By Oren Liebermann, CNN
(CNN) — The US is considering putting troops on commercial vessels in critical Middle East waterways to prevent Iranian seizures, a US official familiar with the plans said Thursday, a decision that could bring US and Iranian forces closer to direct confrontation.
The move would place teams of approximately 20 sailors or Marines on commercial vessels that request extra security as they transit the Strait of Hormuz or the Gulf of Oman, waterways where Iran’s Navy or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have tried to seize or harass ships.
The official said the policy was part of a set of proposals that had come up in recent months.
Three other US officials said the idea of deploying US military teams onto commercial vessels had been discussed as an option to respond to a recent uptick in Iranian aggression. But the officials also cautioned that the option was still being considered as policymakers look at what authorities the military would need to conduct such a mission. The mission would likely need to be approved at the highest levels.
The possibility of placing US troops on commercial vessels was first reported by The Associated Press.
The move risks putting US and Iranian forces in direct confrontation in the Middle East, a situation which has not yet materialized. Militias aligned with Iran have attacked US forces in Syria, and the Iranian regime often threatens US forces, but the two countries have largely avoided direct conflict.
In response to a series of attempted Iranian seizures of commercial vessels, the US has flowed more forces into the Middle East to monitor international waterways. Last month, the US announced it would deploy thousands of Marines, as well as fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets, to the Middle East following recent Iranian attempts to seize commercial ships.
That followed the decision to send F-16 fighter jets and the USS Thomas Hudner, a guided missile destroyer to the region. The US had already deployed A-10 attack aircraft to the Middle East in late March following attacks on US positions from Iranian-affiliated militias. The US then shifted the A-10s to monitor the Strait of Hormuz, where they were equipped with weapons capable of targeting Iranian fast attack boats and other maritime targets.
Since 2021, Iran has seized or harassed approximately 20 internationally flagged commercial vessels, which the US has called a “clear threat to regional maritime security.”
The latest proposal to deploy security teams made up of US troops onto commercial vessels could be implemented soon, the first official said.
“Not months out, not weeks out. This could be days out,” the official said.
Navy sailors are now ready to carry out the security mission, the official said, while Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is capable of conducting special operations, are currently training to carry out this mission.
The added security detail would be done at the request of the commercial vessel and its owners. The US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which operates in the Middle East, has discussed the possibility with the shipping industry since May, the official said, when Iran seized a Panama-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
“There has been interest expressed in this option,” the official said. But to date, no ships or shipping companies have requested the security detail.
The Pentagon declined to comment Thursday.
“I don’t have any announcements to make regarding any force posture changes,” said Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.
The focus for the US would be on commercial vessels that fall into a high risk category for Iranian interference or seizure. In July, Iran attempted to seize two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, including one instance in which the Iranian Navy opened fire on one of the tankers.
But it wouldn’t be limited to oil tankers alone. The idea is to offer additional security for ships that Iran may target, which can depend on where the vessel is flagged, its cargo, the makeup of its crew and its origin and destination.
The goal would be to deter Iran from interfering with commercial shipping in the region or seizing private vessels. In the two July incidents, the Iranian vessels left the scene when a US destroyer arrived.
“Iran does not want to go toe-to-toe with the US because they’re not going to win,” the official said. “When the US shows up, they leave.”
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