To counter Iran at sea, US must sell partners on doing more

Iran has been increasingly active at sea since 2021, including just last week when the US Navy had to disrupt attempts to seize commercial shipping vessels. In the following op-ed, two former heads of US Naval Forces Central Command and two experts from the Jewish Institute for National Security of America argue that the US needs to get allies and partners in the region more engaged on this issue.

Iran forcibly seized a tanker in the Gulf last week, a day after the US Navy disrupted two other attempted attacks by Iran against commercial shipping in the area. It’s part of a broader Iranian strategy that has seen more than forty known incidents of maritime aggression since 2021.

In order to convince Tehran to stop its illegal activities in some of the world’s most important sea lanes, determined American leadership is necessary to convince our partners to accept greater responsibility for protecting freedom of navigation.

The latest Iranian attacks are a microcosm of this deeper problem, as laid out in a new analysis from the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). After Washington sought to enforce sanctions on Iran by legally taking control of an oil cargo vessel in early April, Tehran escalated by seizing three international tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and attempting to seize a fourth.

These developments are particularly alarming given the global economy’s vulnerability to Middle Eastern maritime chokepoints. The region is home to three of the world’s four biggest pressure points for crude oil shipments, with the twenty-mile-wide bottleneck at the Strait of Hormuz being among the most significant. A glimpse of the importance of these seaways came in 2021, when the accidental blocking of the Suez Canal by the Ever Given cost an estimated $9.6 billion daily in disrupted trade flows.

To be sure, the epicenter of US-led naval cooperation in the Middle East, Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), recognizes the need to more effectively encourage and integrate regionwide cooperation, including by leading the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). This 38-nation partnership includes five task forces addressing freedom of navigation, counterpiracy, counternarcotics, and, most recently, training for partner navies. However, amid this most recent bout of unchecked reprisals from Tehran, the United Arab Emirates suspended its voluntary contribution of maritime assets to CMF task forces.

Another initiative is the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) to counter Iranian threats against commercial shipping. Yet its small membership, with the only Middle Eastern participants being Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, limits its operational capacity. NAVCENT’s unmanned systems initiative, Task Force 59, also works with partners to deploy unmanned surface vehicles (USV) that help fill gaps in the ability of crewed ships to monitor the Middle East’s vast stretches of open water.