As tensions between the US and Iran ratchet up, the Trump administration is looking at what military options may be needed to keep vital waterways in the Middle East open in the wake of attacks on Saudi oil tankers by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on July 25, according to two administration officials.
Both officials emphasize that if any military action is taken it would be carried out by US allies in the region, such as the Saudis, and not by US forces. The US military already provides support in the form of intelligence sharing to the Saudis in their fight against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. And while the US sends ships and aircraft into the region on a regular basis, any long-term military effort would require the involvement of other nations, officials say.
Gen. Joseph Votel – head of US Central Command, overseas US military operations in the Middle East – has been traveling in the region this week meeting with counterparts and held a conference of regional commanders to discuss security concerns. A spokesman said the meeting was long scheduled and it’s not known how detailed the discussions were on commercial shipping. It is also not known if any action to keep the waterways open is imminent .
Concerns have been growing for days as Iranian officials have increased verbal threats against shipping in the Persian Gulf and through the choke point at the Strait of Hormuz.
Earlier this week, a US Navy warship passed through the Strait of Hormuz without incident but concerns about potential problems in the future have escalated as the Iranians have stepped up their rhetoric to threaten that waterway.
But it was the Wednesday attack on the two tankers – each with the capacity to carry 2 million barrels – in the Red Sea near the war-torn port of Hodeidah that is the more immediate concern. One ship sustained minor damage and no oil was spilled, according to a statement from Saudi Aramco. But the Saudis stopped all oil shipments through the nearby Bab El-Mandeb strait, just to the south. It’s not yet known if they will extend that to the rest of the Red Sea.
“In the interest of the safety of ships and their crews and to avoid the risk of oil spill, Saudi Aramco has temporarily halted all oil shipments through Bab El-Mandeb with immediate effect. The Company is carefully assessing the situation and will take further action as prudence demands,” Saudi Aramco said in a statement Wednesday.
Defense Secretary James Mattis made clear the US is committed to keeping international oil shipping lanes open. In comments on Friday, he noted that “Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz,” and said Tehran has tried to stop shipments in the past only to be met by an international military response including military exercises to demonstrate a commitment to keeping waterways open.
“Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz,” he said. Mattis noted the Iranians have tried to shut down shipping in years past, only to be met with the international military response including military exercises to demonstrate a commitment to keep waterways open.
If the Iranians do move to shut down oil shipping directly, “it would have obviously an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever that took because the world’s economy depends on that energy, those energy supplies flowing out of there.”
Mattis reiterated that the Pentagon would continue to work with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE to counter Iranian influence in the region. Even as the US tries to press the Saudis to lead the effort to keep oil lanes open, the Saudis are warning that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to step up verbal attacks on the Gulf nations.