Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa and fault lines have further hardened in various states due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
On February 25, as the coronavirus outbreak was accelerating in Europe, the French Ministry of Armed Forces announced that the European mission for maritime surveillance in the Strait of Hormuz – Operation Agenor – had reached its full operational capability. Operation Agenor was designed in November 2019 as a European response to the maritime crisis in the Gulf, following the attacks on four merchant ships in Fujairah in May 2019 and on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman a month later. The European deployment added to the U.S. coalition task force Sentinel, which was initiated right after the crisis and under the operational command of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. For Gulf partners, the continuing deployment of U.S. and European navies can be read as measures of reassurance signaling the resolve of Western forces to deter Iran at a moment when regional tensions remain high. The pandemic, however, is inevitably going to challenge the scope of this commitment.
Two Western Naval Coalitions Against an Assertive Iran
Although Iran is suffering in both human and economic terms from the coronavirus pandemic, the regime shows no desire to back down on its regional posture. At sea, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps maintains its traditional strategy of harassing U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz.
On April 15, the U.S. Navy reported that 11 IRGC vessels “conducted dangerous and harassing approaches against U.S. naval ships.” This is only one in a long series of naval maneuvers by the IRGC that follow a pattern defined by Iran’s naval doctrine: using small boats in swarming tactics to harass U.S. ships to project an image of military strength and challenge U.S. presence in the Gulf. Likewise, the IRGC frequently displays its fleet of small submarines to demonstrate Iran’s ability to interdict shipping in the Gulf. There has also been speculation regarding the recent deployment of rockets and antiship missiles on Qeshm Island, in the middle of the Strait of Hormuz. Although these were likely used for a military drill, their display on social networks also conveyed the message that the IRGC is not lowering its guard.
Gulf Arab navies remain ill-prepared to face this Iranian challenge as naval cooperation among them has been limited. This is why the two ongoing Western coalitions play a critical role in ensuring maritime security in these contested waters.
However, the coexistence of these U.S. and European missions generates unnecessary redundancies. Both operations, Sentinel and Agenor, are intended to ensure freedom of navigation. Although the United Kingdom and Australia contribute to the U.S. initiative, European governments expressed unease with Washington’s goals. French officials and military officers repeatedly stated in private conversations that their approach was different from that of the United States. In their view, the U.S.-led coalition is merely enforcing the White House’s maximum pressure policy against Iran, whereas the European coalition focuses on ensuring the safe passage of civilian ships. Outside of trans-Atlantic circles, this nuance is largely missed. In fact, Iran publicly depicts both coalitions as representing the same goal of an enduring Western hegemony in the Gulf. From the outset, deployment of two missions relying equally on the capabilities of NATO allies seemed a waste of precious resources. But with the challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, the issue is no longer a simple matter of redundancy.
The Coronavirus Effect on Maritime Security in the Gulf
The global health crisis presents naval planners in the Gulf, like elsewhere, with significant logistical challenges. There has been no public indication yet of how severely Western naval forces in the Gulf are affected, but navies, in general, have been among the most vulnerable groups to the virus. By mid-April, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that more than 100 sailors were getting infected per day. About 36% of the cases within U.S. forces have been reported among sailors, and 26 warships have had cases onboard thus far. The controversy surrounding the case of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt illustrates the toll the virus has taken on the U.S. Navy. European naval forces face a similar challenge. In mid-April, French media revealed that at least 1,046 out of 1,760 sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle were infected after a journey on the Mediterranean. Warships present the perfect cluster scenario for the virus, as crewmen and women can hardly implement social distancing measures in such confined platforms.
In addition to this immediate issue comes one of rotating personnel in the medium term. Given the current state of the pandemic, the United States and most of its European allies have deferred future deployment of troops outside of their essential missions. On March 12, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a travel ban that is now in effect until the end of June. This will directly impact operations in the Gulf as the ban is affecting the number and rhythm of deployments in U.S. units overseas. No-travel policies are also affecting European navies and could quickly call into question the operational capability of the current mission in the Gulf. The French-led operation relies on several European contributions (Belgian, Danish, Dutch, German, Italian, and Portuguese sailors), and it has smaller forces available (two frigates thus far), making it even more vulnerable to logistical disruption.
In the longer term, Western maritime missions in the Gulf may also come under closer financial scrutiny. There is a growing sense within the armed forces that defense budgets will almost inevitably shrink because of the global recession in the making. Like many other sectors, the scale of the decrease is unknown, and it might not fully kick in before the next two to three years. But when it does, the United States and its European allies will have to prioritize their international commitments. In the case of European naval forces that were beginning a buildup after the austerity period following the 2008 financial crisis, securing the Strait of Hormuz is unlikely to be at the top of post-coronavirus priorities. But even for the U.S. Navy, if hard decisions have to be made and if the last National Defense Strategy is any indication of priorities, Gulf maritime security will be a lesser one vis-à-vis challenges posed by China. This could be compounded by the historic low oil prices that disincentivize a military commitment in the area.
These scenarios remain speculative, but they influence how Tehran perceives the resolve of Western naval forces in the Gulf. Degraded military readiness caused by the ongoing pandemic could be read as an opportunity for Iranian leadership to challenge the status quo in the Strait of Hormuz. Concretely, an erosion of Western capabilities may lead the IRGC to test U.S. and European navies by increasing its harassment operations.
But Iran’s brinkmanship in the Strait of Hormuz could also exacerbate the already high level of mistrust between Tehran and Washington. A week after the latest incident between the U.S. Navy and the IRGC, U.S. President Donald J. Trump tweeted he had “instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” The following day, General Hossein Salami, head of the IRGC, responded by instructing its ships, “if a floating or combat unit from the Navy wants to endanger the security of our non-combat ships or warships, to target that vessel or military unit.” Under these circumstances, the IRGC could easily miscalculate a U.S. response and trigger a naval confrontation by accident. A maritime clash in the middle of a pandemic would definitely thrust the region into uncharted waters.
is an associate professor in strategic studies at the UAE National Defense College. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the UAE National Defense College, the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, nor any government.
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