Saudi Arabia Puts Maritime Security on the Table in Talks With Iran

An Iranian patrol vessel cuts across the bow of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter (USCG file image)

Published Jun 19, 2023 7:13 PM by The Maritime Executive

Maritime security is a perennial concern in the Persian Gulf, particularly in the narrow waterway of the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran has repeatedly targeted other nations' tankers at times of heightened political tension. These risks peaked during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when Iranian forces targeted Iraqi vessels using drifting sea mines; while the waterway is more peaceful now, kinetic interactions like boardings and seizures still occur often enough to pose a threat to shipping. That pattern may soon change, thanks to a deep shift in the geopolitical tectonics of the region. As part of a Saudi effort to restart formal diplomatic ties after years of discord, Riyadh says that it is talking with Tehran about maritime security issues. 

On Sunday, at a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan emphasized the importance of maritime security, which is essential for Saudi oil exports.

"I would like to point out the importance of cooperation between our two countries concerning the regional security, especially the security of maritime navigation and waterways," Prince Faisal said. He extended a warm welcome to Iranian representatives to visit Saudi Arabia for further discussions, including Iranian President President Ebrahim Raisi, and pledged relations based on "independence, sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs." 

At the same press conference, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stressed that any improvements would come without the involvement of outside nations, and that "regional security will be ensured by regional actors only" - a clear reference to the American-led naval presence in the region. 

Saudi Arabia is an important security partner for shipping in the region, and contributes naval assets to the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) partnership and Combined Task Force Sentinel (CTF Sentinel), two joint patrol forces operated out of U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain. CTF Sentinel is specifically tailored for ensuring security for shipping in the Strait of Hormuz (and Bab el-Mandeb).

The U.S. Navy and its coalition partners expend considerable time and effort in attempting to deter Iranian harassment of friendly shipping, which has occurred more than a dozen times since 2021. 5th Fleet has deployed a substantial flotilla of autonomous drones to aid in monitoring threat actors, and it regularly dispatches warships to provide security escorts to passing tanker traffic. On occasion, U.S. forces have been called to intervene to prevent imminent boardings or boardings in progress.

The U.S. Navy has announced steps to enhance presence and vigilance in the Strait of Hormuz. In May, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces commander, joined his French counterpart Vice Adm. Emmanuel Slaars and Royal Navy Commodore Philip Dennis aboard the destroyer USS Paul Hamilton for a symbolic transit through the strait. “This effort is about enhancing our collective vigilance and presence.”