WASHINGTON — This ain’t the 1980s anymore.
That’s the message from one of the top U.S. military officials who called on the international community to help secure the free movement of goods and oil through the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf, saying that the U.S. doesn’t depend on it to the same extent when it launched a major tanker escort mission in the late 1980s.
Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a roundtable that countries that benefit most from the movement of oil through the Gulf need to take an active role in its security.
“We have maintained across the sea lanes of the world a position of defending freedom of navigation,” Selva said. “Specifically, in the Strait of Hormuz and the [Arabian] Gulf, we’ve taken on an international responsibility of ensuring freedom of navigation and the movement of oil in and out of the Gulf. That doesn’t mean it’s a U.S.-only problem. If we take this on as a U.S.-only responsibility, nations that benefit from that movement of oil through the Persian Gulf are bearing little or no responsibility for the economic benefit they gain from the movement of that oil.” (The Arabian Gulf and the Persian Gulf are the same body of water.)
The U.S. blames Iran for a series of attacks on commercial shipping in the region, including attacks on a Norwegian and a Japanese tanker near the Strait of Hormuz in mid-June. The attacks have had ripple effects through the shipping industry and set off a series of back-and-forth accusations between the Trump administration and the Iranian government. Iran denies involvement in the attacks.
Despite the increased tensions, Selva said things have changed since the U.S. launched Operation Earnest Will, a mission in the 1980s where it reflagged Kuwaiti tankers as American ships and had the U.S. Navy escort them. The mission was in response to threats to shipping during the Iran-Iraq War.
“The circumstances are very different now than they were in the 1980s,” Selva said. "If you think back to the reflagging operation, the ‘Tanker War,’ as it was nicknamed, where we reflagged and escorted tankers so that they could flow in and out of the Strait of Hormuz, we got a substantial amount of our oil from the Persian Gulf.
“We are now in a position where the bulk of that oil goes to … countries in Asia, and none of those countries have shown any predilection to pressing Iran to stop what they are doing. What was true in the 1980s, is not true today. We are not wholly dependent on the movement of Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari and Emirati oil in and out of the Gulf to sustain our economy.”
China is among the largest importers of oil from the Gulf states. The U.S. has steadily pulled back from buying Gulf oil for decades, and now most estimates put U.S. imports from the region at a little more than 10 percent of total consumption. About 41 percent of U.S. oil imports come from Canada.
The changing circumstances mean that something like Earnest Will is probably not in the cards, Selva said.
Instead, the international community needs to come up with a response together, he added.
“I think there is a military role in defending freedom of navigation,” he said. "The question will be to what extent the international community is behind that effort.
“I’m not suggesting for a moment that we don’t have a significant role to play in that space. But it will require an international consensus before force is used with one specific caveat: If the Iranians come after U.S. citizens, U.S. assets or U.S. military, we reserve the right to respond with a military action. They need to know that, it needs to be very clear.”
Selva defended U.S. intelligence assessments that Iran was behind the attack, saying Iran was the only power in the region with a motive to attack tankers and that evidence overwhelmingly pointed to Iran as the culprit. Still, he said, U.S. troops moving to the area is a strictly defensive measure.
“We have to be cautious that we respond only as appropriate,” he said. “What we have done is deploy to the region forces that beef up the defenses of our own forces.”
Selva acknowledged that the risk of miscalculation between U.S. and Iranian forces is present, but warned that the U.S. would only act in defense of its forces.
“Engaging our forces, engaging our national interests in the region, is a dangerous thing to do,” Selva said. “The extent to which [Iran] believes they can get away with engaging our force without us responding puts both parties in a place of severe miscalculation. So they shouldn’t engage in that activity.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.