Thousands of Marines backed by advanced US fighters and warships are slowly increasing their presence in the Persian Gulf. It’s a sign that while America’s wars in the region may be over, its conflict with Iran over the advancement of its nuclear program continues to worsen, with no solutions in sight.

The shipment of the USS Bataan to transport troops and aircraft to the Gulf, along with F-35 stealth fighters and other warplanes, comes as the United States wants to focus on China and Russia.

But Washington is proving once again that while it is easy to enter the Middle East militarily, it is difficult to get out altogether, especially now that Iran enriches uranium closer to weapons-grade levels than ever after its 2015 nuclear deal with the world powers failed.

There are no signs that diplomacy will revive the deal anytime soon, and Iran has, in recent weeks, resumed harassing and seizing ships trying to cross the Strait of Hormuz. About 20% of the world’s oil passes through the narrow waterway connecting the Persian Gulf with the rest.

For hardliners of Tehran’s theocracy, the move projects power to surrounding nations as part of a wave of assaults blamed on Iran since 2019. It also serves as a warning to the United States and its allies that the Islamic Republic it has the means to retaliate, particularly when US sanctions result in the seizure of ships carrying Iranian crude. Concern over another seizure has likely stranded a ship allegedly carrying Iranian oil off Texas, as no company has yet been able to unload it.

For the United States, keeping the Strait of Hormuz open to shipping remains a priority to ensure that global energy prices do not soar, especially as Russia’s war against Ukraine puts pressure on markets. The Gulf Arab countries need the waterway to get their oil to market and are concerned about Iran’s intentions in the region.

These fears have cemented the longstanding US presence in the Persian Gulf. In the two decades that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, there were at times two different US aircraft carriers patrolling the Gulf to provide fighter jets for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and later for the battle against the Islamic State group.

But little by little, the Pentagon began to reduce the naval presence, leaving a months-long vacuum that caused the Arab Gulf states and commentators worried about Iran to gasp. USS Nimitz set sail from the Strait of Hormuz in November 2020 as the last US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. The last Marine expeditionary unit – an armada carrying Marines, plans, and vehicles prepared for an amphibious assault – arrived in November 2021.

Washington’s concerns have since changed. Russia’s war against Ukraine refocused some of the American attention on Europe. China continues to push to control more of the South China Sea, and the US Navy has responded with increased patrols.

In recent months, the US military has once again strengthened its presence in the Middle East. He conducted a patrol in the Strait of Hormuz with the region’s top US, British and French naval commanders on board. In late March, A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter jets arrived at Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates. The Pentagon ordered F-16 fighters to be sent to the region and the destroyer USS Thomas Hudner. The F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters arrived last week.

Now the United States will have part of a Marine expeditionary unit in the region for the first time in nearly two years. The deployment of thousands of Marines and sailors consists of the USS Bataan and the USS Carter Hall, a landing ship.

These vessels left Norfolk, Virginia, on July 10 on a mission the Pentagon described as “in response to recent attempts by Iran to threaten the free flow of commerce in the Strait of Hormuz and its surrounding waters.” The Bataan passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea last week en route to the Middle East.

Although the US military has not commented on precisely what it will do with its increased presence in the region, the moves have drawn the attention of Iran. In recent days, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian called his counterparts de él in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to tell them that “we can have peace, stability and progress in the region without the presence of foreigners.”

General Abdolrahim Mousavi, the head of the Iranian army, declared that the US deployment would only bring “insecurity and damage” to the region.

“For years, the Americans have drifted in and out of the region with chimeras, but the security of the region will only last with the participation of regional nations,” Mousavi said, according to Iranian state television.

Iran also displayed its Abu Mahdi cruise missile again, first revealed in 2020, which could be used to attack ships at sea up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away. The missile is named after Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a veteran Iraqi militant who was killed in a 2020 US drone strike in Baghdad alongside Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

All of this increases the risk of conflict, although the recent concentrations of US forces in the region have not led to outright war. However, both sides have been in combat in the past. In 1988, the United States attacked two Iranian oil rigs used for military surveillance and sank or damaged Iranian ships in the largest US naval battle since World War II.

With diplomacy stalled and Iran poised to be more aggressive at sea, the United States appears to be relying once more on its military might to persuade Tehran to back down. But that leaves the rest of the issues between them beyond the seas to fester.

Jon Gambrell