match, you’d say that the United States is trying to let Iran punch itself out. The US hasn’t retaliated for several tanker incidents near the Strait of Hormuz over the past two months, or the shoot down of its surveillance drone, or other provocations. The US military lets Iran keep throwing jabs -- while readying a knockout blow if it’s ever needed.

“It’s an international problem, it’s not a United States problem,” said Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, in an interview early Tuesday as he traveled here. He said that any escorting of tankers through the Strait should be done by countries that depend on oil from the Gulf, with the US providing reconnaissance and other special tools to enhance what he called “maritime domain awareness.”

McKenzie’s low-key comments, which came after the first news reports had surfaced about Saturday’s disappearance of the tiny tanker Riah into the waters off Iran’s heavily fortified Qeshm Island, seemed to illustrate the broader US strategy of avoiding a direct faceoff with Iran, if possible. The US has been bolstering its already vast arsenal in the Gulf but, thus far, hasn’t used it visibly.

“Our ability to bring forces into the theater has acted to deter” the Iranians from broader actions, McKenzie argued. “We’re in a period right now where they’re sort of recalculating and trying to gauge our intent and our commitment.” The US goal, it seems, is well-armed patience -- not responding to provocations, but waiting to see what the Iranians do.

This measured US response may be the most notable, if least discussed, aspect of the confrontation with Iran. American planners reckon that time is on their side; Iran gets weaker with every additional month of economic sanctions. Tehran wants to break out of this straitjacket, but lacking diplomatic channels with the US, it’s choosing to send messages through kinetic force. Yet Iranian leaders know they need to be careful.

Caution is also increasingly evident among Gulf Arab nations, such as the UAE, that had been prodding the Trump administration toward confrontation with Iran. Emirati leaders know that a US-led coalition would prevail eventually in a military conflict -- but that the gleaming buildings that crowd the 21st century wonderland of Abu Dhabi and Dubai would be early targets. These jewels of the Gulf could become splintered glass.

The UAE’s wary response after the apparent seizure of the tanker was telling. Emirati leaders want de-escalation and a political process with Iran. Another sign of the UAE’s effort to step back from the brink has been the withdrawal of most of its forces from Yemen -- a ruinous war that has produced no strategic gain against the Houthi forces that are Iran’s proxies there, but which has brought a humanitarian catastrophe for civilians.

The Emirati withdrawal is a win for good sense, and also, it must be said, for the Houthis and Iran. It also suggests cracks in the UAE’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, which will keep forces along the Yemen border even as its key ally departs. For Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of this campaign, Yemen has become an increasingly lonely quagmire.

As America calibrates its moves in the confrontation with Iran, its greatest potential vulnerability is Iraq, where more than 5,000 American troops could be menaced by Iran-sponsored Shiite militias. The Iraqi government pledges to restrain Tehran’s operatives, but if this crisis escalates, this will be an impossible promise for Baghdad to keep.

The immediate challenge in the Gulf is maritime security -- and curbing Iranian attacks on shipping. That’s one reason McKenzie made Oman the first stop on a 10-day tour of the region (accompanied by a small press contingent of me and CBS-TV’s David Martin). Oman hosts a Maritime Security Center here that’s the equivalent of an air-traffic control center for shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.

In the American game plan, Oman would be an important partner in a broad, multinational coalition to protect shipping from Iranian hit-and-run operations. The US strategy would be to work with these partners to de-escalate tensions.

Iran has all but begged for a direct confrontation with America. So far, the US response correctly has been: No!

David Ignatius
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost. -- Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)