Eight major maritime chokepoints, through which oil tankers transit, exist globally. Seventeen million barrels of oil daily pass through one of them — the Strait of Hormuz.
Located off the coast of Iran, situated between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, uninterrupted oil flow through it provides an energy lifeline for Asia and Europe.
Little publicized, however, is this: In a 2002 effort to keep the Strait open against Iranian forces, the U.S. Navy was soundly defeated — losing sixteen ships in the process!
Fortunately, this effort was only a war game called “Millennium Challenge” — an exercise that cost $250 million and took two years to prepare. But so shocked were war gamers at this result, they immediately changed the rules of the game to effect a different outcome.
Needless to say, the initial result represented a major turnaround from a 1988 confrontation involving both naval forces in which the U.S. Navy decisively defeated Iran. It also explains the confidence with which Iran recently threatened to close the Strait to the U.S. and its allies.
Sadly, lessons learned from Millennium Challenge appear to have been lost. In the last fourteen years, Iranian assets needed to block the Strait have drastically increased as U.S. Navy assets decreased.
The war game made clear Tehran has an effective chokepoint formula to disrupt oil flow through the Strait. And, with elements of that formula having now increased in Iran’s favor, only one element potentially to alter this outcome, which was left out of the 2002 war game, remains to offset this Iranian advantage.
It should be no surprise, however, President Barack Obama has minimized our opportunity to introduce this element into the equation. Consequently, it will be incumbent upon his successor, first, to repair the damage Obama has done so we can utilize it, and, second, to then maximize this element’s capability.
This element is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Formed in 1981, its member states — all monarchies — include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Seeking to unify the six Arab states, the GCC promoted solidarity against external threats.
Five of the six members are Sunni majority states. The exception is Shiite-majority Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni royal family. Thus, the GCC presents a united Sunni front against its archenemy — Shiite-majority Iran.
The GCC has long looked to America’s military might as a protective umbrella. This relationship led to very close GCC cooperation during the 1990 Persian Gulf War.
However, the high level of GCC cooperation President George Bush mustered, Obama has put asunder.
As it became clear to the GCC leadership Obama sought a nuclear deal with Iran that, contrary to his promises, would not prevent Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons, a great GCC/US divide developed. Recognizing in 2013 that the U.S. protective umbrella was closing, Saudi Arabia sought to counter an Iranian nuclear arsenal by reportedly ordering nuclear weapons of its own from Pakistan.
If any doubts remained about Obama’s pro-Iran/anti-GCC leanings, they were quashed by his interview statements in the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic. He counseled Saudi Arabia to “share” the neighborhood with Iran, accusing GCC states of being “free riders” under America’s protective umbrella.
No wonder, when Obama later arrived in Saudi Arabia, the king demonstrated his disdain by not greeting the U.S. president at the airport.
As the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran seeks to further secure its chokehold on the Strait, targeting two GCC members. Tehran has exported terrorism to Bahrain, hoping the Shiite majority will overthrow their Sunni rulers, and to Saudi Arabia — smuggling arms into both as well.
Contributing to further chaos in the region, Iran sends forces into Syria and Yemen. The fact cannot be ignored the financial basis by which Tehran continues to export terrorism is the new-found wealth given it by Obama under the nuclear arms deal — an estimated $150 billion of which some several billion Iran has already received.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has rallied a coalition of 34 Islamic states to defeat terrorism. As it does not include Iran or two other nations — Syria and Iraq — where Tehran wields influence, it is clear on whose terrorism the coalition is focusing.
As the Saudis take such action, also buying U.S. military equipment, cooperating with the U.S. on global energy policies, and working with Israel on mutual security matters, Obama should be offering encouragement — not criticism.
It is no wonder, therefore, that these Arab leaders now tend to ignore Obama and turn to a more decisive leader — Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It is an interesting shift in geopolitics since Putin has only strengthened Iran’s regional influence and since the U.S. has significantly more military capability in the region. It is most telling, therefore, that Putin is perceived as a better ally than Obama.
Putin has demonstrated he is unafraid to use force to achieve political objectives — a quality both Islamic sects embrace. It is a throwback to the Sumerian leaders of 4,000 years ago who were both feared and revered by their followers. Obama generates neither emotion. As far as our Arab friends are concerned, they anxiously await a new U.S. president. And while Obama’s pro-Iran policy has caused them to recognize they need to become more defensively self-reliant and strive to do so, it is outrageous Obama continues to chide them as free riders.
Unfortunately, Obama’s harsh treatment of our GCC allies has minimized a critical role they can play in any future attempt by Tehran to close the Strait. Absent a massive attack against mainland Iran, the only way we can pop an Iranian cork blocking oil flow through the Strait is with the assistance of a GCC force adequately trained and equipped by, and working with, America.
Millennium Challenge exposed a major U.S. weakness in preventing Iran’s chokehold on oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz. The challenge now is to counter it by creating a relationship with our Arab partners that maximizes their self-defense capabilities to fight alongside ours.