DUBAI — During a flare-up in tensions in the Persian Gulf in recent weeks, at least two tankers have been seized by Iranian forces while traversing the narrow Strait of Hormuz.
The dispute threatens to choke a vital trade route for crude oil exports and could potentially cause oil prices to spike, threatening the global economy. Western powers are worried and have proposed plans to escort ships and monitor for threats.
But the waters are murky. Even after the plans were announced, there was confusion over which nations would be sending important resources such as warships to the Persian Gulf.
As tensions rise, the exact mandate remains uncertain, with two separate and possibly competing plans — one led by the United States and one led by Europe — under discussion.
Meanwhile, Iran has rejected any need for Western ships to patrol the waters along its southern coast, instead pledging to secure the Strait of Hormuz itself.
The prospect of warships patrolling the Persian Gulf is reminiscent of the “tanker wars” of the 1980s, when the U.S. Navy escorted commercial vessels from Kuwait traversing the Strait of Hormuz due to attacks on tankers by both Iraq and Iran.
But this time, with potentially multiple missions at once, the situation could be more fluid.
The United States has said it envisages a scheme whereby nations would protect ships that carry their flag, but there would be joint operations designed to carry out surveillance on waterways. The plan, dubbed Operation Sentinel by the United States, has been under discussion for more than a month.
Mark T. Esper, then the acting secretary of defense, first called for a joint strategy to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf during a meeting at NATO headquarters in June. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in early July that a concrete plan had been formulated and that the role of allies would become clear within weeks.
The United States was “working diligently to build out a maritime security initiative” with “a broad range of countries participating,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last Wednesday.
The State Department and Defense Department co-hosted a discussion with allies about the idea on Friday. The meeting included more than 60 nations from across the world, according to a State Department spokeswoman who spoke on the condition of anonymity per department rules.
During a speech on Tuesday, President Trump said he felt the United States should not take too much responsibility for ships in the Persian Gulf, suggesting instead that “very rich” countries such as Japan and China could do it.
Following the capture of a British tanker on Friday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt outlined a separate, Europe-led plan Monday “to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region.”
Speaking to British lawmakers on Monday, Hunt said the plan was different from the U.S. proposal. “It will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement,” Hunt said.
British officials have emphasized that the plan would be about ensuring freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf — an aim that Tehran could theoretically back as well. But Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a group that often calls for isolating Iran, said the European plan could ultimately count as a win for Trump.
“Burden sharing from our allies gives them a stake in deterring and responding to aggression from the regime in Iran,” he said. “Since the majority of oil that moved through Hormuz goes to Asia and Europe, these countries have an even greater stake in preventing this aggression.”
No nation has yet publicly pledged material support for the U.S.-led maritime security initiative. Experts say some nations may be concerned with being linked with the U.S. maximum pressure campaign on Iran, either hoping to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement or because they still maintain good relations with Tehran.
Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who also worked on the Iran deal at the State Department under the Obama administration, said the lack of traction was not surprising. “Other countries take the front line under U.S. command and control, but other countries do not trust us not to escalate [or] provoke,” Blanc said of the U.S. proposal in an email.
Some nations that seek to have good relations with both the United States and Iran have offered vague statements of support but have made no detailed commitments.
Following a visit from White House national security adviser John Bolton on Wednesday, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that South Korea and the United States “agreed to continue discussing ways to work together on the maritime security and freedom of sea navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.”
The British-led proposal has secured more backing, in part because European nations such as Britain, France and Germany, along with Russia and China, have remained in the nuclear agreement with Iran, even though Trump pulled the United States out last year.
On Monday afternoon, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed public support for the British proposal, on the condition that diplomatic channels remain open. France issued its own message of support on Tuesday.
“We are discussing with our U.K. and German partners, and several other interested partners, a European initiative to increase our knowledge of the situation at sea with the deployment of appropriate surveillance,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday. “This is to facilitate the safe passage of ships in the area.”
“As far as we are concerned, this initiative is intended to defuse tensions and facilitate de-escalation,” the statement added. “It differs from the U.S. approach of maximum pressure.”
Some European nations may be cautious that Britain, in the midst of a change of leadership in which Hunt could be replaced as foreign minister, may draw back from its plans.
But analysts see the British proposal as a clear indication that even in the final lead-up to Brexit, Britain is still opting to coordinate with its European partners on matters of security.
“To me, it’s a sign that the U.K. wants to stay closely aligned with Europeans on Iran policy,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
It remains unclear what level of coordination there would be with the United States. “I think that would be a question for the U.S.,” said Alyson King, a British government spokeswoman based in Dubai.
So far, both plans remain at the early stages. But there are already some signs of an increased international naval presence in the Persian Gulf.
Maritime publication Lloyd’s List reported that a large British ship traveled through the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday, shadowed by the British warship HMS Montrose. In a statement give to the Associated Press, the ship’s owner expressed gratitude to “the U.K. and international community for their naval presence” in the area.
But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told a cabinet meeting Wednesday that it was Iran’s duty to protect the gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
“I do believe that the whole world should be grateful to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps for preserving security in the Persian Gulf,” Rouhani said, according to Mehr News Agency.
McAuley reported from Paris.