Over the past few months, the US has dispatched additional military forces to the Middle East in multiple phases in order to strengthen its operational capabilities in the region. The first phase involved deploying advanced F-22 Raptor jets on June 14, 2023. At the time, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) acknowledged that it was a response to the “increasingly unsafe and unprofessional behavior by Russian aircraft in the region”.[1] The US then moved into the second phase, when the Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary, Sabrina Singh, announced on July 17, 2023, that “the Secretary of Defense has ordered the deployment of the destroyer USS Thomas Hudner, F-35 fighters and F-16 fighters to the US Central Command Area of Responsibility.”[2] In August 2023, the US manifested more signs of seriousness about deploying additional troops to the region. On August 7, the US Naval Forces Central Command revealed that “more than 3,000 US sailors and marines of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) arrived in the Middle East [on August, 6], as part of a pre-announced Department of Defense deployment.”[3] Regarding the strategic goals that lie behind these military moves, Washington may be determined to continue the process of deploying troops to the region. The following is an attempt to explain the evident and latent aspects of these strategic goals in light of recent developments in the Middle East.

Evident Goal: Containing Iran

According to the US officials, their new troops have been deployed to the Middle East for one primary objective: confronting Tehran’s hostile behavior in the region, especially around the Strait of Hormuz. Referring to the Islamic Republic of Iran as a destabilizing factor in the region, the CENTCOM issued a statement on July 20, 2023: “In the past two years, Iran has attacked, seized, or attempted seizure of nearly 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels in the CENTCOM area of operations.” This statement has directly linked the presence of the new US military forces in the region to Iran, adding: “In response to recent attempts by Iran to seize commercial ships in the CENTCOM area of operations, the Secretary of Defense has ordered the deployment of an Amphibious Readiness Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG/MEU) into the CENTCOM area of responsibility.” The statement has also noted: “These additional forces provide unique capabilities, which alongside our partners nations in the region, further safeguard the free flow of international commerce and uphold the rules based international order, and deter Iranian destabilizing activities in the region.”[4]In addition, on July 17, 2023, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary, Sabrina Singh also identified the threat posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran as the primary cause of the new US military moves in the region, saying: “In light of this continued threat and in coordination with our partners and allies, the department is increasing our presence and ability to monitor the strait and surrounding waters.”[5] Despite these claims, it appears that Washington’s decision to send additional forces to the region has strategic objectives beyond containing Iran. These objectives are discussed in the following section.

Latent Goals:

  1. Counteracting China’s Growing Influence in the Region

The expansion of the US military presence in the region is primarily a response to China’s growing influence in the Middle East, especially near the Persian Gulf. In recent years, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” strategy has been the basis for Beijing’s new activities all over the Middle East. The “Land Silk Road” and the “Maritime Silk Road” envisioned in this strategy have provided a unique opportunity for China to expand its interactions with many countries in the Persian Gulf. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the countries in the Persian Gulf with which China has expressed a strong desire to establish long-term relations. During his meeting with the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on July 29, 2022, the Chinese President Xi Jinping stated: “China always views and develops relations with Iran from a strategic perspective, and no matter how the international and regional situation changes, China will remain steadfast in developing friendly cooperation with Iran and advancing the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership.”[6] In January and February of 2023, the bilateral trade volume between China and Iran saw a 6% increase in comparison with the same period in 2022.[7] Additionally, the bilateral trade volume between the two countries for the first six months of 2023 amounted to US$6.5 billion.[8] Signed by the officials of the two countries on March 27, 2021, “the 25-Year Strategic Cooperation Agreement” has strengthened China–Iran relations more than ever before. Initially proposed by the Chinese President Xi Jinping during his 2016 visit to Iran,[9] the agreement represents a strategic opportunity for China to fulfill its long-term goals in the Persian Gulf.

China has also greatly strengthened its relations with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially with Saudi Arabia, a powerhouse for the Arab countries. Over the past few years, the volume of trade exchange between the two sides has grown substantially, and China has signed several economic, political, and security agreements with the GCC members. In 2021, the volume of trade between the GCC and China reached a record of US$180 billion. In fact, the volume of trade between the GCC and China exceeded the volume of trade between the GCC and the US and Eurozone combined for the first time ever.[10] The GCC also accounted for more than 41% of China’s crude oil imports in 2022. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are now China’s first and second largest export partners in the region.[11] During the first eight months of 2022, the trade volume between China and the UAE amounted to US$64 billion.[12] Additionally, the trade volume between China and Saudi Arabia experienced a 30% growth compared with its last year figure, reaching a total of US$106 billion in 2022.[13] Saudi Arabia has also been the region’s largest crude oil exporter to China, with nearly 88 million tons of crude oil exported to the PRC in 2022.[14]  Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day trip to the Persian Gulf on December 7, 2021, has been one of China’s recent efforts to exert influence in the region. During his three-day trip, which was considered a strategic trip for China, Xi Jinping met with the leaders of Saudi Arabia as well as the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League.[15] Meanwhile, the Chinese President’s meeting with King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and the Saudi Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman was of considerable importance. The meeting led to the signing of a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” and 12 other agreements and memorandums of understanding on different topics such as hydrogen, direct investment, and economic development.[16]

