- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Newly confirmed Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Wednesday said the latest European push to protect and defend ships traveling through several Middle Eastern waterways is a “complementary” effort in addition to the U.S.’ own initiative.

Mr. Esper, who was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in to his new role on Tuesday, told reporters at the Pentagon the United Kingdom is “trying to pursue something” that would parallel the U.S.’ defense strategy in the region, amid soaring tensions with Iran.

Over the weekend, U.S. officials announced Operation Sentinel, a plan to increase security and surveillance that centers on persuading nations to provide military escorts to non-Iranian commercial oil vessels traveling through the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf.

Dozens of nations around the world rely on oil transported through the Gulf from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq.

Mr. Esper’s comments come less than a week after Iran claimed it seized a British oil tanker traveling through the vital Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Iran.



Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard said the ship, the Stena Impero, was seized due to “non-compliance with international maritime laws and regulations.”

The move has prompted Britain to consider hitting Iran with new economic sanctions as the U.S. mulls over imposing sanctions of its own following several clashes with the Iranian military. The U.S. and its allies have been divided on how to approach Tehran since President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed punishing economic sanctions.

Mr. Esper on Wednesday said the latest effort to deter Iranian aggression is focused on maintaining freedom of navigation in the region.

“Whether we do that as one big group or subgroups, as long as it complements one another, there will clearly be coordination between us all,” he said, pointing to American allies including the U.K.

The U.S. may consider keeping surveillance options or escort vessels on standby to accompany ships through the region if tensions continue to rise, Mr. Esper continued.

However, he said the plan would not “necessarily mean that every U.S. flagged ship going through the Strait has a destroyer right behind it. … We would want to prevent Iranians seizing or stopping a ship — certainly for any arbitrary reason whatsoever.”

The former Army secretary insisted that the U.S. is “trying to de-escalate” the situation while pushing diplomatic options and said Mr. Trump is still willing to meet with Iranian officials to negotiate a path forward.

Although U.S. officials have remained quiet about the latest tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Mr. Esper said the Pentagon would “come to the aid of our allies depending on the situation,” but added that there’s “no policy that I’m aware of” to defend allied ships in the region.

In what is likely to be his first trip as defense secretary, Mr. Esper said he will be traveling to U.S. Central Command in Florida next week to get more details on the ongoing operation.

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