The United Arab Emirates announced on Wednesday that it had stopped participating in a maritime security force led by the United States, the latest hint of tensions between Washington and key Persian Gulf allies who complain that America has not done enough to protect them from Iranian threats.
The unusual public statement came after Iran seized two commercial tankers in waterways near the Emirates in quick succession over the past two months. The Emirati Foreign Ministry said the country “withdrew its participation” from the Combined Maritime Forces two months ago “as a result of our ongoing evaluation of effective security cooperation with all partners.”
Political analysts say the Emirati statement could be intended as a message to the United States that the country is displeased with the level of American protection for its allies in the Persian Gulf against threats from Iran and must look out for its own interests. Emirati and Saudi officials have repeatedly expressed frustration with U.S. policy toward Iran.
“They were unhappy with the Americans, and when the U.A.E. is not happy, they are very decisive,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist.
Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, said the U.A.E. remained a “partner” in the force even though it had suspended its participation.
“Regarding their level of participation as a partner, we leave it to our individual partners to speak to that,” he said, adding that the Emirates “withdrew their participation for the moment in the task forces but not their overall membership.”
Pulling back from the group does not leave the U.A.E. defenseless against Iran and other threats.
The headquarters of the Combined Maritime Forces are at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain. The group brings together more than 30 countries that operate in the waters of the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Horn of Africa to protect the flow of commerce and deter illicit activity like piracy. Participation is voluntary.
In April, Iran seized an oil tanker chartered by Chevron as it traveled from Kuwait to Houston. Days later, Iranian speedboats surrounded an oil tanker after it had left Dubai, the biggest city in the Emirates and a global trade hub. The ship was forced to divert to Iranian territorial waters.
Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the region, said this month that American naval warships had increased their patrols through the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf’s busy maritime passageway, in response to the moves by Iran.
“Iran’s actions are unacceptable,” he said in an interview.
Last week, however, Commodore Alireza Tangsiri, a naval commander in Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps, lashed out in his own statement, saying that the United States “should not be present in our region.”
“The security of the Persian Gulf is provided by Iran and the countries of the region, and there is no need for you or any other country to be present,” he said.
Like their counterparts in other Persian Gulf countries, Emirati officials are trying to keep a delicate balance between deterring Iran and easing tensions with Iran.
Emirati officials have maintained open relations with Iran, exchanging visits between senior officials this year.
Yet, Iran-supported militias, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen, have repeatedly launched attacks on the U.A.E. and neighboring Saudi Arabia, including drone and missile assaults.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, Leily Nikounazar from Brussels and Ahmed Al-Omran from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.