By Ellen Mitchell
Source: The Hill
SYDNEY — A U.S.-led plan to police the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz against perceived Iranian aggression will soon gain the commitment of several ally and partner countries, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Saturday.
Esper said representatives from more than 30 countries attended a conference earlier this week at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida to discuss Operation Sentinel, a coalition of nations meant to safeguard shipping lanes in the Middle East.
“We had various degrees of commitment, so I think we’ll have some announcements coming out soon in the coming days where you’ll see countries begin to sign up,” Esper said as he was traveling to Australia to attend the Australia-United State Ministerial Consultations.
Asked if any such commitments were given by Asian countries, Esper replied, “Time will tell.”
The Trump administration has asked France, Germany, Australia, Japan and South Korea to contribute to the U.S.-led Operation Sentinel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed last week.
The United States envisions that allies and partners will carry out “80 or 90 percent” of the plan, according to Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, the president’s nominee to be the next chief of naval operations.
European allies have been unenthusiastic in joining the coalition over fears of being pulled into a potential military conflict with Iran, with Germany’s foreign minister saying Wednesday that the nation will not join the naval mission.
“Germany will not take part in the sea mission presented and planned by the United States,” said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who added that “there is no military solution” to tensions in the region.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has opted to increase its own military assets in the Gulf rather than join with the U.S. approach, following one of its British-flagged oil tankers being seized by Iranian forces in July.
“I think we all recognize Iranian bad behavior in the Gulf is continuing. Ideally we all work together. If we all work side by side, that’s good too,” Esper said.
He said that the administration’s goal with Operation Sentinel “has always been to internationalize it” but that regardless of countries’ commitments, the United States will continue to provide both air and Navy-based surveillance in the region.
“What we want to do is stay on the diplomatic path, and we want to grow a coalition that will help us do that,” he said.
“Nobody wants to be drawn into conflict with Iran. That’s why we first proposed the idea of a coalition of like-minded allies and partners,” Esper said.
“I think the key is that there is a unity of effort, a shared commitment, if you will, to preserving freedom of navigation in the straits, in the Gulf and deterring provocative behavior that could lead to a miscalculation that can escalate into a conflict. We want to avoid that.”
Tensions with Iran have nearly boiled over in the year after President Trump pulled the United States from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and imposed harsh economic sanction on Tehran.
Since then, the United States has accused the nation of attacking oil tankers in the Gulf region and downing a U.S. drone. Trump has, in retaliation, threatened a missile strike but held off at the last minute and has also said that the U.S. military downed an Iranian drone, though Tehran denies it.