The Americans are very concerned about China’s recent moves in the Persian Gulf and see these activities as an attempt to establish a new security architecture for the Persian Gulf and even the Middle East. In order to respond as soon as possible to Beijing’s balancing actions in the Persian Gulf, the Americans are closely monitoring China’s activities in the Middle East. During Xi’s 2021 trip to the region, the White House National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, emphasized: “We are mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world.”[17] These concerns have been one of the main driving forces behind the US’s decision to send new troops to the Middle East. As a matter of fact, the US is in the process of extending the range of its power projection in the Middle East by means of more military forces in order to prevent China’s ambitious moves. These new forces, which have been deployed to the US 5th Fleet’s area of operations, can provide “greater flexibility and maritime capability” for the US to prevent China from finding a spot to step. According to the US Naval Forces Central Command: “The U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations encompasses approximately 2.5 million square miles of water space and includes the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea, parts of the Indian Ocean and three critical choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal and Strait of Bab al-Mandeb.”[18] Considering the wide area in which the US Fifth Fleet operates, strengthening it could be tantamount to strengthening the US hegemony and preventing China from establishing its desired order in the region. The following image, showing the interference of China’s Maritime Silk Road with the US Fifth Fleet area of operations, can better describe why the US is insisting on expanding its military activities in the Middle East.

  1. Obstructing the Normalization Process of Iranian-Arab Relations

In an unexpected agreement, after seven years of conflict and war in Yemen, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia announced the normalization of their relations on March 10, 2023.[19] Two days after that, on March 12, 2023, for the first time ever within seven years, an Iranian parliamentary delegation also participated in a meeting of the Asian Parliamentary Assembly (APA) in Manama.[20] Continuing these efforts, the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, traveled to Tehran on June 17, 2023, and met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.[21] As the next step, the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Jeddah on August 18, 2023, to meet with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. During the meeting, Mohammed bin Salman emphasized: “Saudi Arabia’s view on relations with Iran is a strategic one, and Riyadh has a serious determination in this regard.”[22] Other Arab leaders, and many neighboring nations, such as Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, Tunisia, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, welcomed these relations. Lebanon also expressed its satisfaction with these developments.[23] In addition, UN Secretary General António Guterres also welcomed the agreement and praised China, Oman, and Iraq for their support in the negotiations.[24]

Nevertheless, the resumption of Iran – Saudi ties, which occurred at the height of darkness in Riyadh–Washington relations (caused by oil problems), has not been pleasant to the US by any means. From the US perspective, these initiatives, which stem from Mohammed bin Salman’s multilateral approach and China’s influence in the region, are totally in the opposite direction to the US hegemonic vision in the Middle East. Although the US President, Joe Biden, seems to have welcomed this agreement, the ultimate American assessment of these diplomatic relations is not positive. According to the Wall Street Journal report, the CIA Director, Bill Burns has expressed displeasure over Riyadh’s ongoing rapprochement with both Tehran and Damascus in his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman.[25] The White House National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, has also stated that Iran “is not a regime that typically does honor its word”.[26] On the basis of such a view, the Americans have highlighted Iran’s danger to the Persian Gulf countries and its threats to the security atmosphere in the region as the most available options to challenge the normalization of Iranian-Arab relations. The deployment of the recent US military forces to the Middle East has also served as the best strategy to actualize these options. In other words, the US is taking military actions to ratchet up tension with Iran in an effort to convince the Arab nations that Iran is not a trustworthy actor for the establishment of normal diplomatic relations.

  1. Maintaining Israel’s Security

Israel, the US’s key ally in the Middle East, has also been a significant variable in shaping the US’s military strategies in the region. While expressing concerns about the threats posed by Iran, Tel Aviv has consistently urged the US to increase its military presence in the Middle East. On February 10, 2023, Israel accused Iran of attacking an Israeli-linked commercial shipping tanker in the Arabian Sea.[27] Following that, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly condemned Iran, stating: “On the Iranian front, our efforts are unceasing for the simple reason that Iran’s acts of aggression are unceasing”[28] Furthermore, amid escalating tensions with Iran, Israel began a joint air exercise with the US in July 2023. At the time, the US Central Command stated that the exercise demonstrated the US “commitment to Israel’s defense”.[29] Like the US, Israel views the resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia as contrary to its national interests and is apprehensive about it. Hence, Tel Aviv has increased its negotiations and security interactions with the US in recent months. For instance, in a phone call on September 5, 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “discussed mutual interests, including expanding Israel’s regional integration and countering threats posed by Iran.” During the discussion, Blinken “reaffirmed the strength of the bilateral partnership and U.S. commitment to Israel’s security”.[30]


The buildup of US military forces in the Middle East in the past few months has been driven by several evident and latent goals. The evident goal, as stated by US officials, is the containment of Iran in the Persian Gulf, particularly around the strategic Strait of Hormuz. In addition, there are also several latent or long-term goals behind the recent US deployment of troops and equipment to the Middle East. These strategic goals include countering China’s growing influence in the Middle East, obstructing the normalization of Iranian-Arab relations, and maintaining Israel’s security. These goals, which indicate the US desire to maintain its commitment to the Middle East, may also pose several political-military challenges for the region. Some of these challenges are as follows: 1. Increasing rivalry between China and the US in the Persian Gulf; 2. Escalation of military tensions between Tehran and Washington; and 3. Failure of the recent peace negotiations between Iran and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.


































Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this analysis are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of MEPEI. Any content provided by our authors is of their opinion and is not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

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About the author:

Majid Dashtgard

Majid Dashtgard holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran, Iran. He is a former research fellow at the Jahanpajooh Institute for Strategic Studies in Tehran, Iran. His research interests mainly revolve around great power security and politics, Middle East studies, and Iranian foreign policy.

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