Amid Increasing Tension, United States Announces New Surveillance Initiative

On Saturday, July 20th, U.S. officials announced a new intelligence and surveillance initiative which is centred on the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Citing longstanding tension and concerns over the behaviour of Iran, officials describe the new ‘Sentinel’ initiative as one way to restore stability to the region, and ensure the protection of civilian shipping. This announcement comes shortly after the seizure of the Stena Impero, a British-flagged, Swedish-owned oil tanker, by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The seizure has triggered international condemnation and raised tension in the region.

The new ‘Sentinel’ initiative, announced at the 2019 Aspen Security Forum, aims to ensure that the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz remain safe for international shipping. Al Jazeera reports that U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, John Rood, told the Aspen Security Forum, “We are starting a concept called Sentinel in which we will have a series of countries engaged to preserve the free and open passage of commerce in the Strait of Hormuz and in the Persian Gulf”. Rood went on to describe the initiative: “The idea is to have additional sentinels being able to observe activity in the Gulf with intelligence and surveillance assets, having a naval and air presence to restore stability and also having capability to respond”. It is expected that this will roll out over the next few weeks, and provide an internationally-backed approach to keep the important shipping waterway open.

To date, previous U.S. responses have been primarily unilateral in nature, often heightening tension instead of reducing it. As a transnational initiative, ‘Sentinel’ may prove more effective. The international nature of the program will hopefully make the Iranian government painfully aware of its isolation during this time, and force them to reduce their hostility. With conflict in the region appearing closer by the day, any developments which can prevent war will be welcomed. Any military conflict in the region runs the risk of inciting a massive international crisis. The Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are perhaps the most important waterways in the world: conflict surrounding them could cause an oil crisis akin to that which occurred in the 1980s.

The ‘Sentinel’ initiative is the latest attempt by the United States to project its power and try to maintain some semblance of stability in the Persian Gulf region. In the last few days, the Pentagon announced that the United States is deploying military personnel and equipment to Saudi Arabia, one of America’s key allies in the region. This marks the first time since 2003 that American troops have been stationed in the kingdom: previous military deployment to the kingdom started during the Gulf War in 1991. This most recent development followed June’s announcement that the United States would be deploying approximately 1,000 troops to the Middle East, in order to defend U.S. interests and counter threats. Earlier in the year, conflict over attacks on four ships in the Gulf saw the Trump administration deploy warships and Patriot missile systems to the region.

Tensions between the United States and Iran seem set to rise further in the coming weeks. Ideally, war can be avoided between the two nations. ‘Sentinel’ may be able to help, with international engagement perhaps forcing both parties to the negotiation table. Diplomacy must prevail.