MS Risk Blog

Tensions in the Gulf between US and Iran on the Rise

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Tensions in the Gulf between the US and Iran have been increasing since April, due to a series of ship seizures by Iran that have led to more US military deployments in the region. Iran likely seeks to deter the US and its allies from obstructing its oil exports, exert pressure on and get concessions from Washington, and drive a wedge between it and its regional partners. The US has an interest in deterring further Iranian aggression and demonstrating that it is still a reliable security provider in the Gulf. Nevertheless, a direct conflict appears unlikely.

The latest row in the Gulf began in late April when Iran’s forces seized a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker, asserting that it had collided with an Iranian boat. Then a few days later, in early May, another Panama-flagged tanker was seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) due to a “judicial order” as reported by Iranian media. Tensions continued into early July, with US Navy ships preventing the Iranians from seizing two oil tankers off Oman’s coast. According to the Navy’s statement, Iranian forces had opened fire against the second vessel, without causing serious damage or loss of life. Highlighting the seriousness of the situation, on 13 August US and European maritime forces in the Gulf advised vessels transiting the area to stay as far away from Iranian territorial waters as possible and warned of new potential attacks against commercial shipping.

The ratcheting tensions have led to the bolstering of both US and Iranian forces in the Gulf. In May, the Pentagon announced that US forces would increase patrols near the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial waterway through which around 20% of the global crude oil supply passes. But after the July incident, Washington opted for a stronger response. Throughout July and by early August, the US sent additional F-16 and F-35 fighter jets, additional warships, and more than 3,000 military personnel to the region. Furthermore, the Biden administration has floated the idea of deploying armed Marines on commercial ships to deter Iranian seizure attempts. The plan, if it is finally approved, would constitute an extraordinary US commitment to regional security. In turn, Iran has responded with its own military measures. The IRGC launched drills on three islands disputed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and it also announced that its naval forces would be equipped with additional drones and new cruise and ballistic missiles.

Why are Tehran and Washington doubling down on their posture in the region? Judging from both sides’ actions and statements, as well as the overall context of the current escalation, both sides have an interest in demonstrating assertiveness, although they are still unwilling to step into a direct conflict.

From Iran’s viewpoint, it seems that its moves were primarily a response to recent US measures against it. Reports said that days before the seizure in April, the US Justice Department had seized a tanker carrying Iranian crude oil destined for China, as Washington seeks to tighten enforcement of sanctions against Iran. The Iranian government probably seeks to convey the message that it will move aggressively to defend its interests against Western attempts to stifle its economy. This is made all the more important by Iran’s dire economic situation due to successive US sanctions, as well as the 2022 mass protests that challenged the regime’s hold on power. Keeping its oil exports running at all costs is crucial for the country’s economy to stay afloat.

It must be noted that Iran has a history of seizing foreign ships as leverage. According to US officials, Iran has seized or attacked 15 ships in the last two years and this approach has had some impact so far. For example, in 2022, two Greek tankers were seized after the US confiscated a cargo of Iranian oil near Greece. They were released after the Greek supreme court ordered that the cargo be returned to Iran. Iran’s tactics have thus achieved some success in protecting its interests and it is expected that the Islamic Republic will continue employing them, in the absence of other means of leverage.

Another Iranian goal is likely to exert more pressure on Washington as the two countries seek a new diplomatic arrangement after the collapse of negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over Iran’s nuclear program last year. Multiple sources have said that the Biden administration has been working on an interim informal deal, under which the US would refrain from tightening or imposing new sanctions against Iran in return for a halt to Tehran’s uranium enrichment and attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq, among other mutual concessions. Iran most likely understands that the US government is loath to get involved in a new conflict in the Middle East amid its preoccupation with deterring Russia and China. Its aggressive moves in the Gulf further increase pressure on the White House to negotiate and provide more concessions to Tehran. As evidenced by last week’s agreement for the release of five US citizens detained in Iran in return for Tehran’s access to $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue held in South Korea, both sides prefer to avoid conflict and try to reach a negotiated settlement, despite their assertive military posture.

Washington’s Gulf Arab allies are probably also a target of Iran’s pressure tactics. Despite their longstanding security ties to the US, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are increasingly concerned about Washington’s willingness to defend them against Iranian threats amid the latter’s pivot to Asia and its focus on the Ukraine war. By demonstrating its capability to impede maritime access to the Gulf, which is vital for the regional states’ capability to export their oil to global markets, Tehran likely seeks to persuade them that the US is not a reliable security guarantor and that their interests would be best served by an accommodation with Iran. This approach may also have achieved some success. In May, the UAE announced its withdrawal from a US-led regional maritime security grouping, reportedly due to the failure to stop Iran’s seizure of the two tanker ships. Following on that, in early June, an Iranian official announced that Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Pakistan, and India would form a “naval alliance” to ensure regional stability and security. Although whether this will indeed happen is still unclear, it does show that the Arab Gulf states are keen to balance their relations with Iran and seek some kind of accommodation with Tehran.

As for the US, its decision to strengthen its military presence in the Gulf is probably meant both to more effectively deter Iran and address its regional partners’ concerns. Heightened Iranian aggression would very likely lead to more instability in the Gulf, further exacerbating the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. Increased US forces in the region will likely constrain Iran’s potential for more escalation. Furthermore, after its failure to prevent the seizures in April and May, Washington likely seeks to demonstrate its commitment to regional security and preserve its influence with the Arab Gulf states while avoiding a direct conflict.  Reassuring Gulf Arab governments that it is still a reliable partner has probably been a high priority for the US due to China’s increasing influence in the region, as showcased by its successful mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran last March. Efforts to allay the Gulf states’ concerns are likely also linked to ongoing US mediation for a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to reports, one of the Saudi government’s main demands in exchange for normalizing relations with Tel Aviv is a formal US security guarantee. The new troop deployments and plans to protect commercial ships might be part of the negotiations and diplomatic bargaining between Washington and Riyadh, aimed at enticing the Saudis to accept US and Israeli proposals.

In conclusion, both the US and Iran have an interest in pursuing an assertive posture in the Gulf. The two countries seek to deter and exert pressure on each other while demonstrating their military power and influence to other regional states. Still, a direct conflict seems unlikely, as it would be highly detrimental to both sides’ interests. The course of events will be determined by the ongoing nuclear talks between the US and Iran, as well as the negotiations between the US (and Israel) and the Arab Gulf states to shape the future of their relationships.