(Persia Digest) - The president has yet to get serious buy-in from other countries for an operation to protect oil tankers sailing past Iran.
George H.W. Bush led a coalition of some three dozen countries that kicked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991.
George W. Bush had his “coalition of the willing” behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Nahal Toosi writes in Politico that so far, Donald Trump’s coalition to protect oil tankers from alleged Iranian aggression appears to have just one member — the United States.
The British have demurred, the French are noncommittal and the Germans on Wednesday flat out said no. They’re all still smarting from the president’s exit from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which they say is partly responsible for Tehran’s suspected bellicose behavior. They’re also worried that aligning with the U.S. on such an initiative could drag them into a war with Iran. Those concerns have only risen this week after Trump imposed sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister.
“Clearly, a military operation in the Gulf would increase exponentially the potential triggers for a confrontation with Iran,” Nathalie Tocci, special adviser to European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said via email. “So long as [Europeans] see a chance of freedom of navigation being secured through dialogue and diplomacy with Iran, they will opt for this route.”
“Other governments aren’t sure where the U.S. is trying to take them,” added Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst in Washington. “They think that aligning with the U.S. incurs risk without providing security.”
Pentagon officials insist some countries have already signed up for what the U.S. is calling Operation Sentinel, but they would not say how many. More than 60 countries have been invited to join, according to the Pentagon, and analysts say some regional powers, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, might join the effort.
“Because discussions are ongoing, it would be premature and inappropriate to speculate or comment on the status of individual nations and the nature of any potential support,“ the Pentagon said in a statement.
The push for a maritime security coalition follows several attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf-area starting in May. The U.S. blames the attacks on Iran and its proxies. Iran’s Islamist government denies the allegations.
The attacks come as Iran has started breaching the 2015 nuclear deal out of anger over Trump’s decision to quit the agreement. Iran is trying to pressure Europeans to help salvage its economy now that Trump has reimposed sanctions lifted under the deal, and the Gulf attacks could be seen as part of that pressure.
In some respects, stitching together a coalition to guard ships in key Gulf spots like the Strait of Hormuz — a critical thoroughfare for the global oil market — should seem an easier lift than the past U.S. efforts that targeted dictators like Hussein.
George H. W. Bush faced some predictions of a long, costly and bloody war against the Iraqi dictator. But he was able to pull together a coalition of Middle Eastern, European and other countries that kicked Hussein out of Kuwait within weeks of launching its operation in 1991. That coalition is widely considered a successful, model effort.
The George W. Bush administration had a harder time convincing the world that it was necessary to invade Iraq and overthrow Hussein, despite what turned out to be false suspicions that he had weapons of mass destruction. Major U.S. allies such as France and Germany opposed the 2003 invasion. But ultimately, the Bush team said about 50 countries were part of a “coalition of the willing,” though many did not send troops.
More recently, after being accused of moving too late, President Barack Obama pulled together more than 60 countries to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That effort was bequeathed to Trump, and it has succeeded in wresting away the terrorist group’s physical territory.
Trump, however, isn’t getting the buy-in he might have expected.
On Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his country “will not take part in the sea mission presented and planned by the United States.” Maas added that Germany was coordinating closely with France, which has resisted the U.S. campaign as well.
That irked U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper that “America has sacrificed a lot to help Germany remain a part of the West” and that Germany’s economic success “brings with it global responsibilities.”
Perhaps even more striking has been Britain’s unwillingness to commit to the U.S.-led effort, especially given that it is in a direct maritime standoff with Iran.
Tehran recently detained a British tanker and its crew after Britain seized an Iranian vessel it suspected of violating sanctions on supplying oil to Syria. Britain also broke with Germany and France to support George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, a sign of the traditionally close military relationship it has with the United States.
Yet British officials said last month they would prefer to build a European-led maritime protection force in the Gulf. While that may change given that Britain now has a new prime minister, Boris Johnson, who has tried to curry favor with Trump, the initial reaction spoke to the strains between London and Washington under Trump.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn’t help calm tensions when he indicated to Fox News in July that the U.S. won't necessarily come to Britain’s aid in its standoff with Iran. “The responsibility ... falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships," he said.
Pompeo went on to lay out another expectation for the maritime security coalition: that other countries will play the major roles. “The United States has a responsibility to do our part, but the world’s got a big role in this, too, to keep these sea lanes open,” Pompeo told Fox News.
On Wednesday, Vice Adm. Michael Gilday told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "the idea is for the regional partners to bear the lion's share of the burden" of protecting international tankers. While the U.S. will deploy vessels and aircraft to protect American-flagged commercial vessels, "there aren't that many" that pass through critical areas like the Strait of Hormuz, Gilday said. The U.S. will offer intelligence support to other coalition members, he said.
Pompeo and Gilday appear to be following Trump’s lead. The president — who has long been skeptical about the value of multilateral alliances — believes that other countries take advantage of U.S. resources and generosity.
Trump in June tweeted out some of his frustrations about the security in the Persian Gulf, asking, “Why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation”? Trump also noted that the U.S., now the world’s top oil and natural gas producer, doesn’t even need the petrol that traverses the Gulf the way other countries do.
Such statements are sure to dampen the enthusiasm of other countries asked to join the coalition, Alterman said.
He noted that, under Trump, America’s relationships with traditional allies have faltered, not least because Trump has criticized key partners such as Germany, Britain and France more than his predecessors. Past presidents also maintained stronger relationships with their foreign counterparts, he added.
“Frankly, it just requires diplomacy,” Alterman said. “You have people who developed relationships of trust and sometimes of affection. And countries believed that their interests were served by aligning with the United States.”
Today, however, those allies may think their “interests are threatened” by aligning with the U.S., especially on Iran, a welcome development for adversaries such as Russia and China looking to diminish America’s global influence, he said.
U.S. officials appear aware of this, at times discussing the maritime security idea without making it about Iran. A July 19 U.S. Central Command statement announcing the coalition plan did not even mention Iran. But given past U.S. allegations against Tehran, there’s little question who America views as the primary culprit.
Even for countries that also consider Iran an adversary, the prospect of a military confrontation with Tehran is not appealing.
The UAE, for example, has been a staunch Trump ally, agreeing on the need to contain a rising Tehran, and it could join the coalition in some respect. But the UAE has been unwilling to blame Iran for the tanker attacks, and just this week, UAE and Iranian officials held a rare meeting to discuss maritime security — part of what appear to be broader efforts to de-escalate tensions.
Trump quit the Iran nuclear deal last year. He said the Obama-era agreement was too time-limited and narrow and that it should also have covered Iran’s non-nuclear malign activities, such as its ballistic missile program. Since then, the other countries party to the deal — France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia — have been trying to salvage it, but they have been unable to offer Iran the economic relief it initially received under the deal.
The U.S. and Iran have come exceptionally close to a military confrontation in recent weeks as the U.S. has upped its military presence in the Gulf. Both sides have downed each other’s drones. Trump at one point ordered a military strike on Iranian facilities but backed off at the last minute, saying he’d prefer negotiations.
The Trump administration's decision this week to renew a handful of waivers on nuclear-related projects in Iran could help ease some tensions with Europeans trying to save the deal.
But Trump this week also slapped economic sanctions on Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, a move that undercuts the already slim chances of U.S.-Iran talks. Zarif was the main face of the Iranian negotiating team that cut the nuclear deal with the Obama administration and other governments.
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