Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said the United States will escort American-flagged ships facing threats from Iran “to the degree that the risk demands it,” but noted that such protection may not involve U.S. military vessels trailing each ship.
Esper made the comments to reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, a day after the Senate confirmed him in a 90-8 vote to become President Trump’s next defense secretary. Esper, a former Army officer, Capitol Hill staff member and defense lobbyist, said he will soon travel to U.S. Central Command, which oversees the U.S. military in the Middle East, to discuss the measures to protect American-flagged ships from Iranian action in and around the Strait of Hormuz.
“The Brits are escorting their ships,” he said. “We will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it. I assume that other countries will escort their ships.”
He said that such escorts will be designed to prevent American-flagged ships from being attacked or seized by Iran and that they could take myriad forms.
“In some cases, that may be strictly an overhead capability. It may mean that there is a U.S. naval warship within proximity to deter it,” Esper said. “I don’t necessarily mean every U.S.-flagged ship going through the strait has a destroyer right behind it.”
The United States and its allies are working on initiatives to respond to recent provocations by Iran near the Persian Gulf. U.S. officials have accused Iran of conducting limpet mine attacks on foreign-flagged tankers, downing an American reconnaissance drone and most recently seizing a British-flagged tanker and its crew.
But European allies broadly disagree with the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear accord and apply “maximum pressure” on Tehran.
Last Friday, U.S. Central Command announced that it is developing a multinational maritime effort, known as Operation Sentinel, to increase surveillance and security in waterways in the region. Central Command said the framework will enable nations to escort their flagged vessels while taking advantage of cooperation and capabilities provided by participating countries.
But British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Monday that Britain instead will launch a European-led force and will later discuss the best way to complement U.S. proposals.
By charting their own initiative, European officials are looking to avoid getting dragged into a growing confrontation between the United States and Iran. A U.S.-led maritime effort could be seen by Iran as an escalation in support of the United States’ intent to pressure Iran; a European-led force, meanwhile, could be viewed as a less political initiative to ensure freedom of navigation.
“The new force will be focused on free navigation, bearing in mind that one-fifth of the world’s oil, a quarter of its liquefied natural gas — and trade worth half a trillion dollars — passes through the Strait of Hormuz every year,” Hunt said. “It will not be part of the U.S. maximum-pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.”
On Wednesday, Esper said he considers the European effort complementary to the U.S.-led initiative, echoing similar comments that Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made during a trip to Afghanistan.
Esper said that what is evolving right now between Britain and Iran after Friday’s seizure of the British-flagged Stena Impero was a “tit for tat,” and that the purpose of Operation Sentinel is to avoid those provocations or seizures. He said the door is also open in the United States to revive nuclear negotiations with Iran.
“We are trying to de-escalate and at the same time message to them very clearly that without precondition, anytime, anyplace, we’re willing to meet with them and talk about how we get back into a negotiation,” Esper said.
The defense secretary noted that several weeks ago, the British navy successfully intervened when Iranian vessels attempted to block a British-flagged oil tanker from entering the Strait of Hormuz, citing the activity as an example of how to prevent a cycle of escalation. “The warship conveniently got in between them and kind of broke it up,” he said.
“That didn’t happen in the latest one. The warship wasn’t within close enough proximity to kind of make the same maneuver,” he said. “So now we’re in a situation where it has escalated up a notch. That is what we’re trying to prevent.”
Separately, Esper announced the creation of a Pentagon task force to deal with contamination of U.S. military installations by chemicals known as PFAS, which have been linked to cancer. In a memo to the department, he called on the Pentagon to approach the problem in an “aggressive and holistic way” and said the task force should update him within 180 days.
Esper also said he will prioritize filling posts at the Pentagon that have been left vacant or filled by acting officials.