Washington, DC – The United States’s continuing military buildup in the Gulf risks a “dangerous” confrontation with Iran, US-based analysts have said, as the two countries continue to struggle to resolve their issues through diplomacy.
The Pentagon announced this week that thousands of US troops were being deployed to the region to help protect shipping lanes, such as those in the Strait of Hormuz, from Iranian “harassment”.
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The Associated Press news agency also reported last week that the US military was considering placing armed personnel on commercial ships going through the strait – the main entryway into the Gulf – in what would be an unprecedented action.
That report prompted an angry response from Iran, which said it would equip its Revolutionary Guard navy with drones and missiles in response to the US moves.
Sina Toossi, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy think tank in Washington, DC, said US President Joe Biden is doubling down on his predecessor Donald Trump’s “failed policy” of economic warfare and escalation against Iran.
US-Iranian ties have been increasingly strained since 2018, when Trump nixed a multilateral nuclear deal that saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions against its economy.
“The track record of this policy – not just in the past five years but for decades – has been that it will lead to a cycle of mutual escalation, where the US will escalate and Iran will counter-escalate. So, this is very dangerous,” Toossi told Al Jazeera.
Over the past few months, the US has accused Iran of seizing several international ships going through the Gulf.
But analysts highlighted that Tehran’s recent behaviour in the strategic waters came after Washington confiscated an Iranian oil tanker as part of its sanctions-enforcement push.
The vessel is currently off the coast of Texas, though several US media outlets have reported that American oil companies are refusing to bid for the confiscated oil out of fear of Iranian retaliation against their own ships in the Gulf.
Both countries are trying to show they can retaliate against aggressive moves by the other party, said Toossi, who warned that the US and Iran are on an “escalation ladder” that could lead to conflict.
And the prospect of diplomacy has dimmed this year.
Biden came into office in early 2021 on a promise to revive the Iran nuclear accord – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
But as several rounds of indirect negotiations failed to restore the pact, Washington continued to enforce its sanctions regime against Tehran and piled on more penalties.
Publicised JCPOA talks were eventually put on hold and attempts to restore them were made more complicated by an Iranian crackdown on anti-government protesters and accusations that Tehran was providing Moscow with drones for use in Ukraine.
Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington, DC-based group that favours US diplomacy with Iran, also said that headlines about bolstering the US military presence in the Gulf read like a “throwback” to the Trump era.
Costello said while the Biden administration is arguing that it is trying to deter Iran from harassing ships, Tehran may view the beefed-up US military presence as a push to make it easier for Washington to seize Iranian tankers.
“It’s a dangerous cocktail that’s being put together,” he told Al Jazeera.
Iran has rejected the US military involvement in the Gulf as a hostile foreign intervention.
“What do the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean have to do with America?” said Iranian armed forces spokesperson Brigadier-General Abolfazl Shekarchi, as quoted by the semi-official Tasnim news agency. “What is your business being here?”
The Pentagon has said, however, that its recent deployments in the region fit into a longstanding US policy of working with partners to “deter potential aggression to keep those shipping lanes open”.
Much of the world’s oil flows through the Gulf, with enormous implications for the energy market and global economy.
US role in the region
The recent tensions come a few months after the Iranian and Saudi Arabian governments – the latter of which is a top US ally – agreed to restore relations in a Beijing-brokered deal that was welcomed by Washington.
Still, the Biden administration has been looking to reassert itself in the region after the Tehran-Riyadh agreement raised questions about the US role in the Middle East.
Imad Harb, director of research at the Arab Center Washington DC, said that beyond the shipping lanes issue, Washington is trying to emphasise its commitment to the region in a message to allies and adversaries alike.
“It’s also sending a message to China and Russia that the United States is really still very interested in what happens in the Middle East, still is concerned about whatever Iran is doing and still concerned about asserting its influence – and as far as I’m concerned – hegemony in the region,” Harb told Al Jazeera.