Wary of Iran's missiles, US strikes port deal with Oman

The United States has struck a strategic port deal with Oman in an attempt to get better access to the Persian Gulf region and avoid sending ships through the Strait of Hormuz, a maritime choke point that Iran could easily block using its advanced missile arsenal.

The US embassy in Oman said in a statement on Sunday that the agreement granted the US access to facilities and ports in the towns of Duqm as well as in Salalah, which sit on the coast of the Arabian Sea.

It noted that the port deal “reaffirms the commitment of both countries to promoting mutual security goals.”

The deal serves Oman’s plans to develop Duqm, which was once just a fishing village 550 km (345 miles) south of capital Muscat. Oman has long sought to transform the port city into an industrial hub.

For the US, however, the deal serves a whole different agenda and tries to address growing concerns among top Pentagon officials about Iran’s advancements in overcoming sanctions and diplomatic pressure by Washington to develop sophisticated missiles that can block the Hormuz.

An unnamed US official told Reuters that the deal improved the US military’s access to ports that connect to a network of roads to the broader region.

“We used to operate on the assumption that we could just steam into the [Persian] Gulf,” one US official said, adding, however, that “the quality and quantity of Iranian weapons raises concerns.”

Last year, when US President Donald Trump threatened to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero, Tehran warned that it would close down the Strait of Hormuz and stop all oil exports from the Persian Gulf region.

While the threat seems to have worked its magic by prompting the White House to issue waivers for Iran’s main oil buyers, US military officials are worried that the current levels American military presence in the region cannot stop Iran from shutting down the crucial waterway.

In November, The Washington Post said US commanders worried that Iran could easily fulfill the task by using it robust arsenal of ballistic missiles and its ability to plant naval mines.

Back then the Pentagon officials were specifically critical of Trump’s shifting priorities.

The Republican head of state thinks China and Russia pose the greatest threats to the US. He has ordered the Pentagon to move some of the American forces out of the Persian Gulf region and station them in bases across the Pacific region instead.

One unnamed US official noted that the new agreement with Oman would expand US military options in case of a real standoff in Hormuz.

“The port itself is very attractive and the geostrategic location is very attractive, again being outside the Strait of Hormuz,” another official said, adding that Duqm was large enough turn around an aircraft carrier.

In late November, the Islamic Revolution’s Guards Corps (IRGC) warned that US bases in Afghanistan, the UAE, and Qatar as well as the US aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf were all within reach of Iranian missiles.

“The US bases around us are within our reach and are easy meat for us,” IRGC Aerospace Commander Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said.

Competition with China

The deal also helps the US to push back against China’s growing influence in the region.

Chinese firms once tried to invest up to $10.7 billion in Duqm in what was expected to be a commercial arrangement.

“It looks to me like the Chinese relationship here isn’t as big as it appeared it was going to be a couple of years ago,” the second US official said. “There’s a section of the Duqm industrial zone that’s been set aside for the Chinese … and as far as I can tell so far they’ve done just about nothing.”

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