Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper told “like-minded” allies at a NATO defense ministerial in Brussels today that they should join the “broader maritime surveillance” campaign to have eyes on Iranian activities in the Persian Gulf region.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began Monday efforts to put together the still vague-on-details Sentinel program, which he said should include about 20 countries though any firm commitments are unclear. A State Department official told reporters flying with Pompeo on his Saudi visit that State and Defense were developing the maritime security initiative together, an endeavor envisioned as “all sorts of nations that want to preserve the freedom of navigation in what is the world’s most important shipping way.”
The launch came as President Trump tweeted Monday, “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.”
While the U.S. is leading Sentinel and trying to build the maritime surveillance coalition, it was unclear whether U.S. or coalition ships actually escorting commercial vessels would be involved in the process as the State Department focused on an observer role.
“It’s not about shooting at people. It’s about shooting pictures of Iranians,” the State official said. “…What the Iranians are doing by shooting down American drones, shooting at other drones in the region not even necessarily over the gulf, anywhere, is to prevent us from having eyes on them.”
Esper said at his press conference today that Sentinel “should include air surveillance all the way up to a picket line of ships to help protect the international waterways and to include maybe even escorts.”
“We have to flesh it out on our end, and we’ll see what makes the most sense,” he added.
Speaking to reporters en route Tuesday, Esper stressed that “this is not just an Iran vs. U.S. confrontation.”
“It should not be. This — a number of countries around the world have interests in this region. And a number of countries get their oil through the Strait of Hormuz,” he said. “So this is a reason why we need to internationalize this issue and have our allies and partners work with us to get Iran to come back to the negotiating table and talk about the way ahead.”
While there are coalition ships that “have been in the region for years… patrolling,” in terms of “this new initiative that’s being pursued, nothing new at this point in time. ”
“I think in due course, we’ll come out and talk about that,” Esper added. “But this is still in the early stages.”
Esper described Pompeo as being on the “front lines” of the effort as “we’re not trying to put a military coalition as much as a coalition writ large of like-minded allies who share our concerns about freedom of navigation, who share our concerns about Iran’s nuclear pursuits in the past, their missile technologies and, frankly, their malign activities in the region.”
“All those countries who are concerned and should be concerned about that, I think, need to act together to deal with Iran and get us on a diplomatic path so we can come to a peaceful resolution of this.”