- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2019

It’s attracted just six members and has faded from the headlines, but a Pentagon-led Persian Gulf maritime coalition has played a key role in snuffing out Iranian ship seizures in the vital Strait of Hormuz, analysts say, and has left Tehran searching for a new strategy to challenge U.S. power in the region.

The Pentagon’s Coalition Task Force Sentinel, which last week officially opened its physical headquarters in Bahrain, forms the backbone of the Trump administration’s response to Iran’s series of provocations earlier this year, which included the suspected bombing of multiple commercial ships traveling through international waters, the seizure of a British oil tanker and the downing of an American military drone. The Sentinel task force provides naval vessels to patrol crucial points in the waters off Iran’s coast.

While U.S. officials at one time envisioned a broad international effort, many key allies declined the Trump administration’s invitation to join, fearing it could exacerbate an already tense standoff between Washington and Tehran. So far, the U..S. has been joined by just Britain, Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and newest member Albania, which signed on just last week.

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While the establishment of the task force has coincided with the decline of Iranian attacks in the Strait of Hormuz, regional specialists say the coalition has yet to have a broad impact on Tehran’s strategy of destabilization and its drive to sever ties between the U.S. and its partners in the Middle East.

“I think the publication of the fact there is such a thing as Sentinel … has been one factor that could have slowed Iran’s aggression in the Persian Gulf. But let’s not forget that when Iran leaves the maritime domain it can move to another domain,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who tracks Iran extensively

“The question is: Has Iran shifted from one foot to another or has Iran been impacted by this renewed American interest in this part of the world?” he added. “More broadly, had [the Sentinel task force] been received with greater international support, you could have seen Iran deterred in other areas.”

“That being said, operation Sentinel is not a wash or a flop,” he continued. “It simply may have served its short-term purpose.”

Tehran appears to be pursuing other destabilizing options, including a suspected attack on key Saudi Arabian oil facilities in September. Iran also has continued to reinvigorate its nuclear program, brushing off warnings from the U.S. and Europe and claiming that President Trump has forced its hand by withdrawing last year from the 2015 multinational deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear development.

The very presence of the U.S.-led Sentinel task force in the region, specialists say, puts pressure on Iran while stopping short of a direct military confrontation. American military officials say the coalition is proof that there is a broad front for containing Iran.

“Standing together today shows the power of nations united in support of a common mission in response to a demonstrated threat,” Vice Adm. Jim Malloy, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said last week when the coalition’s headquarters officially opened its doors. “All of the coalition partnerships forged over the last 20 years in the region has made it possible to stand up this deterrent force in such a short time.”

While the task force has blunted Tehran’s maritime aggression, specialists say it also may have spurred Iran to redouble its concerted effort to divide the U.S. from its Persian Gulf allies by pushing its own regional coalition. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a September speech at the United Nations — after the U.S. had already publicly announced the creation of the maritime coalition — touted a so-called Hormuz Peace Endeavor, which he said could bring nations together to secure commercial shopping through the Strait of Hormuz.

So far, Iran’s maritime initiative has attracted little support. But analysts say it’s part of Mr. Rouhani’s broader effort to chip away at American alliances.

“Some of the states don’t trust each other,” Mr. Taleblu said. “The whole point is to divide, … keep the parts in motion and make sure the U.S. doesn’t have an anchor in the region.”

The ramped-up U.S. military presence in the region over the past several months also has given Iran a public-relations opportunity. When three American destroyers — the USS Mason, USS Nitze and USS Bainbridge — returned home last week after a seven-month deployment to the Persian Gulf, Iran’s Kayhan newspaper proclaimed that the American vessels “leave with tail between legs.”

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