Strait of uncertainty: U.S. forces Amass in Persian Gulf, igniting concerns and altering regional dynamics

U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf heightens tensions with Iran, relying on might to navigate diplomatic impasse, leaving unresolved issues to fester in the region.

A substantial military buildup is unfolding in the Persian Gulf, as thousands of Marines, supported by advanced U.S. fighter jets and warships, are gradually strengthening their presence in the region.

Adding to this dynamic is the dispatch of the USS Bataan, a vessel equipped to carry troops and aircraft, including cutting-edge stealth F-35 fighters and other warplanes. This move is notable as it occurs against the backdrop of the United States expressing a strategic interest in shifting its focus towards addressing challenges posed by China and Russia. The concurrent escalation of military presence in the Persian Gulf and the desire to pivot attention to other geopolitical concerns reflect the complex and multifaceted nature of U.S. foreign policy and military strategy in the current global context.

The U.S. is confronting the enduring challenge of disengaging from the Middle East militarily, with the complexity heightened by Iran’s current uranium enrichment closer to potential weapons-grade levels following the breakdown of the 2015 nuclear deal. The diplomatic prospects for reviving the agreement appear dim, and in recent weeks, Iran has resumed its disruptive actions, including harassment and seizure of ships navigating the crucial Strait of Hormuz. This waterway is a critical passage, facilitating the transit of approximately 20% of the world’s oil from the Persian Gulf to the global market. The situation underscores the intricate nature of managing military disengagement in a region marked by geopolitical tensions.

For those in the hard-line faction of Tehran’s theocracy, this military buildup serves as a demonstration of strength directed at neighbouring nations, aligning with a series of attributed assaults linked to Iran since 2019. Additionally, it functions as a stark warning to the United States and its allies, signalling that the Islamic Republic possesses the capability to retaliate. This is particularly relevant as American sanctions lead to the interception of ships transporting Iranian crude oil. Concerns over the potential for another ship seizure have resulted in a vessel, purportedly carrying Iranian oil, being stranded off the coast of Texas, with no company willing to unload it. The situation reflects the intricate geopolitical tensions and economic repercussions associated with Iran’s actions in the region.

The United States places a high priority on keeping the Strait of Hormuz open for shipping, an imperative aimed at preventing potential spikes in global energy prices. This becomes especially crucial amid Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, which adds pressure to global markets. Gulf Arab nations heavily depend on the Strait of Hormuz as a vital passage to transport their oil to international markets. The concerns of these nations are compounded by apprehensions about Iran’s intentions in the broader region. The geopolitical dynamics surrounding the Strait of Hormuz highlight the intersection of economic interests, energy security, and regional stability in a complex and interconnected global landscape.

The persistent fears surrounding the security of the Strait of Hormuz and the broader Persian Gulf have solidified the enduring American military presence in the region. Over the two decades following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the United States maintained a consistent and significant presence, often deploying two aircraft carriers simultaneously in the Gulf. This military presence was instrumental in providing fighter jets for various conflicts, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the later campaign against the Islamic State group. The ongoing challenges and strategic importance of the region have necessitated a continuous and robust American military commitment to safeguard vital interests and maintain stability in the Persian Gulf.

In a gradual shift, the Pentagon initiated the reduction of naval presence in the Persian Gulf, creating a gap of several months that raised concerns among Gulf Arab states and commentators, particularly regarding the perceived threat from Iran. The USS Nimitz marked the end of this phase as it sailed out of the Strait of Hormuz in November 2020, becoming the last American aircraft carrier stationed in the Persian Gulf. Subsequently, the last Marine Expeditionary Unit, a fleet carrying Marines, aircraft, and vehicles prepared for amphibious assaults, transited through the region in November 2021.

Washington’s concerns and focus have evolved since then. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has compelled a redirection of some American attention back to Europe. Simultaneously, China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea have prompted increased U.S. Navy patrols in response to counter China’s efforts to control more of the strategic waterway. These developments reflect the dynamic nature of U.S. military priorities in response to shifting global geopolitical challenges.

In recent months, the U.S. military has increased its presence in the Middle East, signalling a heightened focus on the region. Notable actions include a Strait of Hormuz patrol featuring the top U.S., British, and French naval commanders. Additionally, A-10 Thunderbolt II warplanes arrived at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates in late March. The Pentagon further reinforced its commitment by deploying F-16 fighters and the destroyer USS Thomas Hudner to the region. The arrival of stealth F-35A Lightning II fighter jets further underscores this increased military presence.

In a notable development, part of a Marine expeditionary unit will be stationed in the region for the first time in nearly two years. This deployment involves thousands of Marines and sailors, including the USS Bataan and the USS Carter Hall, a landing ship. These actions reflect a strategic shift and a renewed emphasis on maintaining a robust U.S. military posture in the Middle East.

The USS Bataan and the USS Carter Hall departed Norfolk, Virginia, on July 10, 2023, undertaking a mission that the Pentagon characterized as a response to recent actions by Iran posing a threat to the free flow of commerce in the Strait of Hormuz and its surrounding waters. The USS Bataan recently transited through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea on its way to the Middle East.

While the specific details of the U.S. military’s activities in the region haven’t been disclosed, these movements have captured Iran’s attention. In the past few days, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian reached out to his counterparts in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, expressing that “we can have peace, stability, and progress in the region without the presence of foreigners.” This communication indicates Iran’s response to the heightened U.S. military presence in the region and suggests a diplomatic effort to address the situation and promote regional stability without foreign military involvement.

Iran’s Army Chief, General Abdolrahim Mousavi, has voiced opposition to the U.S. deployment, asserting that it would only bring “insecurity and damage” to the region. According to Iranian state television, General Mousavi stated that the security of the region can only be ensured through the active participation of the nations in the region. This sentiment reflects a longstanding perspective in Iran, criticizing what it sees as foreign interference in regional affairs.

In addition to verbal opposition, Iran has showcased its Abu Mahdi cruise missile, initially unveiled in 2020. This missile can target ships at sea up to 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) away. By showcasing this missile, Iran appears to underscore its military capabilities and send a signal regarding its capacity to defend its interests in the region.

The heightened military presence and increased tensions in the region raise the risk of conflict, although recent U.S. force buildups in the area haven’t immediately led to open warfare. While both sides have a history of military engagement, such as the 1988 incident when the U.S. attacked Iranian oil rigs and engaged in a significant naval battle, a similar scenario is not guaranteed in the current situation.

Given the current diplomatic stalemate and Iran’s willingness to adopt a more assertive stance at sea, it seems the U.S. is relying on military strength to compel Tehran to de-escalate. However, this focus on maritime tensions may not address the broader issues between the two nations, allowing underlying problems to persist and potentially escalate beyond naval conflicts. The situation underscores the complex and multifaceted nature of U.S.-Iran relations, with military posturing playing a role in the absence of diplomatic breakthroughs.