U.S. seeks allies’ support to protect Persian Gulf shipping lanes

Illustrative picture. PHOTO: SHIPS & PORTS archive

The United States is seeking support from allies for a program to monitor commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf after attacks on tankers that the Trump administration has blamed on Iran.

The effort is intended to deter Iran by equipping ships with cameras to monitor tanker traffic and document any threats, a senior State Department official told reporters on Monday. The official said Secretary of State Michael Pompeo sought participation from Saudi Arabia for the effort it’s calling “Sentinel” during a visit to the kingdom on Monday.

The U.S. wants better safeguards for commercial ships that pass through the Strait of Hormuz, near where the U.S. accused Iran of attacking four oil tankers — a charge the Islamic Republic denies. In a call with reporters Monday, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, said more than 60% of the oil that passes through the strait goes to Asian countries.

Hook said there was high interest in what called a “new initiative” to enhance maritime security, which he said need to be “internationalized.”

“Iran’s threats to international shipping impact states around the world,” Hook said from Muscat, Oman, where he is also meeting senior officials. “This is a global challenge that requires a global response.”

The U.S. would take part in the ship-monitoring effort, the official said, despite tweets from President Donald Trump earlier in the day saying other nations should take prime responsibility for safeguarding tanker traffic.

“China gets 91% of its Oil from the Straight, Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships,” he said.

The ship-monitoring by cameras and binoculars would stop well short of the “tanker wars” of the 1980s, when the U.S. re-registered Kuwaiti ships under the U.S. flag and gave them armed escorts.

With the U.S. also looking to ramp up pressure on Iran with added sanctions promised on Monday, Pompeo met Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince.

After sitting with a frail-looking King Salman at the Royal Court in Jeddah, Pompeo met briefly with Mohammed bin Salman before proceeding to an undisclosed restaurant for a working lunch with the crown prince. The top U.S. diplomat is set to depart for the United Arab Emirates later in the day, as the U.S. seeks to build out what he’s described as a “global coalition” against Iran.

Pompeo hailed a “productive meeting” discussing “heightened tensions in the region” with King Salman, in a message on his Twitter account.

The secretary of state’s visit to Jeddah and Abu Dhabi comes after Iran shot down a U.S. Navy drone on June 20 and Trump initially approved, then later rejected, a plan to respond with military force. The U.S. has since sought to smooth anxieties with allies who may have seen the decision to refrain from retaliation as encouraging further Iranian aggression.

Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. are also partners in a conflict against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The rebels have launched more focused strikes on Saudi targets in recent months, including an attack early Monday on the kingdom’s Abha international airport with an explosives-laden drone. One person was killed and 21 wounded, state media reported.

The U.S. has already imposed sweeping penalties in the year since Trump backed out of the 2015 nuclear deal, all but severing Iran from the global financial system. The administration also revoked all waivers for countries to import Iranian oil without facing sanctions from the U.S. The restriction has seen Iranian exports plunge and sent the economy into a tailspin.

Hook and Pompeo declined to specify the new sanctions. They said the U.S. will continue to heap pressure on Iran to compel it to come to the negotiating table and agree on what the Trump administration says would be a new, better nuclear deal and place stronger limits on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Part of the purpose of the two officials’ trip is to pressure other countries to persuade Iran to talk to the U.S.

“When it demonstrates a willingness to talk we will be ready,” Hook said Monday. “They can either start coming to the table or they can watch their economy continue to crumble.”

So far, Iran has resisted the U.S. overtures, saying there’s nothing for the two countries to talk about. Earlier Monday, a senior adviser to President Hassan Rouhani, Hesameddin Ashena, said on Twitter that Iran rejected the U.S. stance of imposing new sanctions.

Source: Bloomberg