The United States is preparing to deploy Marines and Navy personnel aboard commercial tankers transiting the Gulf as part of efforts to deter Iran from seizing ships, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The security forces would provide a further layer of protection for the tankers in addition to the warships and planes operating in the strategically vital area, through which around a fifth of the world’s oil passes.
“There is an effort… to employ security details composed of both Marines and Navy sailors on commercial tankers transiting in and near the Strait of Hormuz as an added layer of defense for these vulnerable ships,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
An invitation is needed to do so because the ships are private vessels, but “we are undergoing preparations to execute should final agreements be in place to do that,” the official said.
Asked if there are concerns that the deployment could lead to confrontation between U.S. and Iranian forces, the official said that was effectively up to Tehran.
“There should be no interaction at all if Iran plays by the rules and follows international law,” the official said, adding: “If they attack and we have forces on board, we will respond — as we should.”
Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder and National Security Council spokesman John Kirby both declined to confirm reports of the planned deployment.
– ‘Critical choke point’ –
Kirby emphasized the importance of the area, saying “the Strait of Hormuz is a vital seaway that has a huge impact on seaborne trade around the world.”
“It’s a critical choke point in the maritime world, and we have seen threats by Iran to affect that choke point,” he added.
The United States is boosting its forces operating in the region, announcing last month that it would deploy a destroyer, F-35 and F-16 warplanes, as well as an Amphibious Readiness Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit comprised of some 3,000 personnel.
The U.S. military says Iran has either seized or attempted to take control of nearly 20 internationally flagged ships in the region over the past two years.
Washington said its forces blocked two attempts by Iran to seize commercial tankers in international waters off Oman on July 5, while Tehran took control of a commercial ship the following day.
In April and early May, Iran seized two tankers within a week in regional waters, and Tehran was also accused of launching a drone attack against an Israeli-owned tanker in November 2022.
There have been a series of such incidents since 2018, when then-U.S. president Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic, which Washington says Tehran has succeeded in evading.