U.S. Moves to Put Marines on Commercial Ships to Stop Iranian Seizures

Photo by Sgt. Matthew Romonoyske-Bean/U.S. Marine Corps.
U.S. Marines train aboard the USS Bataan in mid-July.

The U.S. military is readying plans to embark armed Marines and sailors aboard the commercial ships of interested private companies after a spate of vessel seizures by Iranian forces in the Middle East, officials said Thursday, a remarkable escalation that could put Washington and Tehran in direct confrontation.

The effort has not yet received final approval, but it has buy-in from senior Biden administration officials and could commence as soon as this month, said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military planning. Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., have been flown to Bahrain and received related training, with additional personnel due to arrive soon aboard American warships.

“We have a cohort on the ground,” the official said. He added that the “policy decision has pretty much been made.”

A second U.S. official acknowledged the proposal is under discussion at the Pentagon but emphasized that it has not yet been approved.

Asked about the plan, a Pentagon spokesman, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said Thursday he had no announcements to make.

A spokesman at the White House, John Kirby, directed questions to the Defense Department while noting the Strait of Hormuz, where some of the incidents have occurred, is a “vital seaway.” The United States, he said, has seen threats by Iran to close off this “choke point.” The strait connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, and the open ocean beyond. At least 20 percent of the world’s crude oil is moved through the strategic waterway.

The effort, first reported by the Associated Press, is among a set of muscular actions being pursued by the Biden administration following a purported rise in attempts by Iran to seize commercial tanker ships.

The first official cited July 5 as an inflection point in U.S. discussions on the issue. Iranian forces tried to commandeer two civilian tanker ships that day, firing on and striking one of them, the Richmond Voyager, in its hull, Navy officials said at the time. Iranian forces fled after the arrival of the USS McFaul, a naval destroyer.

In another recent incident, warships from the United States and Britain answered a June 4 distress call from a merchant vessel transiting the Strait of Hormuz, where three Iranian fast-attack boats had harassed the civilian ship, Navy officials said. In that case, the McFaul and the Royal Navy frigate HMS Lancaster responded, with the Lancaster launching a helicopter to drive off the Iranian ships.

In May, the oil tanker Niovi was seized by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps while in the strait, the Navy said. The civilian vessel had departed Dubai and was traveling to the United Arab Emirates when a dozen fast-attack craft surrounded it. In April, Iran made a similar seizure of the oil tanker Advantage Sweet.

Such harassment is part of a pattern dating back years and now requires an “elevated response,” the first official said.

Other recent steps to deter Iran include the deployment of advanced F-35 jets, along with other fighter aircraft and A-10 attack jets, to the Persian Gulf region. The Pentagon also dispatched an additional Navy destroyer to bolster the presence of American military vessels already in the region.

Iranian officials have criticized the deployments, calling them destabilizing and provocative.

The Marines training for the mission in Bahrain are with the 26th Expeditionary Unit, a naval force that typically deploys aboard Navy warships. Other personnel with the unit are aboard the USS Bataan, USS Carter Hall, and USS Mesa Verde, and could arrive in the Middle East soon. The Bataan and Carter Hall arrived recently in Souda Bay, Greece, for a port visit, the unit said in a Facebook post Thursday.

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Alex Horton contributed to this report.