The attacks on oil tankers and the avowed downing of an American surveillance drone by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have cast a harsh spotlight over American military preparedness to respond to events in the Persian Gulf. After years of troop drawdowns and conscious disengagement, there is now serious doubt in Washington over whether the US military has sufficient personnel on hand to counter potential threats from the IRGC and protect shipping through the critical Strait of Hormuz.
As tensions peaked in May, some American military planners were suggesting the Pentagon would need to deploy as many as 120,000 troops to deter Iranian provocations – before opting for a more symbolic 1,000.
Unfortunately, finding the right number of troops to deploy is hardly the only dilemma the Pentagon faces in the region. Considering Washington’s track record of relying on problematic contractors like Erik Prince and Kuwait-based KGL for mission-critical services, and the ongoing feud among its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it is an open question whether the US military forces in the region are currently in a position to deter or counter threats from Iran.
Struggling to Match an Asymmetric Threat
The actions attributed to the IRGC seem designed precisely to test both these weaknesses and American resolve. According to analysts like Andreas Krieg of King’s College London, attacking tankers and shooting down drones reminds Washington and its Gulf allies how much damage Iran’s asymmetric capabilities can do to the global shipping, oil, and logistics industries. The Islamic Republic’s ill-equipped military may not be able to match the US Navy on a symmetric basis, but its anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, submarines, and naval mines allow it to exercise deterrence by threatening an essential shipping channel through which one-fifth of the world’s oil passes.
Washington’s efforts to counter Tehran are also complicated by a number of other factors, at least some of which are the result of its own policies. Since the Iraq War began in 2003, for example, the US government has consistently hurt its own interests in the region by entrusting critical missions to contractors like the logistics firm KGL, which has continued to win contracts from the US military despite multiple controversies. Just last year, the company won a $690 million contract to carry out “logistics and distribution operations” for American troops in the Gulf.
Outsourcing Headaches with KGL and Blackwater
That award came despite the fact that two company executives – chairman Saaed Dashti and managing director Marsha Lazareva – are being tried in Kuwait on fraud, money laundering and corruption charges, with the company spending millions on prominent lobbyists to plead their innocence. Despite KGL’s protestations, American policymakers have long suspected the firm of violating US laws. Last year, Senator Marco Rubio even called for an investigation into the company, pointing to reports that KGL had set up a “ghost structure” separate in name only to do business with IRISL (Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines), a state-owned Iranian firm subject to US sanctions.
The allegations facing Marsha Lazareva and Saeed Dashti stem from a case in the Philippines, where Kuwaiti officials suspect them of embezzling hundreds of millions from the sale of the Clark Global City venture to an ally of President Rodrigo Duterte. As Rubio also noted, the company has been barred from doing business with the Kuwait Port Authority because of large-scale trespassing and the use of “fictitious financial documents.” It remains unclear how the US military expects the company to fulfill its contracts and provide logistical services without access to some of the region’s most important port facilities.
KGL is hardly the only problematic contractor American military officials have relied on. The now-defunct Blackwater, for example, trained local security forces and maintained weapon systems during the American occupation of Iraq until its contractors killed at least 14 civilians at Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007. Those killings put a spotlight on the over 160,000 private military contractors deployed in the country. This parallel force not only contributed to ballooning costs, but also undermined American counterinsurgency efforts at the height of Iraq’s post-invasion instability with its overall lack of accountability.
Remarkably, even though Blackwater was banned from Iraq and ultimately dissolved, a new company founded by former CEO Erik Prince has seemingly procured fresh contracts in the country. Prince’s Frontier Services Group, based in Hong Kong, was discovered operating in Iraq as of last year. Despite the controversial contractor’s well-publicized relationship with President Donald Trump, his new company is reportedly now operating on behalf of Chinese interests.
Qatar Dispute Undermines America’s Regional Alliances
While the poor selection of contractors lies within Washington’s power to fix, other factors cramping the US military’s ability to counter Tehran are more complex. The ongoing diplomatic standoff between America’s allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has remained a stalemate since 2017, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt collectively implemented an economic blockade of Qatar. The blockading countries accuse their small, wealthy Gulf neighbour of supporting Islamist groups and of keeping excessively close ties with Iran.
The embargo has failed to cripple Qatar’s economy, and it has proven counterproductive in diplomatic terms. Indeed, its most discernible impact has been to strengthen the partnership between Doha and Tehran, who share the South Pars/North Dome natural gas field in the Persian Gulf.
What’s more, the blockade has left American military installations stuck in the middle of the quarrel. US Central Command has around 10,000 personnel based at al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar, and plans to expand the facility. Even as the US government trumpeted plans for an “Arab NATO,” Pentagon spokespeople admitted that the tensions between Qatar and its neighbours have complicated their ability to conduct long-term military planning.
The Trump administration may not be able to broker peace between Qatar and its neighbours, but if it intends to sustain its campaign of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic, it needs to address those issues which fall under its control and ensure US personnel present in the Persian Gulf are able to operate effectively. Otherwise, Iran’s inevitable countermeasures may turn out to be far more damaging than its provocations have been thus far.
*Alessandro Gagaridis is an independent International Relations analyst and owner of the website www.strategikos.it