US spells out aim of naval mission in Gulf

In stressing reconnaissance and “sustainable approaches,” McKenzie reflected Washington’s desire to reassure and involve allies, as well as its aversion to acting as global policeman.
Sunday 01/12/2019
Implications of disengagement. The US Central Command Commander General Kenneth McKenzie speaks at the 15th Manama Dialogue, November 23.(AFP)
Implications of disengagement. The US Central Command Commander General Kenneth McKenzie speaks at the 15th Manama Dialogue, November 23.(AFP)

General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the US regional command CENTCOM, gave the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain an explanation of the new US-led naval mission in the seas between Iran and the Gulf Arab states.

In stressing reconnaissance and “sustainable approaches,” McKenzie on November 23 reflected Washington’s desire to reassure and involve allies, as well as its aversion to acting as global policeman.

McKenzie said the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) — the US-led alliance set up in September with Australia, Albania, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom – would protect “freedom of navigation in and around the Straits of Hormuz.”

Since IMSC was established, he argued, “surveillance” had successfully deterred Iran, which had often opted for covert actions.

McKenzie identified the “strategic maritime chokepoints” of Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb and Suez as “vital national interests of the US.”

The US Navy was well-versed in cooperation with allies, he said, and had operated Combined Maritime Forces since 2002 alongside 33 countries, including missions currently led on rotation by the UK, Jordan and Kuwait.

“The United States military proudly accepts its role… We’re uniquely suited and resourced to participate in many of these efforts with allies and partners, but it’s also a great big world and there’s a lot of water to cover,” said McKenzie.

Despite the United States no longer keeping an aircraft carrier battle group in “near-constant” presence “in close proximity to the Gulf,” McKenzie noted the carrier Abraham Lincoln and its strike group, which arrived in May, was “about 120 miles north-east of here.”

While McKenzie centred his talk on military matters, politics hung in the air. Gulf tensions have risen since US President Donald Trump in April tightened sanctions against Iran, which left it slashing its oil exports to around 300,000 barrels a day from 2.5 million last year when the US left the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

While Washington’s leading advocate of Iran “regime change,” John Bolton, resigned as national security adviser in September, Trump sees recent protests in Iran against petrol price rises as vindicating his strategy of “maximum pressure.”

“Much of what General McKenzie said will be read in the Arab capitals and in Tehran in the context of ‘maximum pressure,’ even though the general did not stray into that subject,” said Robert Hunter, former US ambassador to NATO.

Hunter stressed that the US naval mission had a political context: “Demonstrating the US will assert freedom of passage is a good thing but it doesn’t take an aircraft carrier to make that point. Perhaps the carrier’s presence is psychologically comforting for some of the Arabs.

“The ‘target’, in this case, Iran, can figure out that we don’t need a carrier close by to cause them major damage.  Of course, the US can also ‘scout out’ how to act if we later decide on military action. The navy can — literally — test the waters: in the past, for example, we found that some US Navy ships couldn’t operate because the Gulf was too warm for their engines.”

Practical challenges in the Gulf are real, agreed James Spencer, an independent Middle East defence and security consultant, citing shallow water restricting US aircraft carriers and submarines. But he welcomed McKenzie’s clarification of the US mission.

“McKenzie stressed surveillance, deterrence and framework,” Spencer said. “The surveillance can be of Iran, al-Qaeda and pirates. Deterrence involves stationing some assets and rotating others into the region. The framework is ‘stronger together,’ encouraging other nations to stand up, enabling and involving them, very much within the framework of UNCLOS [the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea] and customary international law. I’d say he was reassuring both the Gulf Arabs and Iran.”

Hunter suggested some understanding with Iran — “a wink and a nod, or some quiet military-to-military discussions” — might help Tehran grasp the likely consequences of provocative actions.

But political complications were illustrated by the European Union announcing its own Gulf security operation, the European Maritime Surveillance Mission, based in Abu Dhabi. Although this will co-ordinate with the United States, its separation reflects Europe’s disquiet over Trump’s maximum pressure and US withdrawal from the JCPOA.

At the Manama Dialogue, French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly criticised the United States over “unanswered” attacks in the Gulf and reminded attendees that US “fighter jets remained on the tarmac in 2013 after the Syrian chemical attacks.” She also evoked June’s images of “bearded generals [in Iran] prodding a shot-down US drone.”

Parly predicted “gradual US disengagement… irrespective of who wins the next [presidential] election.” She stressed France’s commitment to the Arabs, shown by setting up three bases in the UAE and by sending radar equipment to Saudi Arabia after September’s attacks on its oil facilities. “With the US looking elsewhere,” Parly said, “an entire grammar of deterrence needs to be re-invented.”