Trump Questions Need to Protect Persian Gulf Shipping

Multiple U.S. Navy vessels escort the reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Gas King, Operation Earnest Will, 1987 (USN)

Published Jun 25, 2019 2:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

Questioning the longstanding American policy of defending maritime security in the Persian Gulf, President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the United States does not "need to be there" for merchant shipping in the region. 

"China gets 91% of its Oil from the [Strait of Hormuz], Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey," he wrote in a Twitter post on Tuesday morning. "We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!" 

Trump's comments follow after two attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, one off Fujairah on May 12 and a second in the Iranian area of responsibility on June 13. The U.S. has released photographic evidence of Iranian movements after the second attack and accuses Tehran of carrying out both incidents. Iran denies any involvement.

The U.S. Navy has had a permanent presence in the Persian Gulf since 1949, and has occasionally provided naval escort protection for merchant shipping to deter threats by regional actors. In 1987-88, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War, President Ronald Reagan provided escorts and U.S flag registration for 11 Kuwaiti tankers in response to Iranian attacks on neutral shipping. At the time, the United States was highly dependent upon imports of Middle Eastern oil, but Reagan did not cite a material interest in the vessels' cargoes: rather, he emphasized a desire to maintain American dominance on the high seas. "If we fail to [provide protection] simply because these ships previously flew the flag of another country, Kuwait, we would abdicate our role as a naval power," Reagan said. 

In a Twitter post Tuesday, Trump warned that "any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force."

Multilateral effort

On Monday, the U.S. State Department said that it was launching a multilateral maritime security initiative for the Persian Gulf region to counter the new Iranian threat. This effort will rely on assets and financial contributions from multiple nations, according to a State Department official, and will entail both naval escorts and a system of ship-mounted security cameras for vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz. The participants have not yet been named, but the official said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would seek the support of Saudi Arabia during a visit to Jeddah. 

In an independent, previously-announced move, New Delhi has dispatched two warships to the Persian Gulf to provide security for Indian vessels in the region. In addition, the Indian Navy is providing embarked security teams for Indian tankers with small ship-riding squads consisting of one officer and two enlisted sailors each.